The Power of Grief

This year, I lost my grandmother, an aunt, a family friend who was like an uncle, a high school classmate, and remembered the one year anniversary of a good friend’s passing. This happened all within a span of about four months. It was as if the Universe was holding back tragedy, only to have it spill over all at once. I can see now, that these and other events significantly contributed to my stress and a slow but steady spiral into depression, but at the time I couldnt fathom what was happening. I felt like the world around me was speeding past, while I was sloshing through mud, desperately trying to gain a foothold. By mid July, I was at the bottom of a pit, not knowing how I had gotten there or how to pull myself out.

It’s been a gradual process, a rope made of self-care, support from family and friends, therapy, and self expression. I am by no means an expert and I know that everyone has their own unique way of grieving. I consider myself an optimist, not in the sense that I’m happy all the time, but that even in the midst of tragedy I try to find something positive that I can take from it. For better or worse, I try to tease out the silver lining. So I was thinking about it the other day, what does grief have to teach me?

Here is what I have learned so far:

I’ll never be the same

I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but it’s true. I thought that grief was something you heal from, a period of time that you struggle through before you get back to normal. Grief changed me. Which isn't to say that I am some unrecognizable version of myself, but that when something so significant happens, the remnants of it stay with you. There is no going back to before, because before will always be a time when your loved one was there.

As a child, my own extended family all lived in different states, and we saw each other once a year if we were lucky. In college however, when my grandmother began to need full time assistance, I spent a little over a month of my summer break living with her, cooking, cleaning, driving her to doctors appointments, and staying up late watching TV. I did this for a couple of years until I graduated and my younger sister took over. She was my last living grandparent, the one I had gotten to know the best, and spent the most time with.
We are blessed to be living with my in-laws at the moment. It’s been wonderful to have my own children be able to have such a close relationship with their grandparents. One day, as I was watching my children talk and play with my husband’s mother (Noni, as she’s called in our house), I was struck by the relationship between grandparent and grandchild, and I realized that since my grandmother’s death, no one would ever love me quite like that again. It was an immediate feeling of both sadness and gratitude.

This conflicting emotional state seems to be one of the defining characteristics of grief. At least for me, when I am in the midst of it, I can never define my emotions as either negative or positive. Instead, it feels like being engulfed by a tornado of ambivalence, where swirling winds toss me in different directions, all grasping for my attention at once.
I have learned to let that tornado wash over me, and to not worry about defining it. That I have no control over when it will surface is another matter.

It Tenderizes

I cannot tell you how often I have started to cry while reading a book, watching a movie, or doing random, everyday tasks. While I am normally an emotional person, the morning news (which I have largely stopped watching) can send me into a fit of tears. Grief seems to magnify and personalize everything. I feel the pangs with a stronger force. Even fictional characters throw punches at my tender heart. I have been trying to read the book The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, for months and it’s not for lack of time or interest. When I read a beautifully heartbreaking passage, I am overcome by the tornado, and I have to put it down. It often takes days to feel that I have to built myself back up enough to continue. I’m still only a quarter of the way through.

This constant pounding on my heart, in the long run may serve to make it stronger, the way a guitarist builds up calluses on their fingers. At present though, there is raw skin and blisters.

In the wake of recent tragedies, of continued war and conflict, of so much strife and injustice, it would be easy to sink back into that dark pit. Today, and one day at a time, I am choosing to listen to the lessons grief has to teach me. Today I will choose to be more compassionate, generous, and grateful. Grateful even for the excruciating parts, because they help me empathize on a deeper level with my fellow human beings. It seems to me, that while grief is extremely personal, it may also be the emotion we can all unite around. No matter what your politics, race, nationality, religion, we all will experience loss at some point. We will all be shaken to our core. We will all be changed, hopefully for the better.

To my grandmother, who would have turned 99 this month, and to all of those loved and lost, your life and your death continue to shape mine.
I love you.