Grief is a strange beast.
It can motivate or debilitate, and it can cause tears of heartache or smiles when memories are recalled. The strangest part about grief, is that no matter the effect it has on a person at any particular time, the root of grief’s impact is pain. We tend to think of pain as something terrible, and in the moment, it is, but pain forces us to grow; grief forces us to grow.
Five years ago, I lost my mom too suddenly (you can read about it here). I didn’t know to tell her I love her again. I didn’t know to make her laugh one more time, to share one more inside joke and giggle. I didn’t see it coming. No one did. This shock came with a tidal wave of the most intense and long-lasting heartache and pain that I had ever felt.
Five years ago, I also lost a piece of myself. For a while, I didn’t think I would ever be whole again. When tragedy hits you, you are forever altered, and losing a parent in my twenties was a unique experience that I was both glad none of my friends could relate to, but bitter about. I was bitter that the words spoken to me out of love and sorrow seemed hollow – no one knew what I was going through; how could so many people who knew nothing of my experience assure me that things would be okay?
I turned to the very few friends I had who had also suffered the loss of a parent at a young age, and I hoped to find comfort in their advice. To my surprise, I was told that this is not something you ever recover from. This was a response I had not expected to hear and that I couldn’t quite comprehend. How are you supposed to be happy and whole and successful in life if you never recover?
I understand what they were talking about now.
The loss of a parent at a young age – or perhaps any age – changes you for life. It doesn’t change you in a way that is immediately apparent to others, but you know that you are different from the you before the loss. You know that you are walking around with a heavy heart and a weight in your chest. You know that you will sometimes cry for no reason other than you caught a glimpse of a stranger who kind of looks like the parent you lost, or a scent that reminds you of them wafts by and you are suddenly reduced to tears. Sometimes you’re sick or tired or just need to feel your parent’s arms around you, and knowing that when you need them the most, they’re not there, simply breaks you.
Five years after my mom’s death, I understand that you can both never recover and be happy. Knowing this now, the advice that I would give to my younger self, or to anyone working through grief, is that you have to accept the fact that things don’t return to normal or get better – they get different.
This isn’t to say that you will never laugh and be happy and live the life you planned. You absolutely will. After losing my mom, I was broken. I was depressed and didn’t move out of bed or eat for days. I didn’t want to see anyone or talk to anyone and with very few exceptions, I stopped answering my phone. People wanted to reach out and take care of me, but I wanted to wallow. And that’s okay. You need to give yourself time to process, and the time this takes is different for everyone. But this is a process, and it will come to an end.
Eventually, I rejoined life – I went back to work and went grocery shopping. I did laundry and I went out with friends. My brokenness began to heal.
I healed, and I don’t feel shattered anymore like I did then. I feel fractured. Sometimes those fractures are very obvious to me, and sometimes I barely remember they are there.
I know that I am not the same as I once was, but I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing. When I lost my mom, I became more determined to complete my education. My priorities shifted, and I no longer cared about petty, insignificant issues in my life. I learned to value my time and cut ties with people who drained my energy. I learned how to steel myself to things that used to upset me. My skin became thicker and my goals became clearer. I grew.
Grief crippled me for a while, and sometimes, it still does. My anxiety has been worse since she died, and there are times when I lose it and break down and cry. I’ve learned that this is normal.
On the other hand, grief has also motivated me to aim higher and try harder in an effort to honor my mom and continue to make her proud, even in death (as silly as that may sound). I’ve learned that this sense of shifted priorities and determination are also normal.
The thing is, there’s no right way to grieve. There is no playbook, no tricks to doing it quickly and well. Whatever you experience in your grief is normal – it’s your normal. A new normal in which your grief never goes away, but instead influences so many decisions you make. Grief looks different on all of us.
Grieving is hard and a lifelong process, and you’ll carry it with you wherever you go. The misconception is that this is a bad thing – it’s not. I know that my grief sometimes inspires me to make cookies and Earl Grey tea – my mom’s favorite. Sometimes it means listening to old voicemails from her and crying or sharing pictures and stories of her that make me laugh. My grief means that I am keeping my mom alive in me. It means that even from beyond this world, she is still touching your life, molding me, and guiding me. This is something I take great comfort in knowing: even though she is not here, my mom is still mothering me.
We tend to think that grief is bad and that the pain we go through is our own personal hell. To be honest, it absolutely can be, but it also means we are keeping those we love alive and a part of our lives. Know that whoever you have lost, they are still a part of you. They are filling in those breaks and fractures you feel. Their memories can be a comfort. They are living in you, and I feel like in grief, isn’t that all we really want – for them to be close? Grieving is our heart and mind’s way of keeping them close.
I have no advice other than this, and I hope that if you are grieving, this brings you comfort. Nothing anyone can say or do will relieve the ache you feel in your heart, but please know that things will be different, and “different” does not have to mean “bad.” You are so much stronger than you think, because you carry the strength of those you have loved and lost.
Today I want to leave you with words that comfort me, spoken by a wise and compassionate person, Professor Dumbledore, in my favorite book of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: “You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble?”
Thank you for reading. Please feel free to share your thoughts on grief and loss below.