It’s very hard to describe to someone how grief feels. I remember when I was going through my own persistent hell I was taken to a doctor who flippantly told me, “you’ll be fine soon”. He was, not to put too fine a point on it, a condescending idiot. Doctors are not trained in counselling and frankly he was talking outside his pay grade. Comments like, “time will heal” and “just move on” are seemingly wonderful platitudes that are, frankly, usually useless or even harmful. No one who is not experiencing your grief has the slightest clue what you are going through. If you have ever been crushed by a failed relationship, dealing with saying goodbye, or working through your private hell, you know what I am talking about.
The longer I do this the more I have come to understand that grief is an oft misunderstood and pervading emotion, that is not confined to the death of a loved one. People grieve for a myriad of reasons, from the death of a dream to the break-up of what “should/could have been”. People can grieve the loss of innocence or a dream, the hurt inflicted by a parent or child, even the loss of a job or a hope for the future.
There are, of course, levels of grief. No one who has lost a child would appreciate this being compared to the loss of a job, by way of example. Some grief is overt, palpable, intense, overwhelming. As far as I’m concerned a parent who loses a child is given a “free pass” in my world for the rest of their life. Some hells are beyond comprehension.
Grief is not just an emotional state or feeling. Sometimes, when the waves come (and many of us describe grief as a “wave”), your body hurts. Exhausted. Finished. Grief can come in crests that are all-consuming. Your world is so consuming that you cannot understand why everyone seems to be able to go about their lives as if nothing has happened. You can’t stop crying, or you can’t start. Your heart races and you wonder if you are going to die. It never seems to end. Bad counsellors have told you that it will get better someday but you know it will never end. It consumes you. It defines you. You begin to wonder if you are insane. You can’t stop hurting, wave after wave after wave. You don’t care if you live. You often wonder about death, your death. Nightmares turn into daymares as each day, each hour and minute, seems to last forever. You are destroyed. Broken. Life has no meaning.
I’m not making this up. There are readers here who tell you that I’m not even remotely exaggerating. Quite the reverse, actually. People die from grief, and some people who survive never really recover. There is nothing that anyone can say that will make a difference today, but that’s ok. Helping someone who is grieving is about “presence”, not snappy advice. In that time that cannot be named there was nothing you could have said to me that would have “snapped me out of it”. Recovery was a series of infinitesimal movements that I probably had no idea were happening. Time and tears and waves and waves. Emptiness. Then one time, for reasons that escape you, you don’t have a horrible day. Maybe you didn’t cry today. Sometimes that is a huge win. Let’s not pretend, however, that you were happy. Happy? Not bloody likely. Little by little life was less horrible, though it seemed to take forever.
There is no magic pill at the end of this tale, no Prince Charming to swoop in and rescue us. There is only coping and learning and surviving in spite of it all. As we always say around here, there are some lessons that are only learned in pain. They still aren’t worth it, usually. Pain may have given me a measure of wisdom, but I still would have preferred to stay stupid and idealistic and unscarred.
Once again, there is more philosophy in psychology than many realize. These conversations bring up questions of mortality, and faith, and fairness. Learning to cope with a life you never wanted, in a world you never imagined, is a harder thing than most of us would have supposed; If we could have imagined it at all. I grew up in a world where right always triumphed in the end and cool guys never looked at explosions, they just walked away looking like Fonzie or Bruce Willis, Arnold and Clint. Real men ate red meat and drank martinis that were shaken and not stirred, for a reason I have yet to appreciate. Learning that life doesn’t end like in the movies is a painful lesson that we learn and relearn.
Maybe wisdom is learning how to live in a world that is unfair, and where everything doesn’t necessarily happen for a reason. Lowering my expectations, one more time. It has helped me a great deal when I realized that life offered me no guarantees, only days. Learning to find contentment in the moment has been an arduous journey. Learning to let go of things that hold me back has been harder still. I am still hoping for success someday.
I am often reminded of the second half of the Serenity Prayer, the line where it says “that I may be reasonably happy in this life”. Reasonably happy.
I might have a shot at that.