I’ve been writing this blog for almost five years now, and I was shocked to see that I haven’t done a proper post about grief. Because when all is said and done, after all the tears, rage, righteous anger, depression, denial, resistance, fear, addiction, and all the rest, I discovered that what it all comes down to is grief.
Grief is what’s left. My grief is what I must, ultimately, come to terms with.
I wish things had been different, but they weren’t. Grief. I wish I’d had parents who could love and support me, but I didn’t. Grief. I wish I’d been able to get through it a little bit more intact, but I hadn’t been. Grief. I wish I hadn’t made all the mistakes I made because I didn’t know how to take better care of myself. Grief. I wish I didn’t have all this work to do as an adult just to “break even.” Grief. And most of all, I wish I didn’t have to accept reality the way it is rather than the way I want it to be. Grief, grief, grief.
I would like to make a quick note here that grief is not the same as depression. They are completely different experiences. Depression is a numb, flat feeling that seems to have no identifiable source (usually because the source is deeply buried, disowned emotions that we want desperately to avoid). Grief is the result of having faced and dealt with those emotions; it is relatable to very specific causes.
It doesn’t seem like much of a reward, does it, for doing all the hard work, for facing reality on its own terms, for submitting to the “advanced spiritual principles” of surrender and acceptance. It seems like a long road for not much of anything worthwhile. And yet, there is gold in that grief.
For one thing, reaching that quiet place of grief means you’ve gotten through the worst of it. It means you see your timeline–past, present, and future–with a fair amount of accuracy, neither adding to nor subtracting drama from it. Your past is your past and you are who you are, and understanding this is the beginning of the next phase. It’s hard to start that next phase without reaching this point, at least not without a whole lot of baggage coming along for the ride.
For another, now is when true forgiveness can happen. It’s difficult to see another person’s point of view while your own is in so much tumult. But when you’ve reached that quiet place of grief, empathy comes sort of naturally. Because you’ve come to terms with your own pain, you have less resistance to the pain of others. You can step outside yourself and see the past with new, more objective, less judgmental eyes. This was certainly my experience, anyway.
And for yet another, the grief is a place of emotional honesty. This is a tremendous triumph, after a lifetime of emotional dishonesty! Thoughts like it wasn’t that bad, it’s all in my head, what’s wrong with me, and all the rest of the justifications we use to push away feelings we don’t want to face just kind of melt away, and we are left with the emotional truths we’ve spent so much time and effort trying to deny/come to grips with. Grief such as this is even, in an odd way, exhilarating. You free up so much energy to devote to more productive pursuits. It truly feels like a new beginning.
Grief isn’t what any of us would choose, but it is the best option from a slate of difficult choices. It is one great universal truth, I think, that can come out of a painful childhood. And just because it stays with you, in a way that the rage and resentment don’t (because they simply aren’t sustainable in the long term), doesn’t mean it has to own you. Grief makes an indelible imprint, but it doesn’t have to be a negative one. Honestly accepted, grief makes us better human beings. Kinder, more aware, more compassionate, more understanding human beings. It unites us with the universal condition of human suffering, and it allows us to transcend it. Not escape, for that is not possible. But to embrace, share, accept–and move forward anyway. As the Buddha said, to “joyfully participate in the sorrows of the world.”
Really, this is the best any of us can hope for, regardless of our pasts.