Grief: [noun] “keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss; sharp sorrow; painful regret.”
Two and a half years ago, I published a post on this blog called “The Unique Grief of Special Needs Parents.” To date, it’s the post that consistently gets the most traffic.
Every once in a while I’ll get a comment telling me that what I’ve experienced is not grief. Or someone will tell me that I should be ashamed of myself for feeling sadness over my child’s disability.
Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. But I would challenge you first to go back and read the article. Nowhere do I attempt to equate the grief I feel over my son’s disability with the death of a child. I don’t know what that’s like because I haven’t experienced it. And I wouldn’t try to make presumptions.
But here is what I know is true:
Grief is part of the human condition.
We all experience grief, and no one gets to decide what is and isn’t grief for someone else.
Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy.” — Proverbs 14:10
What is grief-worthy for me may not even be a blip on your radar. And the reverse is also true.
We all acknowledge grief when we lose a loved one, and rightfully so.
But grief isn’t only limited to the experience of someone dying. And to point fingers and shame others for feelings they didn’t ask for and can’t control, simply because it doesn’t fit our own narrow textbook definition of grief is callous and mean-spirited.
I have lost grandparents, but I’ve never lost a spouse, a child, or a close friend. I can’t relate.
My first real experience with grief happened under the radar and was something I was too young to recognize or name. It was my parents’ divorce.
I’ve written about it before, about how the pain of your parents ending their marriage never truly goes away. As a young girl, I thought I had to be strong and happy no matter what. So all those feelings of grief that are inevitable for a child whose parents divorce got swept under the rug. I didn’t know how to deal with them and I didn’t learn until I was grown.
It wasn’t until I was an adult with children of my own that I understood the enormous weight of grief I’d carried around my entire life.
My second experience with grief happened when I was 34 and miscarried my second pregnancy. I knew women who had miscarried, and I never understood why they were so sad. Until it happened to me.
Oh, how I grieved. It was a lonely, bitter place I lived in for that year afterward. . . watching as the entire world moved on and I stayed put on that fateful day in March when my pregnancy ended.
Recently I read Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, and one of her advice letters is to a woman who has also miscarried. She talks about how her friends try to say and do the right things, and how they mean well, but they live on planet earth. Meanwhile, the woman who lost her baby lives on planet “My Baby Died.”
This is exactly what grief is like.
It’s as though you are alone on a distant planet that refuses to turn. Meanwhile planet earth has the audacity to keep spinning, and everyone else goes on with their lives.
My third experience with grief revolved (and continues to center around) my son’s autism diagnosis.
I grieved over the difficulties we had when he was younger. We’ve overcome some of those issues at this stage in the game. But other problems have arisen to take their place. The easy, happy family life I dreamed of is not a reality. I live with extremely high stress levels which have influenced everything from my social life to my career choices.
I grieve for myself, but more, I grieve for my son.
- My heart breaks when he is unhappy or unsettled, which is frequently.
- I grieve for my other children who, while they are blessed to have such a wonderful brother, must also bear part of the burden of living with a brother who is ‘different.’
- I grieve for the opportunities we have missed, days that were too stressful for even an ounce of joy to get squeezed out, days when I hated myself for not knowing what to do or how to do it.
- I grieve the poor choices I made.
- I grieve for the woman I was eight years ago, who was so desperate to try anything and everything that she nearly ran her own life into the ground.
And here’s what you need to know about all that particular tangled, messy grief.
It took me a long time to actually name it grief.
I wouldn’t go there.
Because I, like so many of you, thought grief only belonged to someone who had lost a loved one.
Instead of allowing myself to grieve, I shamed myself for feeling anything but joyous.
“I should be happy,” I thought. “My son is alive. How many people would do anything to have their child alive and healthy?”
The shame and guilt ate away at me constantly.
- Why couldn’t I get my act together?
- Why couldn’t I be thrilled and thankful for the healthy — yet disabled — son God had given me?
- Why could I not enjoy every moment?
Well, first of all — because it was, and is, difficult.
Raising a child with a disability is hard. Raising a child with autism is challenging. My son is wonderful and tender-hearted and so much fun — some of the time. But other times he is difficult and stubborn and inflexible and excruciatingly loud. And it’s incredibly stressful.
But the other reason it took me so long to acknowledge was this: there was grief involved.
I was grieving.
And until I allowed myself to fully feel the grief, to cycle through it, to express it, to live it — it wasn’t going to go anywhere.
When I look back and reread the post I wrote in December 2013, my first instinct is to go in and change things. To edit and edit some more until my words are less raw, my heart less exposed, my writing more neat and tidy.
But I can’t and won’t do it.
The piece — as it is — expresses the exact grief I felt at the time I wrote it. Grief not only over my son’s diagnosis and difficulties, but also over the rejection of church people who I considered friends. It was a big hairy mess of grief and I was in the middle of the storm during December of 2013.
And you might be in the throes of it now.
No one else gets to tell you what you can and can’t grieve. No one else gets to define grief for you.
Grief comes to us all.
If you are reading this and you can honestly say you have never experienced grief, then either one of two things is true:
1. You’re in denial.
Maybe you’re not lying to yourself on purpose.
But perhaps, as with my childhood grief over my parents’ divorce, you’ve never allowed yourself to go deep enough within yourself to acknowledge and work through your grief.
You’ve chosen to deny it instead, shoving it down into the dark corners of your heart. The only way to live with hidden grief is to numb yourself and live a surface life. You will never experience true fullness and joy until you acknowledge your own unique grief.
2. You’ve never loved anyone or anything.
Love and grief go hand in hand.
If you’ve ever loved—and haven’t we all?—then you’ve experienced grief. Maybe not on as intense a level as someone who has lost a spouse or a child or a parent. But you have grieved nonetheless.
To love someone or something means to put yourself at rislk, to make yourself vulnerable, to open yourself up to the possibility of loss. Which means you open the door to grief as well.
I found an excellent quote about grief recently, which inspired me to write this post:
Grief is subversive, undermining the quiet agreement to behave and be in control of our emotions. It is an act of protest that declares our refusal to live numb and small. There is something feral about grief, something essentially outside the ordained and sanctioned behaviors of our culture. Because of that, grief is necessary to the vitality of the soul. Contrary to our fears, grief is suffused with life-force. . . It is not a state of deadness or emotional flatness. Grief is alive, wild, untamed and cannot be domesticated. It resists the demands to remain passive and still. We move in jangled, unsettled and riotous ways when grief takes hold of us. It is truly an emotion that rises from soul.” – Francis Weller, from Entering the Healing Ground: Grief, Ritual and the Soul of the World
And then this one:
What if grief is a skill, in the same way that love is a skill, something that must be learned and cultivated and taught? What if grief is the natural order of things, a way of loving life anyway? Grief and the love of life are twins, natural human skills that can be learned first by being on the receiving end and feeling worthy of them, later by practicing them when you run short of understanding.” — Stephen Jenkinson, from Way of Grief
Instead of bashing each other, accusing others of minimizing our own grief when their circumstances seem trite and silly to us, what if we learned to see grief as the emotional twin of love? What if we allowed grief to play out in our lives — even if it seems silly — rather than attempting to bury it alive?
What if we believed the words of Solomon? That each heart knows its own bitterness and no one else can understand its personal, unique joy?
I don’t get to tell you what you can and can’t grieve over.
And you don’t get to tell me how to grieve either.
Will you share your thoughts in the comments below about grief? How have you experienced it? Is there grief in your life that you’ve shoved down and refused to face because it seems trite and silly? Will you share it with us and keep the conversation going?