To the One Who is Grieving
Grief is a word that when spoken aloud reddens the cheeks and sends eyes downcast to the floor in embarrassment. It is often treated as a secret to be concealed, a state to be avoided, a feeling to be repressed. And yet it is something that is so inherently human.
“The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say ‘My tooth is aching’ than to say ‘My heart is broken.’” C.S. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain.
I’ve listened to the heartbreaks of friends, observed the heartbreaks of strangers, read the heartbreaks of writers, and experienced heartbreaks of my own. And in these heartbreaks, I’ve learned much of grief -- of the way it hurts and of the way it heals.
Give yourself grace in this grief. To the one who is grieving, your grief is not weakness. It is not a flaw to conceal, not a failing to be ashamed of. Let yourself cry. Let yourself yell out angry questions of “Why did this happen?” while you drive down roads emptied by the night’s hour. Let yourself mourn and ache and wonder how things will ever get better.
I once hid my grief, shamefully tucking it in an untraceable crevice deep in a darkened wood. Admitting my hurt felt like admitting defeat, so I shied away from any sort of vulnerability that allowed for an honest confession of “I am hurting.”
“Feelings, and feelings, and feelings. Let me try thinking instead,” C.S. Lewis writes in A Grief Observed after the death of his wife.
Like my writing hero, I tried to think my way out of this feeling that shamed me so, hoping that by logically explaining to my heart how inconvenient and unnecessary sadness was, it’d send those unpleasant feelings back to my metaphorical heart-vault, setting stoic British guards outside it to ensure sadness stayed safely locked away. And when my heart did not oblige by my mind’s persuasion, I became angry at myself – genuinely hating myself, even – for my inability to rid myself of this silly sadness.
“Do I hope that if feeling disguises itself as thought I shall feel less?” Lewis asks.
And like my writing hero, I learned the impossibility of reasoning your way out of grief. You are human. Humans have feelings. No amount of logic can overcome your capacity - your human need - to feel. Give yourself grace to feel widely and deeply in your grief.
Your grief is valid. “My life is good. No one has died. I have no reason to be sad,” I told my dear friend and confidante one summer’s morning in a wooden coffee shop booth, my hands gripping a mocha, my heart gripping a grief.
And from my dear friend and sweet confidante I learned this: your grief is valid. It matters not what you are grieving over: the death of a life, of a relationship, of a dream. All are endings, all are deaths, all grant grief. Any death is worthy of grief.
I once grossly over packed for a semester spent in London. When I arrived at Heathrow after an overnight flight, bleary-eyed but thrilled to have arrived finally at my much-anticipated destination, I collected my luggage: two large rolling suitcases, a backpack, a shoulder-bag, and my purse. Through customs, arrivals, and out to a curbside cab I had to drag my hundred-pound belongings. When we arrived at our flat, a broken elevator meant a journey up three flights of steps with this baggage in tow. I was overjoyed to be in the city that embodied all of my English dreamings, but even in my excitement, I was still hurting from the weight I had carried with me in the hours-long journey between landing in London and settling into our flat in the city. Just so, our life can be full of wonder and enchantment, but we can still feel heavy from the weight of a hurting heart. This doesn’t disqualify your grief nor does it mean your happiness in that moment was a fraud. You can mourn a loss while still celebrating your life. Your life can be good and yet you are still allowed your grief.
Grief demands your attention. I attempted to run from my grief by clicking “purchase” on plane ticket after plane ticket after plane ticket, hoping that by running away from my city I’d be running away from the grief dwelling within its limits. In my runnings-away, I danced with screaming preteens at a boyband concert, explored cities with my best friends, hiked mountain valleys in another hemisphere, witnessed desert sunsets I can’t even begin to paint with this pen, boogied to a band I’ve given my whole heart to. Oh yes, I had fun in these runnings-away, but even in my travels, grief was still present; it had somehow snagged a boarding pass for the seat next to me. In the end, running away did little to soothe my grief; it journeyed with me no matter the multitude of miles I ran in an attempt to distance myself from it.
Ignoring your heart’s hurts will not bring healing. Rub the wrong salve onto the wound – wash your grief in nights out your mind can’t recall, in unworthy distractions, in any number of unhealthy coping mechanisms – and the infection will fester beyond its original site. Do not ignore your grief. Only proper attention will assuage a suffering soul.
Grief abides by no timeline. One difficult summer, I set rules for my sadness. “Two weeks,” I told it, shaking a firm authoritarian finger at it. “Two weeks and then it’s back to happy.” I’d yet to realize that grief doesn’t adhere to silly rules set by a self-controlling nature. When two weeks passed and the grief still remained, I berated myself for somehow lacking the fortitude to beat grief back from my heart’s perimeters.
Do not fault yourself for carrying a grieving heart longer than your logic tells you is appropriate. The healing process is unique to every broken heart and every broken situation; whether eight days or eight months, allowing yourself time to grieve ultimately allows yourself license to heal.
Grief is a not a linear process. “It doesn’t feel like it now, but it is progress,” my friend so sweetly encouraged me after I had woken up feeling heavy and hopeless when only the night before I had felt the budding blossoms of better.
“I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process,” writes Lewis.
You will feel okay. And then you won’t. You will wake in the morning and your heart will feel heavy and by midday you will say “it’s okay” – and mean it – when people ask you how it’s going. But by nightfall you will ache again and it won’t be okay anymore. But this is progress, all of it. Even though it feels like a regression, be assured each step – no matter how shaky – into a new day is progress.
Grief will cloud your perception of time. Grief will anchor you into a present hopelessness that feels infinite. Memories that once wrapped you warmly in a happy euphoria will now leave you stranded in the cold; former visions of a fruitful future will now appear endlessly barren. Each new day will feel like a succession of the same, same, same.
One day, grief’s veil will be lifted and you will see your past, present, and future clearly again. But until then, collect the little promises scattered about you of the healing to come: a birdsong of spring, the way the sun lifts away the blanket of fog, the red flash of a cardinal’s plume, the laughs that come with more ease and frequency. Though seemingly minute, these are the promises that will allow hope to thaw your frozen perception of time.
Grief maintains no single identity. Like a shadowy figure at a masquerade, grief switches between disguises effortlessly. Sadness. Anger. Bitterness. Apathy. Numbness. Anguish. All masks of grief.
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” Lewis admits.
Grief will allow fear to sneak in through a crack in the backdoor to your heart. Fear will dangle your memories in front of you, whispering menacingly, “See this? See this happiness? Never again.” There’s a heartbreaking finality in these hauntings of never again. Fear will wrap its bony, Inferi-like fingers tightly ‘round your grief-stricken heart, pulling you into the blackened lake, singing its incessant chants of you’ll never live again, love again, dream again, be okay again. Fear will paint these lies in the colors of truth, and in your vulnerable state, you will be tempted to believe fear’s tauntings. Fear has bullied me with these teasings before, teaching me its never again song until I knew the words intimately and believed the words without waiver. But know this: never again is always, always a lie.
You are not alone in your grief. Though you may feel isolated in the desert of your grief, you are not alone in your heart’s desolation.
Sure, some well-meaning souls will look pityingly on you. “It will get better,” they will say. “Don’t be sad,” they will urge. And it will get better, this is true. But right now? Right now it is not better. Right now the idea of better seems a vague, hazy concept rather than a reality waiting eagerly at the bottom of the escalator in airport arrivals, your name scribbled onto a white sheet of paper. Yes, a bee sting will heal, but this knowledge of future healing does little to remove the present sting. No, right now is not better. Right now is a goodbye and a take-off and a leaving behind. Right now hurts.
But then there are those who will venture into grief’s darkness with you, who will sit across from you in a wooden booth at a coffee shop, who will hold your hand in your car in a darkened Starbucks parking lot, who will listen to your tears over the phone, who will meet you in your hurt and cry with you in your pain and ask “How are you doing today?” and really, truly want an honest answer, no matter how messy the reply may be.
The story of Lazarus in John’s gospel is one I hold close. In it, Jesus raises Lazarus – the brother of Martha and Mary, two close friends of Jesus – from the dead. As he arrives at Lazarus’ grave with Martha, Mary, and a gathering of family and friends, the group breaks down into tears.
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
Jesus wept. (John 11: 33-35)
Jesus knew the ending of this story. Jesus knew that Lazarus would live again. So why the weeping when he knew everything would be okay? Jesus’ tears never quite made sense to me. Not until, in my own grief, alone in my room one night, twinkling Christmas lights the only glow in the darkness, my beautiful friend cried with me. Not until, in my own grief, friends abandoned their own concerns, own happiness, to join me in my pain. Then, and only then, did Jesus’ weeping make sense to me. He knows the light that will shine from your darkness, the phoenix that will rise from these ashes, the life that will awaken from this death. And despite his vision of your grief’s glorious end, he doesn’t pass off your pain as insignificant, doesn’t urge you to “get over it.” Instead, he walks with you to your grief’s grave and weeps with you over your broken heart.
So give yourself permission to grieve.
Though this road may seem unending,
though this darkness may seem impenetrable,
though this desert may seem isolating,
though this disease may seem incurable,
though this pain may seem endless,
“Courage, dear heart.” Courage.
You are not alone.