By Kelly Wright
A counselor once told me that he believed that at the foundation of many mental health issues was unresolved grief.
Grief is the price we pay for love. Queen Elizabeth II
We love therefore we grieve. And sadly, I wish those two things didn’t exist in tandem.
We grieve so many things throughout our lives. We grieve the deaths of loved ones. We grieve the passing of time. We grieve anytime there is a change in our lives.
What was the first loss you remember experiencing?
Michael Richardson (VU Client Advocate) and I lead a small group, “Helping Kids (and adults) Process Loss,” where we discuss working through the many losses of life. Michael shared that one of the first losses children experience is giving up their pacifiers.
As adults, it is easy to minimize our childhood losses. We may not remember the deep sorrow that we experienced when something that once comforted us was taken away. But those losses and griefs have continued every time we have lost someone or something, every time we said goodbye, and every time we experienced change.
I don’t remember giving up my pacifier, but that was a loss I experienced. (My mom concocted a story about a dog taking it, I’m told.)
The first loss I recall was moving into a different home. It was the summer between my kindergarten and first grade year. Even though we stayed in the same town, we moved to a different neighborhood. Although there were many things I loved about the move – kids my age to play with, freedom to ride my bike, and a big backyard, I missed my house. I felt sad and uprooted. Even though the new house was bigger, all my early childhood memories were in that little white house on the corner. (A house I still drive by on occasion.)
Moving also meant going to a different school where I didn’t know anyone. The first day of school was rough and even as I think about it today, I can picture the sky, the playground, and I can feel the pit in my stomach as I stood there feeling awkward and alone.
You can’t truly heal from a loss until you allow yourself to really feel the loss. Mandy Hale
In 2013, my brother-in-law passed away after a three-week battle with cancer. Those three weeks and the weeks that followed were a tornado of emotions for my husband (his brother), my children, and me. Shock, confusion, fear, frustration, and deep sadness whirled around us all.
I could write pages about my love for my brother-in-law. He was one of those people who outlives themselves because of the number of ways they love others.
He experienced much grief in his life. He was injured in a hayride accident when he was in college and lived his adult life as a quadriplegic.
He was the epitome of resilience – never let his disability hold him back, he earned two degrees at Berkeley before becoming an attorney.
He was brilliant and kind and loved my kids like they were his own.
And his death brought a grief to my heart like I had never experienced before.
What do we do when grief comes to the door of your heart?
As a counselor I walked with many as they grieved the losses of life. Being a companion to those grieving was a familiar path, but when my heart was broken, I had to use the tools and put to practice the advice I had given so many.
First, I took space to grieve every day. Especially for the first few months, I had to give myself time – fifteen to thirty minutes a day – to deal with my feelings. That time often included journaling my feelings in the morning as well as walking my dogs at night. Since nighttime was hardest for me, walking my dogs were sacred moments. I would pray and breathe in the cold air letting the tears come as I looked at the stars.
Those two practices were simple yet incredibly significant as I walked through grief daily.
Second, I wrote to my brother-in-law. I know this probably sounds weird, but I found it so very cathartic. I told him what I missed about him, what I was sorry for, and how our lives felt impossible to go on without him.
And if you thought it was weird to write him, it gets weirder. When I was done writing, I would often read what I wrote out loud. Writing and reading aloud was another layer of processing my grief. It was like my ears needed to hear what my heart had to say.
Third, I gave my grief time. Grief is a journey that takes time. More time that we want to give.
Processing grief takes daily attention without a time limit. I think grief often gets pushed down and unresolved because we don’t give it the time it needs. Grief doesn’t just disappear after a year. Time really doesn’t heal all wounds. But time gives us space for our wounds to heal.
Last, we keep his memory alive. My family loves to share “Uncle Bentley” stories. At first the stories felt tender and vulnerable. We teared up a lot in those early days. Now they are filled with joy and celebration of his amazing life. We have pictures and mementos of his life around our house. We imagine what he would say in situations or how proud he’d be of how great our kids are.
When grief is unresolved, we have a hard time keeping memories alive because we are overwhelmed with the feelings. One great benefit of dealing with grief is that we can remember and celebrate and keep their memory alive.
How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard. Winnie the Pooh
I encourage you to welcome grief in when it knocks on your door. It may not be what we want to welcome into our day. It will be overwhelming at first. But the more you welcome it in, the more you will be able to manage grief, and in turn, experience comfort and love.