What is Grief?

My life thus far has been a lot of things. Complex and beautiful and painful and messy and joyous.  So much learning. And yet, with all I experienced and all that I learned, I’m coming now to realize that I never actually understood anything about grief. 

I thought I understood it. It’s an emotion, I figured, like the others.  Like anger.  Or sadness.  It’s basically sadness, I thought, but bigger somehow.  More intense.  I’ve sat in classes on psychology and humanity and I’ve learned the Things People Say.  About how everyone grieves differently.  Virtually every reaction falls under the category of ‘normal’ when a person is grieving Grief can mean you want to see everyone at once, or no one at all.  It can mean you want to do All The Things, or do literally nothing for weeks on end.  Pretty much any response to grief is considered normal, and perhaps that’s because none of it is normal. Because grief is not a normal place for a human soul to dwell.   And what do you say to a grieving person?  No one really knows.  Follow their lead.  Give them space. Wait until they’re ready.   It’s good advice. And it’s reassuring to me now that I’m the one who’s been struck down by this strange, otherworldly experience we refer to as ‘grief.’   As they bounce around my head, those wise words provide me with a reassurance that on the other end of this tunnel of grief, perhaps I will be ready to live once again.  Because here’s the thing I’m finally coming to understand about grief: 

Grief isn’t an emotion. It is something else entirely.  To enter into grief is to enter another dimension.  It is a space beyond emotions.  It is all of the emotions at once, and at the same time it is not an emotion at all.  It is transcendent.  It comes in waves, bringing  me to my knees and filling me up to capacity and then pouring out of me in a tidal wave of overwhelming sadness and loss and anger and fear. And yet, those words are wrong.  But they’re the only words I have for what I’m experiencing.  The difference between what I had come to know as sadness and this experience of grief is the difference between a glass of water and the ocean.  It’s all of those feelings and more than that and yet none of that at all. And those moments of overpowering grief are a thing outside of time.  In the midst of the grief, I know without a doubt that this is eternal.  This grief, this loss, this emptiness.  It goes on forever and ever and ever with no end.  “Surely not” the logical part of my head whispers.  “Surely this is temporary.”   But the part that thinks this grief could ever come to an end is a naïve child.  That is the part that doesn’t understand, can’t understand.  That logical part of my brain simply cannot understand the fact that it’s linear time that’s the lie – that’s the illusion.  This grief is clean, and true, and more real than all the real ‘stuff’ I usually surround myself with and honor with the grand title of ‘reality.’   What a joke.  My soul has moved to a different country, but my body is still here.  

Before Dove died, I had this notion that the grief would begin as a large thing that would shrink smaller and smaller as time passed.  But that’s not really the way I’m experiencing it.  Dove’s body died once, but that was just the physical representation of the person I married.  I grieved for the death of his body as I sat next to him in a chaotic trauma unit, having just received the worst news I could possibly imagine. 

It felt like the end, but that turned out to be just the beginning of the complicated process of grieving for the man I had loved so completely. I had always thought of Dove as a singular individual – an eternal soul contained in a physical body, however it is that that works. But as the waves of grief hit me, I began to realize that I was grieving not one Dove but a multitude.  The first time I ate a meal, there was a wave of grief for the loss of the Dove I shared meals with.  The first night I went through Cat’s bedtime routine without him, there was a wave of grief for the Dove who had been an integral piece of our evening routine.  The following morning his alarm went off, reminding me that there was something missing.  The Dove who would drag himself out of bed and prepare himself for another day at the office. No more. That’s all over now.  And the wave hits again.  Over and over again, a different line of connection between me and my husband, now severed.  Gone forever. 

Dove.  How can it be right that I’m still here, living our life, but you had to go?  

If it was the time for you to go, why could I not go with you? 

This is all monstrously wrong. I hear the whispers at the corners of my consciousness.  I can’t do this alone. If he’s gone, what’s the point?  If the future we had planned for and envisioned together is impossible, why on earth would I ever do anything at all? 

There is clearly a risk that is inherent in living through such a jarring, traumatic transition. It would be tempting to fall forever into that well of hopelessness and despair.  To fixate on what I’ve lost, and the life I had planned that now never can be. But, oddly enough, it’s the grief that is keeping me alive right now.  It gives me focus as I suffer through this torturous in-between time.  As I pass through the liminal space between what my life was, and what life will eventually be without him in it. 

The waves hit, bringing with them the most intense anguish I’ve known in my life.  And when the wave hits, I surrender completely.  I set myself adrift in the vast ocean of loss and pain and rage and confusion.  I lose my sense of time and space and place.  And then the wave retreats, leaving me alone and spent. But I’m on dry land once again, standing on my own two feet.  And there are still parts of me that know my life is over – that the hole Dove left in my life when he died is irreparable, and I will never be the same. And when the wave of grief retreats, those parts feel heard.  They feel validated and accepted and understood.   

And that’s the moment, again and again, when I make the decision to live.  To take the actions that mean life.  I call or visit with the people whose words will lift me up and keep me going.  I engage in activities that will strengthen the connections between myself and my family and the world around me. I put food in my mouth, even when food has lost its flavor.  I take care of the practical parts of my life.  And most of all, I take care of our girl.  I show her that I can grieve, and I can be strong. I can come to understand and accept Dove’s death, piece by agonizing piece. I can get knocked over by waves of grief, over and over again.  I can feel the pain of his death all over again every time a wave hits, knocking the breath out of me.  I can surrender to that deepness and the pain.  And then when the time comes, I can stand back up and do the Next Thing.  I can face death and choose, minute by minute, day by day, that I will continue to live. 

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