Grief. Even the word itself feels heavy when I say it out loud. The weight I feel hanging from that word is tethered to years and years of experiencing it firsthand. Years of enduring a pain like no other. A void that’s placed upon your heart and left gaping with the impossibility of ever being filled again. Grief’s vastness takes up so much space inside your soul it’s temporarily all-consuming. Grief is the closest I’ve ever felt to being dead while somehow still managing to stay alive.
Grief is having to remind yourself to breathe when your body normally knows how to do it for you. Your chest is tight and your throat feels closed. Grief physically chokes you and steals your breath. Breath, the effervescence of life, which is perhaps why you too feel like you’re dying whilst in the throes of it.
Whether it’s brought on by the death of a loved one, an ending of a relationship or friendship, a move to somewhere new, the loss of a job, a farewell to your former-self or even the extinguishment of an idea you once held; grief is a universal part of the human experience. It doesn’t discriminate based on gender, race or class. It’s an unfortunate bond all us humans share. There’s no escaping it. You are forced to face the reality that someone or something is no longer physically present. Any dream for the future you had attached to that person or thing is no longer and having to swallow that truth is like forcing yourself to swallow a watermelon.
The dream of perhaps having your father walk you down the aisle, the hope of growing old with someone, the thought of always having your mother next to you as your best friend, getting to watch your child grow up, the excitement of your grandparents becoming great-grandparents; they’re ripped right from you. You have no say in the matter. Grief is a glaring reminder we aren’t in charge and it forcefully jolts us out of the fantasy of ever believing we were.
Your view of the entire world and the people in yours begins to change during grief. Surely, there is goodness to be found in everything, but grief temporarily blocks all of that from view. We can’t see our blessings. We have blinders on and our vision is blurred and soaked with tears of confusion. We can’t possibly find the good at the beginning, we’re too busy being sad and angry. Why? Why me? Why them? Why not someone else? Why is this happening? The why may never come, so the thought loop keeps us spinning and avoiding healing.
You grieve the idea of never speaking with the person again, of never hearing their laugh, never seeing their face, of not being able to make new memories with them, of not being able to hug them, of not getting to experience things others may get to do with their loved ones as the years go by. You don’t just grieve the person, place or thing. You grieve every last inch of attachment to it or them.
I truly don’t believe there’s a word that exists that properly encompasses grief. How could you possibly label a feeling of sorrow so deep and complex? There’s no one-word to explain the feeling of knowing your reality has changed forever while everyone around you has seemingly had no shift in theirs. Grief isn’t fair. The anger, the regret, the shame, it’s all there. More layers than an onion and it certainly bears more tears.
So, what’s one to do with all these feelings and what can you do to help someone experiencing the most humbling experience of all experiences?
Be there. Be there for yourself if you’re experiencing it and be there for someone else as they’re experiencing it.
If someone you know is grieving:
Be there for them. The absolute worst thing you can do while someone is grieving, in my opinion, is to somehow make it about you. Your mind may say things like, “I don’t know what to say, so I’ll just leave them alone.” By doing this, you make it about you and your fear of being judged for saying the “wrong thing,” instead of making it about them…which is what it’s about. Even if you simply say, “I love you,” or, “I’m thinking of you,” it won’t go unnoticed. Grief is already the most isolating experience someone can endure. While people crave alone time to process, it’s important to remind them they are never truly alone. When you feel no support your world begins to darken and very very quickly. It’s hard to emerge from that space, so it’s important to help them from falling deeper. No one is meant to go through this alone.
Show up with flowers if they like flowers, send a message and expect no response, drop off a home cooked meal, share a beautiful memory, send them UberEats, check-in on them often; just show up and be there. Try to refrain from saying you know what they’re experiencing even if you can relate. The reality is, hearing that someone experienced the same thing really means nothing to the person currently suffering. I suppose it’s nice knowing someone else has managed to live through it and that gives a sense of hope that they’re capable of the same, but no one has lived through THEIR exact grief. No one is reliving their memories. No one will understand what this grief is doing to them mentally and what it means for their life moving forward. No one knows the ideas and dreams they had attached to the thing they lost. The person grieving’s life is changed forever by this event, yours is not (unless, of course you’re grieving the loss, as well). No one has been through this exact experience. This is a new experience. It’s new and it’s theirs. You have experienced your grief, possibly, but you have not experienced theirs.
Once healing has begun though and you sense sharing your experience may help, by all means, do so. Just keep in mind not to compare, as each experience of grief is unique. I have made this mistake in the past and have learned and grown from it.
If you are the one currently experiencing grief:
I’m sending you the world’s biggest virtual hug. I want you to know that although you feel like you can never escape what you’re feeling right now, you can and you will. The initial dagger to the center of your chest feeling will subside. I’ll spare you from saying it gets easier or better, because I don’t know that it does. I believe we just process our trauma over time and learn healthier ways to cope. I believe the tough feelings are all still very much there. They just soften somewhat once we are able to pull our heads above water and gasp for air. There’s nothing easier or better about it, it’s just a new tool we have now added to our, “This World Is Meant To Destroy Me But It Won’t” toolbox.
As you sulk in your sadness, I beg you to pray to whatever greater power you believe in. Prayer allows you to say anything and everything you’re truly feeling with no judgement. I couldn’t have gotten through losing so many people in my life had God not been there with me. Humans don’t always show up in the way we’d like them to, it’s part of being human. Thankfully, God is not human and will always show up.
Journal about it. Your body holds onto trauma, so it’s important to get it out somehow before you begin storing it and making yourself sick. Releasing your feelings in the pages of a notebook is therapeutic and takes the pain from inside and puts it somewhere externally. Feel free to write to whoever/whatever you are grieving. Words don’t have to go unsaid just because the thing isn’t physically here.
Get fresh air and sunlight. I know the cave of depression you’ve been hiding in under your sheets feels safe, but it’s hurting you so so badly. Darkness thrives when you’re alone. I’m all about listening to your body and not forcing things, but grief is one time I’d say when the time is right to FORCE YOURSELF to get up and get outside. When you see the beauty of nature and breathe in fresh air it immediately releases happy chemicals in your brain, which is exactly what you happen to need right now.
Start a gratitude list. They say when you are being grateful you can’t possibly be focused on your problems at the same time. So, take a break and again, force yourself to list things you’re grateful for. This list will keep you from spiraling into the whole, “Life is horrible and everything sucks” mode. There are infinite blessings in your life whether you’re paying attention to them or not is your decision.
Lastly, be gentle with yourself. Don’t judge yourself for things you wish you would’ve done differently. Give yourself grace. You are human after all.