What we want to do is put grief in a box. “Package it up, tape the bitch, and put it somewhere where we can see it.” That’s what we say. With this, we get control over our grief. We can watch it and make sure it doesn’t fly out of the box, ripping at the edges, scrambling over to catch us in meetings and during someone else’s happy moments. If we can contain it, we can control it, and we’ve falsely believed – for quite some time now – that we’ll dis-empower it this way over time; that one day, that grief will cease to exist because we’ve made it smaller by cramming it into something with crippling limits.
I’ve discovered, in the wake of my own grief with loss and depression, that grief in a box is like a tumor. Just because we don’t allow it to grow outward and free, doesn’t mean it will disappear through the existence of time and us not paying it any attention. That’s not how it works, but who am I to tell you how it should? Here’s my experience, and you decide for yourself:
When my grandfather died, I isolated. I knew other coping mechanisms existed, but I didn’t care for them. I didn’t want to reach out to my family and grieve with them, because we all isolated from each other. We didn’t create spaces in which to come together; we looked for spaces in which to hide from each other so that we could “process in peace.” And I put that sentence into quotes, because in my family, there is no peace in grief. None found, none sought. What we do – successfully – is we push aside the human choice to sink into our feelings for the other choice to rack our brain for a way out: a way out of grief, out of sadness, out of crying in front of one another. We look for a loophole, mentally. And when we find one – whether that is keeping busy, averting eye contact, or making ourselves think about literally anything else – we latch onto it and use that runaround as an escape. “We’ll never think about loss again, and we won’t let grief pull us under.” That’s what we think, but rarely ever say. To my mom, that was a sign of strength. Her Herculean feat was to establish her ground as a no-crying, badass who never looked at herself in grief as pieces she had to put back together. She was going to live long in belief that nothing could break her. To my dad, that was an end result he chased, but never attained. Contrary to my mom, he was and still is an emotional opportunity, to actually sit with his feelings and ACTUALLY process them in peace. But that doesn’t work when you’ve been fed the “life’s shit toughens you” mantra for decades. After a while, you start to think that being a no-crying badass in the face of grief is supposed to be a proud staple of who you are. And then there was Me in the middle, the neon-colored sheep of the family. I believe grief is different.
Even though I still run to hide in spaces where I can process in peace, I am aware of my running. Losing someone or living with depression are some of life’s hardest phases through which to maintain this awareness. I was recently inspired to read a writer’s beautiful and accurate description of grief. He likened it to waves in the ocean. I think this is a far better description than the box, because the ocean is expansive and sometimes when you look far, infinite. That’s how I imagine grief to be. It’s not this small thing we can hold and stuff into a tiny space when it begins to hurt. It’s the opposite of that. So when we’re faced with the beginning stages of grief – in those first hours and days – it feels like the waves are coming in non-stop. One right after the other. Never-ending. And they come crashing down hard! I mean, “face in the sand, tumbling on rocks” hard. Everything we have gets thrown off track, and everything we control is now no longer up to us. It’s scary! There is no space or time between those waves where we can stand up or stick our heads out long enough to catch a full breath. Everything feels rushed in the slowest way imaginable.
This is how I felt when my grandfather died, when my favorite singer died, when I went through a hard breakup. Loss doesn’t have to mean the end of a life. It’s the end of something. Sometimes, it’s the end of some part of yourself. And in those first few days, I was underwater. You literally have to throw your hands up in the air and allow the flood to blow everything to pieces. And you watch yourself get thrown into the tumult with it all, and I’ve noticed that the more you scramble to stay on top, the more grief kicks you down – like it wants you to get to a point where standing up is no longer even an option for you. I liken this to your own metaphorical death; because when you lose someone, you have to die a little with them, too. Something of yourself has to pass on so that you can understand how grief works, so that you can teach your scared and running Herculean family that this death is also OK.
I don’t believe that time heals all wounds. I think that’s bullshit. I think that’s what we’ve been led to believe so that we’ll stop talking about our grief with people who pretend their wounds are just little scars. I also don’t believe time heals all grief. We’ve adopted the mentality that time is an action. And maybe for some things, it is. But for this? Time is just space. Space between those waves where we can finally stand up and take a full breath in without feeling like our lungs are collapsing. Time is space – no matter how brief – where we can get out of bed, or have a normal conversation, or smile just because. And this space exists between crests of waves that are always going to be there, because grief doesn’t end. It doesn’t get easier or better. We just get stronger. And we gain more space in which to see the waves approaching, and we can prepare. We can anticipate that it’s going to hurt when we remember their smile or hear their voice in that one song or remember how much they loved to fish. And the only time in which Time will ever give us healing is when we begin to welcome those waves, not as torture, but as perspective.
If I’ve ever learned anything at all by being who I am in a family who is the polar opposite, is that grief and loss and depression are topics of conversation that should exist, freely and wholly. When we share our stories and give words to our thoughts and feelings, we learn. I am not anyone who has stumbled into this knowledge and advice because I’m smart or wise or (insert adjective here). I am here because I’ve found that carrying the burden of remaining silent is too heavy, and not for me.
I hope you give your waves a voice, unapologetically and without reserve.