Talking about Grief, or: The Losses that Define Us

A while ago, at a workshop, I had a conversation with another participant about grief, and it made me think of times when I was going through the same raw experience, the helpful advice I got back then, and what I learned in the process. So I thought, for once I’d share that. This is uncomfortable, of course, both to write and to read, but I feel strongly that we need to learn to hold space for this discomfort if we want to support others who are grieving and want to not beat ourselves up constantly if we are the ones grieving.

It’s okay to be okay, sometimes

I love it that today so many people reconfirm that it’s okay not to be okay. It’s an important message. But grieving for a loved one is a long, complex process, in which not-okay can feel like the default setting and any morsel of joy or happiness, or just silly laughter, turns you into a ball of guilt. That’s what I felt a lot after my father died. I had no role model for how to grieve in my mid-to-late 20s, and just the wish to have a night out with the girls without constantly thinking of being a half-orphan now made me feel guilty. If I did it and had fun, it got even worse. It took me a long time—months, actually—to understand that what I was doing was the right thing, that I had a life beyond grief and that I would let my father down if I didn’t seize it.

It doesn’t go away, but it changes

When a loved one dies, the pain is so intense that we may wonder if we can stand it, and how long it’ll be that way, when we will have gone through it. My experience, and the experience of many people I’ve talked to over the past two decades, is that the pain doesn’t go away. What it does is change. I’ve always liked to compare it to the sea: The first couple of days or weeks may feel like a tsunami and its aftermath, but then life goes on and the sea is sometimes calmer and sometimes more agitated, the tides rise and fall. Today, after so many years, I welcome the rising tide—not because it has become painless, but because the pain is much less prominent than the warm sense of beautiful memories.

The pain changes, but so do you

Many years ago, I read a love story—“Leon and Louise” by Alex Campus—and I found this quote, which I come back to often, so let me share a shorter version of it here:

I have a pretty good life. (…) You’re just one of the many gaps in my existence. (…) You get used to your gaps and learn to live with them. They’re a part of you and you wouldn’t want to be without them. (…) So your gaps gradually become characteristic traits and fill themselves with themselves, so to speak. I’m still completely full of you and my longing for you—or just my knowledge of you.Why? No idea. It’s something you get used to, that’s all.

I love the laconic sound of this, because I am rather pragmatic myself. But sentimental too. So I don’t mind being defined by the gaps, by my losses. I don’t know if it makes sense to you but I take consolation from my awareness of these gaps because they mean I had something of great value in my life. And the important point is not that I lost it, it’s that I had it—and the experience has a share in who I am today. I know that’s a lot more than many people can say. It’s a privilege to love and be loved, to have loved and have been loved, even though it cannot last forever. Grief adds another aspect to this love, is all. But if we are lucky, what shapes us, what changes us, is the love and not the pain.

I’m not sure if that’s helpful, and I realize this is not like my usual blog posts, but I felt like writing it, so I may as well share it. If you want to continue this conversation, I am here to talk.

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