As I was doing my nightly social media patrolling the other night, I came across something that literally left me breathless; an old (young) coworker of mine suddenly lost her husband. Yet less than a week ago the couple had been celebrating finding out the sex of their first child. So not only did this poor woman lose her beloved, their unborn child lost its father as well. Their lives have been forever changed. I knew that feeling.
I have, thankfully, never experienced the loss of a spouse. I won’t pretend to understand her specific grief but I have been in a similar situation where my world was unexpectedly shattered. Becoming lost in my own memories, I began reading through the pages of comments people had posted on her page. Notes offering condolences, prayers, and apologies. People rehashing favorite memories. And various expressions of faith reminding this young widow that her husband is now in a better place and it was just “his time.” I was in her place once. Sitting at the computer trying to see through the blurriness of never-ending tears and read the hundreds of comments and private messages from people, some even strangers, saying how sorry they were for my family’s loss. Yet as heartfelt as those messages were, for me it was still an internal battle of trying to find comfort in the words versus hating God and everyone on the other side for not being the ones stuck on the shit side of the fence.
“Jesus, I thought, is there a better and more succinct definition of grief than It hurts a little to breathe, but we’re ok?” (241).
The funny part of that line is it’s actually something his sister told him as she was describing her reaction to a nearby forest fire. The more I thought about the significance of that line, the more I realized that grief does kind of act like a blazing fire burning deep inside a person’s being. It can strike out of nowhere, yet in a matter of seconds it has the power to take over and destroy anything in its path. It forces all living things to flee and makes exceptions for no one or anything. Can’t the same be said for grief? Grief is completely unbiased and doesn’t care how much money or notoriety a person has. It can thoroughly suck the life out of a person’s soul if they let it. I know because I’ve been there.
To extinguish a fire takes a lot of work and is typically not something that can be done by one person alone. It’s a group effort, with each person playing a particular role. (I watch “Chicago Fire” okay… I’ve seen how firemen work!) And it’s the same for grief. Without the help of family and friends to guide you through to the part where you finally are okay, it’s so easy to lose yourself in the part where it’s physically hard to breathe. For me that’s been the hardest part. I don’t like asking others for help. I don’t like actually talking (which is SO different from writing!) about my feelings. I do my best to bury anything that makes me uncomfortable. I bury it under layers upon layers of anger, ignorance and fake facades. People say that grief lessens over time. It doesn’t. For me it’s been almost eight years since tragedy struck my family. Yet my feelings and grief are just as intense as they were that day. The difference is that I’ve merely gotten better at controlling it. The difference is that every once in awhile I give in to the grief, let it consume me to the point where I can’t breathe. And then I let it out. And slowly the tears stop. I begin to breathe and even begin to remember happy memories. The point is that I don’t let it stay buried forever. Over the years I’ve learned that those intense waves of grief always come back no matter how much I try to bury them. But I’ve come to expect that, and in an oddly human way I even want them to. Because I’ve discovered that part of grief is remembering – obviously the bad, but more importantly, also the good.
Every person has a story, something that changed them, maybe for the better, maybe for the worse. It’s inevitable. But the key to surviving the monster that is grief is to not let that one moment, that one story define you. Be the one that remembers, not the one that is consumed. Be the survivor.