Written by Angela Beise
When I was in 5th grade, my grandfather died. It was my first experience with grief. I can still remember the scents - a strong mixture of roses, lilies and carnations. My sisters and I gathered some of those flowers at the graveside and took them home. We cried, told stories, and held a service in his memory. After I went back to school, life resumed.
I realize now that life wasn’t ever the same for my grandmother who had lost her husband and for my mom who lost her dad. Eventually though, even they found a new normal and carried on.
There were other losses through the years, but all were losses we knew were coming. Grief took its rightful place as we healed and moved on.
What I was unprepared for was the day grief came knocking at my door in a very unexpected way. My fourth baby, Michael, was born with a rare genetic syndrome and severe disabilities. It was immediately clear that life would never be the same for any of us.
Michael’s disabilities were not life threatening, which brought great relief. So, when grief pushed its way into my heart, I denied it and pushed it right back out.
Sadness was the emotion that made sense. I was sad to see my baby suffer, sad that all our lives were now different. I had not actually lost my baby, so why did I feel as though I had? Why grief?
What I know now is that I suffered an ambiguous loss. While I held this baby in my arms, I knew I had lost the little boy for whom I had waited and dreamed about. As years passed, I grieved as I watched kids his age reach milestones, go to school, start driving, go to college, slowly become independent, and get married.
This ambiguous grief was what my friend felt as she cared for her father as she slowly lost him to Alzheimer’s. This type of grief is experienced by those who “lose” loved ones to addictions and mental illnesses. There are no flowers to gather, no service to say goodbye, no community sitting together to remember stories, and too often, no one giving us permission to grieve.
Grief has often knocked at the door of my heart, visiting out of the blue, at unexpected times throughout the years. I’ve learned to let it in. While I may not understand why it showed up that day, or in that season, grief is nothing to fear.
It does its work – helps the heart to process, and then it moves on. Through these 24 years, these are the lessons I have learned about grief.
1. It’s ok to grieve, even if no one else is grieving and no one else understands.
Often, when I am sad or grieving, people have pointed out all the reasons I should NOT be sad. They bring up all of the things that are going right and even mention people who have it worse, “Well, at least you still have a son. Well, think about how well that last surgery went. But he has come so far….” I know they mean well and just want to cheer me up, but what I really need is permission to grieve my very real loss.
2. Grieving does not mean I don’t love my son. I no longer shame myself or feel guilty for my feelings. I can hold and love the son I have and also grieve the one I lost.
3. Grief does not have an expiration date. It shows up wherever, and as many years later as it pleases, usually staying longer than I’d like. Most people can handle my grief for a time, but then get to a place where they need me to be ok. There are, however, those few who can sit with me in my grief, for as long as it takes. I invite those who can walk that difficult road for the long haul into my grief, and I let the others off the hook! Each person can only offer what they have to give.
4. Be kind to yourself. I have learned to listen to my body and to pay attention to my heart. Muscling my way through a time of grieving has not served me well. I take a morning walk instead of my normal run. I sleep a little later, make sure I eat well, and spend more, or less, time with friends depending on what my heart needs.
5. I no longer try to push grief out of my heart. Years ago, a very wise counselor told me that sadness is like the tuba in an orchestra. It brings depth to the overall sound. However, if it were to blare full-blast all the time, it would overwhelm the other instruments.
Grief has a seat in my orchestra. To try to kick it out causes it to play louder. To accept it has something to offer allows it to bring depth and a different kind of beauty to the overall melody. I am the conductor of my little orchestra of emotions. There are times I accept the score and allow grief to bring up the volume. There are other times I allow it to bring what only it can bring, and others rarely even notice it’s there. I wave my hand to tell it to play softer and take in the mystery of different emotions that combine to make a beautiful whole.
Life is full of expected and unexpected loss. Grief is how our hearts deal with that loss and how we heal. I no longer deny or shake my fist at the process of grieving. I give my heart permission to embrace the process and to take the time it needs.