Amy Roberts: Airing grievances with grieving
Life doesn’t come with a how-to manual. Neither does death.
If I’ve learned anything these last three years, it’s that grief doesn’t give a damn about whatever rules and timelines were written for it. The five stages, the healing milestones, all the proposed coping strategies — they’re just a bunch of psychobabble designed to sell more self-help books.
The truth is, grief makes its way through life the same way the rest of us do — by making it up along the way.
Three years ago this week, my sister passed away after a long and hard-fought battle with brain cancer. In the days and weeks that followed, I was promised, over and over again, that in time, the hole in my heart would mend, that somehow the million little shattered pieces of my soul would fuse themselves back together and function normally once more.
Given how I felt in that moment, none of these assurances seemed logical, but when you are broken by grief, you’ll believe just about anything. And the idea that “time heals all wounds” sounded pretty enticing.
Fueled by the guarantee that at some point in the near future my sadness and anger would subside, and I would no longer feel suffocated by heartbreak, I put my head down and plowed through my grief. I just had to wait it out.
But the ‘all clear’ signal never came. Two years after Heather’s death, I still hadn’t healed as I’d been promised, and I was bitter about this rather unfair and cruel delay in the schedule. So I made an appointment with a grief counselor. I had no intention of actually working through my emotions. Instead I was determined to find out just how much farther I had to go to cross the arbitrary finish line and be healed. I’d been marching toward it for two years; where exactly was it?
“It’s been two years, why do I often still feel as gutted as I did on November 8, 2016?” I asked my therapist.
She responded with a question of her own. “What steps have you taken to work through your grief?”
I began to rattle off all the ways I had kept myself busy since Heather died. I’d poured myself into a new job, built a tiny house from scratch, traveled to Botswana to earn a safari guiding certification, wrote a book, discovered 18 different ways to fold and re-fold towels, enrolled in numerous classes and immersed myself in one pointless project after another.
After I’d listed all the tasks I’d completed, I thought for certain she would be just as perplexed as I was, agreeing that I’d been slighted and should be much further along in the healing process by now. I was convinced our outrage would be mutual.
But instead she looked at me calmly and repeated her question. “What steps have you taken to work through your grief?”
What followed was the most awkward, silent, and expensive four minutes I’ve ever endured.
Finally, I admitted there had been no actual steps taken. I had kept myself frantically busy to avoid feeling. I numbed my agony with activity. I had naively assumed the source of my grief was finite and that my pain would go away because I had turned another year older. I believed I could magically dodge the collateral damage of living.
What I learned in that session, and a few more follow ups after, was that life doesn’t cut you any slack just because you’re mourning. In the same way you have to make an effort to find a new job, or lose weight, or earn a degree, you have to put in the work to heal.
When I acknowledged this in my last session, my therapist nodded knowingly and confirmed, “To truly heal, you have to feel the s***.”
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