When you lose a loved one, the grief is tricky—isn’t it?
It’s tricky because it shows up at unexpected times. It’s tricky because much of culture tells us we should eventually move on or heal. It’s tricky because movies and TV shows give a false perception of what it looks like.
I have been battling the pangs of grief for more than half of my life.
My dad passed away after a nine-year battle with ALS when I was 18. My mom passed away from complications due to cancer 15 and a half years later, to the day. I have darkly joked in the past that I am the official expert on parental loss amongst my friends.
I have lived without either of my parents for more than 10 years. And many people who have not yet experienced the heartache of loss will not understand that it comes and goes for the rest of your life. Nor will they understand what grief actually looks like, or how it manifests in so many different ways for so many different people.
But one of the toughest misconceptions is that we will eventually be over it. Take it from me—that is not exactly how it works…
However, my life is not defined solely by these losses. They have impacted my life, definitely, and I miss my parents all the time, but grief, like life, is not so cut and dry.
Here is what I understand about grief:
I have heard wonderful lines about how grief is love with nowhere to go, or how time doesn’t heal the grief, you just grow around it. And I agree with both.
In many ways, you do grow around the grief. I learned at an early age to keep putting one foot in front of the other. My dad was amazing at living, despite his circumstances for those nine years.
Each time your world collapses, at some point you also learn that the world around you continues to spin; it is only, in fact, your own little world that has been devastated.
This is a harsh truth.
But in the 32 years since the first collapse, when my parents sat me and my brother down to tell us what was happening, I have also known a beautiful truth: the world goes on, and so can you.
I am in love with, undoubtedly, the man of my life. I have never been loved like this. And every now and then, when I stop and take in one of those purely contented moments with him, I feel my parents’ presence. There is a deep pool of love and I am dipping my toes in it.
My grief and grieving has changed over the years, and although still present in some ways, it is not the only characteristic of my life now. And your grief is not, and will not be, the only characteristic of yours.
Yes, there are times when it feels like there is a hole in your chest in the shape of whomever you are missing. Sometimes it can destabilize you, and this often happens out of literally nowhere.
You can be having a lovely morning, enjoying the warm, sunny weather, excited for plans with friends later, and it can hit you like you’ve just walked into a glass wall. You are dumbstruck and sometimes overwrought with the pain and tears of your grief.
Other times, grief hits you in the midst of stress and anxiety and torrents of emotional upheaval.
But you go on. Because you can. Because you have made it through the tempest of grief before. And because maybe that love has no place to go…or does it?
Every time you have seen a beautiful sunset and your eyes have welled up with the beauty of this present, temporary moment, you are putting one foot in front of the other. And each time you stop and take it in, you are offering this moment to the ones you are grieving.
Every time you wake up early, just before the dawn, and the whole household is still sleeping, even if you don’t get out of bed but just take a moment and listen to the birdsong happening, you are offering this moment up in love.
Every time you take a second to breathe in a fresh cup of coffee. Every time you catch yourself smiling at a flower shop display or a shower of colorful leaves in autumn. Every time you catch yourself in your laughter with friends, enjoying the ambience, or hear the sound of a bottle of champagne popping.
Every time you hear one of your favorite songs on the radio and it takes you out of your morning commute for four minutes.
Every time you really take in the time you are with someone you love, watching the way their eyes dart about as they talk, or hone in on their voice, how it changes when they speak lovingly with you.
All the sunsets, sunny days, nonstop chatter over bottles of wine or beer, holding hands with the one you love, cuddling with your purring kitten, writing a poem, writing a song, reading a book, feeling all the feelings of a good, intense movie…
When you catch yourself in the present (and please try to do so more often), you are catching yourself alive, living, being.
These are your opportunities for growing around the grief. These are moments you can lay on the alter of offerings to your loved ones.
And then, maybe, you will start to feel their presence in that moment, too.
Maybe it is because I am opening up and letting love in, really letting it in, again. Maybe it is because this man is helping me to heal from the wounds of loss at a young age.
Maybe this is just a part of growing around the grief. And as I am letting in this love, allowing myself to jump into that deep pool and swim in it, the love I have for my parents has a place to rest.
It is not easy. I know.
There are times you are crushed with the weight of the loss, not matter how long it has been. But when spiritual leaders or therapists or whomever you turn to for help tells you to sit with your grief and allow it because it is also fleeting and not permanent—that is also true.
These moments are a part life; that is a fact.
However, you will wake up tomorrow and you will hear birdsong or the laughter of someone you love or even strangers, and there you will have a new moment, a moment to give your grief and those you miss a gift of love. Presence. Being.
Whatever it is, I have known for more than three quarters of my life that it is in the moments we often take for granted, the little moments we should treasure the most that we are actually living life.
And living is the answer.
You will have ups and you will have downs. And there will definitely be days it feels like too much. But please don’t hang onto those days of heartbreak so long that you miss the cracks letting the light back in.
Grief is tricky, isn’t it? It changes over time, and though it may last your whole lifetime, it is not your permanent state.
Yes, you will continue to grieve. But you will also continue to grow and to love. You have a lot of living to do still.