Friday, December 7, 2018

On Grief

I’ve been on this journey for nearly nine months now. This is my first true grief journey and I haven’t been on it long. I know that I don’t know everything about grief (far from it), but I have discovered bits of wisdom along the way. I have debated whether to share those here, but reading about others’ experiences grieving helped me immensely, so it’s my hope that sharing my journey will help someone, too. Most especially, my children, who will someday walk a similar path. 

Good grief, where do I start? (Ha. Haha. Ha. Okay, that was my first and last pun for today.)  

Before my Dad died, I thought grief was a linear path. You started out heartbroken and after time (likely years) your heart was healed! What I discovered was while there is definitely a beginning, there is no end to grief. We will grieve those we love for the rest of our lives. Some days will be overwhelmingly sad, some days will be full of anger, some will be filled with joy and most days will be filled with a mix of emotions. Our grief will always be with us in one form or another. The most obvious shape it takes, and the one I pictured in my head before this, is sorrow. But over the last several months, I’ve seen my grief take the shape of gratitude, wisdom, understanding — even joy. 

In a way, the idea that my grief will always be here is oddly comforting. My grief is a direct result of my love for my Dad and I don’t want that to ever leave. So, instead, I carry him around in my heart and try my best to feel whatever emotion the grief hands me. Today, my grief was in the shape of sorrow. I was missing my Dad so fiercely it felt like I couldn’t breathe. Last week, my grief was shaped as gratitude, for all of the time and experiences and lessons and memories I had with him. Who knows what shape it will take next week. I try hard to not fight the emotion, but to just let it wash over me. Those feelings that are bubbling up to the surface need to be felt and heard and allowed to exist. And if I give them time and space to be felt, they are usually followed by wisdom or new perspective.

I feel like I’ve had so many little epiphanies about life, love, death and our purpose in this world and nearly all of them came after I let the raw emotions be felt. So, I guess that’s my first piece of advice. Take time to feel your emotions. There were many nights that I buried myself in a TV show because it was easier to be in the characters’ world than my own life. And you need that, too! You need to be able to have a break from the grief and the deep thoughts. Sometimes I felt so lost inside my own head I wasn’t sure I would find my way back out to “normal Katie.” So, take as many breaks as you need — the grief will wait for you. But, just as important as the breaks, is the grieving. 

Another misconception of mine was to think that “grieving” just happened to you. And at first, it did. I’d be sitting at a stoplight and just sobbing. Or I’d drive out to my parents' house and the tears would start as soon as I turned onto their road. The grief was just spilling out at first — almost entirely sadness at the beginning. That’s the kind of grief that’s hard to avoid. That grief wave is coming whether you want it to or not. But I found there is another kind of grief. The kind that’s sitting in the back of your head and heart, waiting to be tended to by you. 

Shortly after my Dad died, I got a card from a friend who I hadn’t talked to in awhile. It was simple and beautiful and just said “I hope you are able to take the time you need to grieve.” The idea of taking time to grieve was new to me. I thought sobbing at a stoplight was taking the time. But it wasn’t. 

This idea kept rolling around in my head until I decided it was time I started taking my morning walks again. Away from the kids and my phone and all the distractions. It was just me, nature and my grief. And it was there that I started to come to terms with my Dad’s death. 

I have walked nearly every morning since April. Before Dad got sick, the wildflowers’ beauty and persistence would bring me so much joy. The sunrise would fill me with a sense of peace and hope. But as I started walking again after he died, all of those things brought more sadness. It hurt to think he’d never get to see these wonders again. I’d just sob. I’d walk and cry, cry and walk. I let the grief come to the surface, the memories, the anger, the hopelessness — all of it. I felt it and heard it and let it roll over me. 

After I wiped my tears, that’s when the reflecting and deep thinking would happen. For example, it occurred to me one day that eventually every single person in the world would feel this kind of pain. Well, at least the lucky ones. The ones who were lucky enough to have loved and been loved. That took me by surprise. I’m actually one of the lucky ones. Here I am, feeling so very heartbroken, sitting on a rock in the middle of the prairie sobbing, cursing the unfairness of life, and I’m actually one of the lucky ones. 

Day after day, these little epiphanies would pop up as I took the time to grieve. All of of these sayings and phrases you’ve heard your whole life take on a deeper meaning. “You only live once.” We’ve all heard it and we all would say we understand it. Some of us announce it right before skydiving or staying up late when you know you have to be up early with the kids the next day (which is about as scary as skydiving). But during one of my walks, when I was reflecting on death and its way of coming whenever it wants, I felt the weight of those words so profoundly. I actually FELT the profoundness of it. I had to stop walking for a minute as it settled into my mind. 

All summer long I had these moments and I told Scott I felt like I was experiencing a metamorphosis. The Katie he knew in January was no longer here. She was changing and deepening in ways I didn’t even understand. Everything just felt off. Like someone had come along and tilted my world. I could still recognize it as my world, but it was different now. (For my fellow Harry Potter fans, it was like seeing the Thestrals, which is another example where I felt the profoundness of something that before seemed very obvious and literal.)

Despite all of this wisdom I was gaining, I was still so overwhelmingly sad. There was happiness mixed in, too, of course. How could it not be with three hilarious little humans running around? But outside of the kids and my escapism into books and TV, my world was submerged in sorrow. Everything I saw, heard, felt, was through a veil of sadness. I was still taking my walks and trying to just walk my grief journey as best I could. Scott felt completely helpless. He could see my despair, but there was nothing he could do. I just kept telling him this is a path I have to walk alone. There is no way for him to give me a hand and help me off of it. I just have to keep walking, wherever it takes me, hoping that eventually, it won’t hurt so much. 

And one day, for only a moment, I saw a light in the metaphorical darkness. I had been avoiding my favorite place to walk all summer because it’s wooded and in the summer is full of mosquitoes and spider webs. One day this fall, the temperatures dropped for a few days (scaring away all the pests) and I ventured out to my best-loved trail. I started walking. The sunlight was shining through the leaves. The woods were a beautiful mix of greens and browns. The trees were hugging the trail, almost providing an archway as I walked. I was about five minutes in when the tears just started streaming down my cheeks. Surprising even me, these were not tears of sadness, but tears of joy. For the first time since my Dad died, I was feeling real, true joy. It wasn’t submerged in sadness, it was just joy. It lasted the whole walk. The veil of sadness returned quickly as I finished walking, but it’s all I needed. Just a bit of hope that someday, it wouldn’t feel like this. Someday, my world wouldn’t be full of despair. It was like a salve to my broken heart. 

After that, I returned almost daily. This place, with its towering trees and silent steadiness was healing me. If those trees could hear me, I’d thank them a million times for helping me find my way out of the darkness. 

Which brings me to my next piece of advice: find the salve for your soul. You may know exactly what heals you emotional aches or you may have to discover it, but find it. Take the time and the effort and do some trial and error, but find the place that brings you peace and let it wrap you in its comfort. It could be a literal place like the beach or the woods or the mountains or the prairie or it could be a figurative place like writing or singing or meditating. Just try to find it. Grieving is hard enough without a salve. 

Are you still here? You’re a trooper. Or you love me. Or your heart hurts and you’re looking for anything and everything that might ease the ache. If that’s the case, I’m so, so sorry you’re here. I wish you were living a life where you saw the blog titled “On Grief” and didn’t immediately click on it with hopes it might have that one tip that fixes everything. But this next bit of advice may help. Or it won’t. It’s a bit existential and I’m not even sure I have my head fully wrapped around it. I once tried to explain it to Scott and went down so many twists and turns in my brain, I think I finished upside down and inside out. 

So, (deep breath) here goes nothing. 

While on one of my deep-thinking walks, I discovered a truth about life. Once upon a time, if you would have asked me “what is life about?” my answer would have been similar to the kinds of things you find in an obituary. Or plot points in a book. Or milestones. Being born, childhood achievements, angsty teenage years, making best friends, starting and ending relationships, marriages, careers, kids being born, etc. What I realized is that while life is made up of all the moments both big and small — things you’d find in an obituary that isn’t all or even the main answer to the question, “what is life about?” I’ve realized now there is something much more important happening during and around and between all those moments. Life is about discovering our own truths. 

I used to think there was a set of answers to life’s questions and eventually I’d learn them all with enough life experience. But, you guys, there are no answers! The “answer” is the question. It’s more the journey to discovering our truths, less the truths themselves. Makes total sense, right? Now you see why when I finished telling Scott, I was upside down and inside out. 

Let me give you an example to help with clarity: Last year, Grace had problems with a friend-bully making her school days miserable. I took it as my mission to help her find the answer to this bully problem. I tried to pass along all of my wisdom on friendships and true friends and fake friends and all of that. I had learned so many lessons from my younger days that I NEEDED her to know so her heart wouldn’t hurt so bad. And while my intentions were pure, I was missing the point. The point wasn’t for her to have happier days at school, the point was for her to discover the truths inside of her that would allow her to have happier days. If I said, “She isn’t a true friend and you shouldn’t care what fake friends think of you,” she’d hear me, but it wouldn’t have the same impact as her doing some soul searching and discovering for herself the meaning of true friendship. 

So, that leads me to why I was initially hesitant to write about my grief journey. If I believe that life’s best truths are the ones you discover yourself then why am I sharing all of my truths with you? After much internal deliberation on that question, I decided this: my truths aren’t your truths. They aren’t meant to be. But that doesn’t mean that my truths don’t help you find yours (and vice versa). I read every bit of info on grief that I find and I take bits and pieces of what others have discovered that really speak to me. I combine others’ perspectives with my own and end up discovering a truth about life that rings true to me. 

The same is true for parenting. I’m not going to stop giving my kids advice or share my experiences with them — I’m still here to guide and help them navigate life. I just view my role as a parent a bit differently now. I’m not trying to hand them all of life’s truths, but provide a stable, nurturing foundation so they can seek out their own truths. 

Yeesh, did that make any sense? I hope so. If it didn’t though, that’s okay, too, because my truth isn’t your truth, so you didn’t miss the secret to life or anything.     

We’re coming up on the end here, I can feel it. 

So, this is my story of how I started my lifelong journey of grief. I have bits of wisdom that I picked up along the way, but I’ve only just begun. I’m still walking the path and if I’m lucky, I will experience this kind of deep grief many times over before my book is finished being written. This all sounds like the kind of thing someone posts after they are healed! fixed! cured!, but as I said earlier, there is no cure for grief. My sadness and my ache for my dad are ever-present. I carry them inside me, just as I carry my love for him. Forever and always. 

If you are here because you’re just starting your grief journey or you’ve been on it for some time now or even if you haven’t begun yet — good luck finding your truths and making peace with your journey.