The Journey of Grief: From Intruder to Companion
Sheryl Sandberg’s essay on her first 30 days of widowhood threw me back and forth for a while: back into that long ago day when I was flattened by the overwhelming shock of grief, forward again into the present when I am no longer shocked, although sometimes overtaken, by a loss one never forgets. Ms. Sandberg lost her partner and husband, the father of her children; I lost my son of 19 years, a loss also suffered by a host of others who suffered the same loss: my husband, parents, siblings, nephews, cousins and innumerable friends of his and ours. This is not an “ouch” contest; one would be hard put to compare the loss of a long-awaited and much beloved son to the loss of a husband, partner and lifelong companion. No point in doing so.
Ms. Sandberg’s essay stands on its own as a testament to her courage in her struggle to “choose life and find meaning”. Here I will mention some of the things I’ve learned over the last 16 years. I hope that it may help someone in the shock of fresh grief, who is trying to find meaning in the experience of being overtaken and flattened by a loss which is incomprehensible in its depth and scope.
First, there is no one metaphor to encompass what grief feels like or how the journey goes. Some, however, are helpful.
- The best definition I know of grief is “love unfinished”. It is uplifting to know that the initially endless sobs and tears and disbelief and protest are in fact a sign of something good: how much you have loved and still do love the lost person, and how that love will never end. How it may even be a path toward an ongoing relationship with that loved one now unseen and unreachable, at least in the ways known and taken for granted yesterday. That the pain may be an opening into an hitherto unknown world within oneself and across time and distance.
- The journey of grief is like a valley, deeper and darker than the pretty kind of valley that beckons you to explore it. It is a valley which, cast in shade, promises to be difficult to traverse and maybe even dangerous for you, but whose horizons also suggest that the sun will shine again on the other side. There is no way over, only through, the valley of grief. There are detours, some of which are valuable, such as the detour of stopping still and saying I am not ready for that part yet. Or, I need to rest today. Or, this grief will be here tomorrow for me to investigate and struggle with. But there is no going back into the pre-grief state. It is here and can be reckoned with. The valley is part of your journey, and the journey will have some rewards, including getting to the other side and looking back to see how far you’ve come; that the pain is less, and less disabling. That your loved one would be proud of you for surviving. That life has meaning again, and is still enriched by their presence.
The Right Way
There is none. There is no correct map. Most of the maps you will see or read about include many truths; some will apply to you and some will not. For example, the stages of grief are said to include anger, denial, depression, acceptance, etc. Correct, perhaps. Some points on the map will be nameless and add to your helplessness, as you may not know how you feel or what to do about it. But others will be definite markers: Yes, I feel angry; Yes, I’m numb today; or No, I don’t want this journey. If you are not sure of the marker or the place, or even the day you inhabit, there is only one right answer: just keep breathing. And it is fine if you do nothing else but breathe into the next moment, which may feel different, or which may be another moment in which all you can think to do is breathe. That’s OK. I remember most vividly a night when I woke from sleep, in panic, knowing and feeling, “I can’t do this (grief) anymore, I just can’t.” Breathing was hard. Luckily the voice kicked in that told me I had no other choice but to go forward. Though I was able to go back to sleep, I have never forgotten either the panic or the voice.
You may wonder what in the world you can do for someone who has been knocked flat by grief, and will never be the exact same person. You are suffering your own loss, the loss of the person you knew and felt comfortable with. I am reminded of the words of a wise supervisor, who told me at first to just “be with” the troubled teenagers I worked with, be present to them and, by inference, let them be safe with you. This was calming to a young clinician, and I hope it is also calming to friends and loved ones of a grieving person. You can “be with” them in their suffering, and let them know it’s OK to be suffering, to be not themselves, and to let you know what they need—to talk or not talk, to send you to the supermarket or the hardware store, to call you in the middle of the night or to not answer the phone. As impossible as the grieving person finds it to be anything at all, and certainly not their prior self, your presence and invitation to safety will make a difference. They will know you are there for them.
Lastly, it is never too late for a card or a text or a call, saying “I’m thinking of you.” That support can feel more important as the early weeks and months pass, and even the early years. When others may forget, remembering that your friend/relative is still on the journey of grief makes the journey more bearable for them. And your enduring friendship can make their life richer and more meaningful.
It helps to remember that we are all spiritual in some way, at least in the fact that we are more than our bodies. Whether you call it mind or soul or spirit, or feelings or thoughts or attitudes, we all have an intangible something we may call by different names. We are more similar than different, in my view, no matter that we may have different religious beliefs or none at all. When you are trying to help or show concern, try to stay open to the spirit of the grieving person, without judgment. You can keep alert to signs that the person in grief may be ready to talk about how they are feeling, what they are believing, or where they are struggling with their faith or other beliefs. Your greatest gift to them is the permission, spoken or unspoken, to just be where they are and tell you what they need (or don’t). Time and patience are your allies, if not theirs. They are on a long journey and you will be needed along the way. Don’t worry if you don’t understand; you can just “be with” them and hopefully they will show you what they need.
Grief as a Life Companion
The good news is that as life changes, grief changes.
In the days when I wished to escape, as most grievers do, I would sometimes wish for the void to overtake me. I have stopped wishing for that.
I have learned that I cannot escape my grief, and that it is a reminder of what once was, and hopefully of what is still to come. That love is forever and has not left me. That all life has opportunity and blessings in it. That some questions have no answer, and I can stop striving to create one.
Sometimes the reminders of grief come in sad waves, as one would expect, and other times in happy memories or bittersweet musings about what might have been.
I have learned that as long as the heart beats and the mind/spirit/soul remembers, love is not lost and life can be rich again.
Author note: In this different life of the last 16 years, innumerable people have helped and supported me and I want to acknowledge them. In particular, my husband, Mike Graziano, has been my constant companion and partner in the journey. To my parents, sister and friends— you know who you are and what you have done to make my growth possible and even enjoyable—endless gratitude.
Michele M. Marsh, PhD is a licensed psychologist and an AASECT-Certified sex therapist. Dr. Marsh’s specialty areas include: trauma, depression, anxiety; life transitions; parenting issues; affairs and infidelity; and loss and grief.