What I’m Learning About Grief

I’ve been thinking about grief a lot lately.

My aunt passed away suddenly a little over a month ago, it was very shocking and so sad. And, so, I’ve been thinking about grief a lot lately. But I’ve been struggling to feel or really understand it.

I cried when my dad told me over the phone that she was gone. I cried when I saw my mom for the first time after I’d heard the news. And I stuffed down more tears every time I saw them well in her eyes during the week I spent in Michigan in the week after her death, over Christmas. But I’ve spent the majority of my time in the last month trying not to cry, not to think about it too much and to focus as much as possible on just being there for my mom. In the moments where the grief has threatened to bubble up, I’ve done my best to suppress it because it didn’t make sense to me. It didn’t seem right.

I loved my aunt. She sent me birthday and Christmas cards, in which she wrote letters whose words covered every bit of free space on the card. She sent photos of my cousins and the grandson she adored. We exchanged emails about what we were reading and she passed the books she loved onto my mom, and my mom passed them on to me. But she wasn’t a daily fixture in my life. We didn’t speak frequently. Losing her didn’t alter my life the way it did my mom’s or my grandparents’ or my aunt’s or uncles’ or my cousins’. And, so, I’ve been perplexed by the gravity of the grief that I’ve been suppressing. I’ve felt guilty and confused by it, like I’m feeling something I’m not fully entitled to.

And, so, I’ve been perplexed by the gravity of the grief that I’ve been suppressing. I’ve felt guilty and confused by it, like I’m feeling something I’m not fully entitled to.

But the thing about grief is that it can’t be kept away for long and this week mine was through being silenced. It started mid-week when I got a text message from my mom that my grandpa was being admitted to the hospital. He’s fine (he was released from the hospital today). And I knew he would be. But the news left me feeling shaken, and shortly after I got the message, I found myself sitting in my car in the parking lot outside the grocery store, sobbing. I couldn’t stop myself from crying even long enough to go into the store and buy my dinner. I cried because I was scared for my grandpa and sad about my aunt. I cried because it made me feel so lonely and so far away from my family to feel this way all by myself in a dark, cold parking lot.

I texted one of my best friends, who lives in Michigan, and she instructed me to go inside the store and to purchase chocolate, which I did. And then I drove home and ate Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups for dinner and felt drained and exhausted. I felt weary the next day; weariness I’ve felt a lot over the last month or so. Where everything seems bleak and overwhelming and I feel disconnected and a little bit lost.

Then yesterday I joined my girlfriends for a night hike up Vail Mountain. I wasn’t going to join them at first; I didn’t think I could afford to leave work on time and to allow the work I didn’t get to yet to wait until Monday. But somehow I knew I needed to and I reminded myself of my recent intention to live in honor of my priorities. I knew I needed time with friends and to do something outside and involving exercise.

The trek up the mountain is challenging and our tendency is to begin together and then spread out as our own paces push us forward at different speeds and talking becomes impossible due to physical exertion at high altitude. So I was alone with my breath and my thoughts. About halfway up, a thought popped into my head, I need to dedicate this hike to Aunt Nancy. Ten minutes later, I realized I was crying. And then it finally made sense to me.

I have been feeling this grief so intensely because I am carrying some of it for my mom and for my grandparents, because we’re so close and because their heartache is so huge. I needed to dedicate the hike to my aunt in order to feel her with me in the woods so I could share that moment with my mom later, with the hope that it would bring her some comfort.

Big grief is too much for one person to bear alone; it often spills over into the hearts of those near and dear to us. Feeling deeply sad about the loss of my aunt doesn’t cheapen the grief of those I love who knew her better, it helps me to better empathize with them and it helps me to be there for them in a very real way.

Feeling deeply sad about the loss of my aunt doesn’t cheapen the grief of those I love who knew her better, it helps me to better empathize with them and it helps me to be there for them in a very real way.

As I pushed myself through the final quarter of the hike, I continued to let the tears stream down my face, and as they froze on my cheeks in the sharp, cold mountain air, I felt lighter than I have in weeks. I suspect the high levels of stress I’ve been experiencing have been largely due to my locked-up grief. I’m allowed to be sad, I kept whispering to myself.

When I got to the top I remembered my intention to be more present for my friends, who are one of my top priorities. And I realized that, along with being more present so I can know what burdens I can help them carry, I need to be more present in order to give them a chance to do the same. I’ve been feeling so deeply lonely lately and I realized that it’s because I’m not giving anyone else a chance to even know what burdens, what grief, I need to share. Instead of calling someone to talk in those heavy, dark moments, I keep telling myself that no one wants to be bothered with my problems when they have their own. But, here’s the thing, being a martyr doesn’t make you stronger in grief, it just makes you alone in grief.

So I challenge you (and I challenge myself) to be more open to sharing the burdens, big and small, of your loved ones, and to sharing yours with them. I suspect that, while doing so won’t eradicate grief and heartache from our lives, it will make it a whole hell of a lot easier to carry.

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5 thoughts on “What I’m Learning About Grief

  1. Tracey, I was incredibly touched by the words you shared and the ideas you highlighted about your grieving process. Each person handles it differently. I feel as though as I have grown older, I appreciate the love of those around me more and more. You are right, being able to open up to those you are close to helps you understand your grieving. I am sorry for the loss of your aunt. The memories you hold in your heart will last forever. Best to you–Judi Riehl

  2. Whew. Tracey, my initial thought after reading this entry was something along the lines of: How can someone so young be so deep? But that’s like saying how can someone on the elderly side of middle age (someone like me) be so dense? Or dorky? Or trite? Or…or? Take your pick. Clearly intelligence and sensitivity isn’t an ageism issue. And anyway, you’re no longer a 20-something and you’ve already been through a lot. So you’re entitled to be as wise as you are even though you lean to the unusually wise end of the spectrum. Moreover, your wisdom offers much to even old farts like me. And to slightly younger farts like your Dad (who rightfully dotes on his eldest).

    I wonder if it occurred to you that perhaps some of the grief you were suppressing stems from the unholy realization that your own parents, whom you love so much, are also mortal. Well of course you knew that, but when it’s all around you — your Aunt Nancy, your Grandpa last year, your other Grandpa’s car accident, your Grandmas’ infirmities — it somehow resonates more clearly, more painfully. None of us escape the agony; yet the depth of that agony defines the love that preceded the severing. Your love for so many shines through. Add a primal scream and you’re on your way to recovery. A recovery that comes from the warm glow of good memories replacing today’s pain of stark loss.

    I’m glad you’re turning to your valued friends and nature. What a powerful combination. And I hope you won’t mind if I borrow this sometime: “being a martyr doesn’t make you stronger in grief, it just makes you alone in grief.” I’ll give you attribution. Especially if your Dad trades me his best ballplayer for my crappiest.

    Hugs,
    Dave

    1. Thanks, Dave. I’d never object to someone quoting my words, rather I’d be quite honored.

      You raise a topic that will require many more hikes and scrawling in my journal – the mortality of my own parents which leads me to a thought that has popped into my mind frequently lately: no matter how long any of us live, we will never get enough time with those we love. That fact, and the realization of it, seems incredibly cruel to me.

      …and on that note I’ll start mulling my next post.

      Thanks again for your kind words and thoughtful musings.

      -Tracey

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