Lessons in Grief

One of the things I’m realizing about grief, as the years pass, is the associations that we make in our brains, in our hearts, in our lives, that seem to have nothing to do with our grief, nothing obvious, anyway, but somehow sneak into our day to day and spark that familiar feeling. For example, I might see someone decorating a birthday cake at the super market. I’ll think nothing of it in the moment, simply smile at the pink icing and go on about my day. Then several hours later I’ll find myself in bed, hiding under the covers, wishing for the day to be over, trying to figure out where it all went wrong. Then I remember the pink birthday cake, and it all comes into focus. I didn’t intend to go down the grief rabbit hole that day. I certainly didn’t want to. In fact, I had no time for it. But that’s where I end up. On a path of wondering how life would be today, if I were the one buying a pink birthday cake for my daughter.

Three days ago I was getting a clean set of sheets for our bed. We keep the clean ones in the drawers under our bed, but I pulled the wrong drawer out. I pulled out the one that houses the box. My daughter’s box. The one that holds her “Not Official” birth certificate. The bracelet they had on my wrist that said I was giving birth. An envelope of pictures that they took of her body, before it was carted off in a plastic bin for scientific purposes. That was three days ago. I simply pushed the drawer back in and went about my day. Found the clean sheets. Made our bed. Today, I’m having trouble concentrating. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I’m so angry at the rain, and the way the elections are going, and literally any other thing or person who crosses my path. And I know why.

I’m just now, at 38-years-old, realizing all of this. That’s why I’m writing this today. because I wonder if some of you haven’t realized it yet. And maybe you are going about your day, and you see your own “birthday cake” and you start to spiral downward and you just can’t figure out for the life of you what has done it to you. You start that cyclic thinking that you aren’t worthy, or you’re too sensitive, or you aren’t a “functioning adult,” whatever that is, whatever the lies are that come with this way of thinking. It’s just not true. It’s literally just stuff we tell ourselves. Years of torment we’ve put ourselves through, I think, in order to feel some control over something that we have no control over.

There are so many things people say to you when you’re grieving. And for a long time I listened to everything that was said to me. Took it all to heart, in hopes that it would make me feel better. In hopes that something a relative strangers said would console me in some way. Now looking back some of it was completely bonkers. Some of it just made me feel worse. Made me feel shameful and hurt, and like this whole grief I was feeling wasn’t valid or real or that it was all my fault anyway, so I had no reason to be feeling that way. Then one days things changed.

And since that day my periods of grief have changed too. It isn’t that I don’t have them. Because I do. Long, uninterrupted periods of grief brought on by seemingly mundane things like pink icing on a birthday cake, or that sudden, thick, humid air that comes out of nowhere in September, after a few nice days of what I’d been hoping was the start of fall weather. Suddenly I’m transported. I’m triggered. I hate to use that word, because I know it has other connotations, but that’s what I am. I’m triggered. My grief rises up inside me and before I know it I’m standing in the shower, letting the water run the tears off my face. I can’t breathe from the tightness in my chest. Because grief comes with a myriad of physical symptoms. And I have a proclivity to all of them.

To those of you who still haven’t figured this all out. Who still listen to those “good thoughts” people are wishing on you. I know some of those people mean well. But you don’t have to take what they say to heart. Just smile and nod. Or just walk away. This is your grief. Your life. You have control. And people should know better now. And if you don’t know what to say to those in grief, let me share what I’ve learned.

Here’s a list of shit people have said to me over the years that I thought I had to thank them for. Or even acknowledge. I didn’t. Even if they thought they were meaning well, I owed them nothing. Not a smile, not a nod, not a thank you.

  • I know how you feel
  • You can always have other children
  • This is God’s plan for you
  • Everything happens for a reason
  • God doesn’t give us more than we can handle
  • It could be worse, I know this person who…
  • It gets easier in about a year
  • You’ve cried too much
  • She’s in a better place

Here are some things other people said to me, that I appreciated so much, and wish we could all learn to say/do more often:

  • “I’m sorry you are suffering.” (I know this one is uncomfortable for you to say, but that’s all you need to say. I’m sorry that you are going through this. That’s it. Then hug them, if they are the hugging kind.)
  • “I’m sure you could use some help right now. I’m sending over some frozen dinners for your family.” (This one is way helpful in a lot of ways. It shows that you love that person enough to perform an act of service. It shows that you are thinking of them, and you are actually taking a burden off them at the same time. Use this instead of asking, “What can I do?” Just assume you can do something that is practical and helpful, feeding the family is always that.
  • “Tell me about what happened” or “Tell me about them.” (This one is powerful. There is no, “I know what you’re going through” this just says, “I have no idea what you are going through, but I want to know what you went through or who the person was that is gone. I want you to heal in sharing.)
  • “I know it’s Lydia’s birthday, and I just want you to know I am thinking of you all, and sending love.” (This one is huge. When people remember the date, or the moment, and take that step to say they are thinking of you. They aren’t asking anything in return, just being there, even if they can’t physically be there. It’s very important. To me anyway.
  • “I know you’re not doing well. And that’s okay.” (Reminding our loved ones that it’s okay to not be doing well is the best sort of permission a grieving person can get. Seriously. Try it out sometimes.)

Remember, when in doubt, when you have no idea what to say to the person standing next to you, spiraling downward in their grief, just say nothing. That’s okay too. Saying nothing is perfectly fine. A small touch on the arm. Holding them for a bit (if they are cool with it). Or just standing in that space with them, until they seem better, it’s totally fine. Uncomfortable maybe, for you, but you’re not the one who you should be worrying about in that moment. In fact, that was even hard for me to learn, but I did one day at Showmars where I met a perfect stranger crying in the bathroom. Sometimes it takes an unexpected encounter to make us see.

I’m sending all sorts of love your way today. For now, or later, whenever you need it. I’m always around if you need a shoulder. And to my people who are always there for me, thank you. I really, honestly, couldn’t without you.

M.

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