The thing I’m talking about is missing from so many people’s lives—yes, probably yours too. And it’s a darn shame, too, because this one thing is the equivalent of a huge beam of love from the universe. Worst of all, it’s only missing because we don’t allow ourselves to experience it.
Otherwise known as deep sorrow (according to Merriam-Webster’s), grief is derived from an Old French word that means “to burden.”
We all think of grief as what we feel when someone dies, but it can accompany any loss, including:
- Your lost childhood
- The way your kids were two years ago (grief is a recurring theme of parenting as your kids continue to grow into new versions of themselves)
- Your former life
- A pet dying
- Getting fired or laid off
- A divorce or breakup
- Your mortality
- Anything you feel shame about
Grief is a real shape-shifter. It can show up one moment as utter sadness, and the next as a weird lightness. Or total numbing. Or goofiness. Or recklessness. It’s not just one way, and everyone will experience it differently. And everyone will have it show up in multiple ways before it runs its course. (Check out this essay by my writer crush Ann Patchett on how she felt joy when her aged father died; she nails it.)
But for everyone, grief only remains a burden when you don’t allow yourself to feel it or express it. That’s when it morphs into something else, like anxiety, depression, or a who-cares recklessness (these are just a couple of examples). If you ever find yourself feeling inexplicably upset about something that ought to be trivial, or stymied, or just out of whack, chances are good that there’s some unexpressed grief that’s gotten stuck somewhere in your subconscious.
So how do you start to let it out? Do whatever feels good to you in that moment. It might be cry, or eat comfort food, or disappear for a while inside a TJ Maxx. Journal, paint, hike, meditate, plant something. Take the phone off the hook or call every friend who you can trust to listen. Share as much as you can stand about how you’re feeling and stay away from people who only leave you feeling depleted.
There’s no one right way. There’s only your way; your only guiding principle is to let yourself feel how you feel without judging or pushing away any of it. It’s all coming up so it can help you grow. You will come out the other side.
Although there is no such thing as being done with grief—as in, “Oh, I grieved my mother a long time ago.” Nice idea, but no. You can certainly work though a layer of grief and feel complete. But somewhere along the way some situation is going to trigger that old sense of loss and some other facet of it is going to float right up to the surface. And that’s a beautiful thing.
Because grief is also like a bowl of fishhooks – it’s impossible to take out just one piece at a time. Your friend dying is going to remind you of the great times you had in high school and the carefree person you used to be, and then boom! Some of that sadness you’re feeling is really about the defining event you experienced back then that you thought you had processed but you hadn’t really, not fully. Because the you who grieved that incident already didn’t have the experiences or the perspective you now have. It’s only now that you can connect some more dots and dislodge another piece of the sadness you’ve been carrying.
So that means that making friends with grief—fixing it a warm meal and clearing a spot at the table for it when it shows up—is a skill that is going to continue to serve you. As long as you are alive, you are going to need to grieve. At irregular and unexpected intervals. It will very likely always feel like it’s happening at an inconvenient time. Because grief requires time and space to process. You can’t be running all over town and mowing through a to-do list. You’ll need to go to bed early, or spend afternoons in the woods, or get in the car and drive to a place where you feel like you can breathe. Every day for a week. Or a year. And a great percentage of everything else will have to wait.
But that’s OK. Because grief helps you mend the holes in your heart. And it helps you shed some of the armor that you’ve built up over the years, which feels like freedom. Grief’s super power is that it helps you soften, which is the only way that light and love are going to be able to penetrate. And who wouldn’t benefit from some more light and love?
If you want more deep (and funny-sad) thoughts about grief, read this 1997 column of Anne Lamott’s. It hit me over the head when I read it almost 20 years ago, and I still recommend it to clients today.