Loss is more than death, and our grief must expand to encompass it all.
I was pregnant with my second child when we buried Mom. I visited all three boutiques in my hometown, shopping for a black maternity dress.
I felt strong, almost stoic, through the entire service. The songs, the eulogy, the procession, the graveside prayers. Then it was time to place a rose on her casket and walk away.
My whole body began trembling.
I set the rose down—peach petals melting in the summer heat, hard gray metal—but I couldn’t take my hand away. It felt like everything was shaking, I was shaking, and all I could think was, “There wasn’t enough time. There wasn’t enough time. I’m not ready to say goodbye. I’m not ready.”
Grief isn’t a one-time thing, as anyone who’s lived a little while on this broken earth knows. You lose someone, you grieve, and then…
…you keep grieving.
Well, first you go numb. Then you grieve, in shock, in fury. Then you live through the immediate aftermath: the funeral service, the well-meaning words, the sympathy that’s almost harder to bear than the grief. Or you live through the absence of those things.
It doesn’t matter.
All of it exacerbates the grief, the grief that’s overwhelming, the grief that may or may not leave anything left of you.
Losing someone, losing yourself
Loss is more than death.
You can lose someone—to death, or something else—or you can lose some version of yourself.
“You lose someone” is a catch-all phrase. It can mean something like “My husband died in a car accident,” or “I lost my mom to cancer.”
It can also mean something like this:
- I lost my long-time partner to apathy.
- I lost a deep friendship to distance and busyness.
- I lost a blossoming career—and my successful self—because of one stupid mistake.
- I lost my confident self to a terrible coach or teacher.
- I lost my carefree/innocent self to trauma.
- I lost my open/unafraid self to abuse or neglect.
- I lost my friend group because of gossip.
- I lost my community because of dogma and fear.
- I lost my believing/certain self to secrets and lies.
- I lost my baby to stillbirth.
- I lost my imagined children—and my nurturing self—to infertility.
We can lose someone we love, and we can lose some version of ourselves. What we don’t realize is that when we lose one, we also lose the other.
When I lost my Mom, I also lost the free, childlike version of myself. Without her as the living embodiment of nurturing love and wisdom, I couldn’t afford to be childlike, in any way. I lost the stable version of myself, too. The version that felt at home in the world, because I could always return to my own familiar childhood home.
The process of grieving needs to include these losses, and the imagined future that can never exist without them.
Journeying through grief
It’s about what you lost, and about what you’ll never get to have.
Life resumes a routine, after. It has to. Maybe it’s not a normal routine. It’s a hideous deconstruction of a life you loved, and every change is a blow to your heart. Or it’s a freedom you didn’t know you craved, and even as it calms your grief, it provokes guilt. You get a little crazy, feeling disoriented and burdened by an impossible responsibility.
Life proceeds, and we walk or crawl or stumble through it.
We have our own styles of grief, our own form of self-expression even in the darkest night. The creativity of grieving. It’s an ugly practice, at first. It feels destructive, dangerous, and disrespectful. Sometimes it is all those things. Sometimes it needs to be, for a time.
We are resilient creatures, dedicated to our own survival. We find a way to survive, even in the harshest grief.
Wearing the shroud of grief
We grieve for others and we grieve for ourselves.
Some of us find healthy ways to grieve, find comfort, find support. Some of us find dark habits, dark corners, darkness in any form to wear as a shroud.
A shroud is for the dead, not for the living. We clothe ourselves with darkness—any activity or choice that represents darkness to us—as a way of mourning our dead or lost loved one, yes. But we shroud ourselves also to force a hard recognition: the realization that we, too, have died.
We have lost some unique and precious—perhaps better—version of the self. It can never be reclaimed. Our grief must expand to include this lost self or we will never heal.
Grieving the lost self
What version of myself has been lost?
Part of grieving a loss, then, is recognizing and grieving our own lost self. What version of myself was killed when my significant other left? When my parent died, when my body failed me, when the relationship ended? When my career crashed, when my reputation was destroyed? When I couldn’t save my child? When I was cast out of my community?
The loss of someone you love (individual or group) indicates the loss of some version of yourself. Maybe multiple versions.
There’s a reverse truth, as well: the loss of some version of yourself creates a loss for all those connected with you. This is why others may struggle to recover from your trauma, resist the changes you make in your own life. They may try to control and limit the way you heal or rebuild yourself.
Don’t self-limit to accommodate their grief—it’s never going to work.
See what’s really going on, though.
Understanding can help you navigate, hit fewer obstacles. It’s never your job to make someone else feel better, but life can be easier when you understand the source of the feelings. The lashing out, the resistance, the control, and the conflict may come from an unknown, unnamed grief.
Moving through the past
Acknowledging the weight of what is gone.
Part of grieving is looking back at what we now understand to be “the whole story.”
“My time with this person has ended—now I know that. Now I can look at the whole picture. I can revisit the painful and beautiful moments. I can think about my decisions. I can let myself experience the feelings that come with remembering: regret, joy, gratitude, guilt, all of it.”
If it’s a version of the self that’s the primary loss, we can still look back, still revisit and release the past.
“My time with this version of myself has ended—now I know that. I can look back at the whole picture of this self developing, unfolding, experiencing, and ending. I can revisit the painful and beautiful moments I had with this version of myself. I can think about the decisions I made as this self. I can let myself experience all the feelings that come with remembering this self: regret, joy, gratitude, guilt, love, fear, freedom, sadness, all of it.”
You can spend a long time here. I’m not here to tell you not to. You take as long as you fucking want to take, my friend. Grief, in my experience, is limitless. How can I prescribe a time frame for dealing with infinite sorrow? I can’t. No one can.
When you are ready to release the past, you will. You will be done spending your time and energy looking back. You will pick up whatever remains of your self and your life. You will start moving forward.
Facing the imagined future
Acknowledging the weight of what can never be.
Here is where the other aspect of grief waits. This grief we will feel like a hit in the gut. This grief will come on us like a sudden storm. This grief is for a lost future, an imagined future, one that can never exist. The ones who would have created it are gone. We cannot recover them.
When we’re not ready, a picture of that future will fly up, deliver a blow. It’s always a sucker punch. How can you prepare to face something that doesn’t exist? How can you predict when something imaginary will appear? You can’t. So you don’t. Don’t try it. It’s a waste of time.
Instead, know it for what it is. Another step in this journey of grief. A necessary step, important, not one to skip over or ignore. Certainly, not one to be ashamed of.
Try this: try to be open to these moments.
Try to give yourself the time, the space, the permission to look full into the imagined future. Experience it, and all the feelings it brings. Let it come and go. Let it flit in and out of your awareness. Let it settle in with you sometimes. Try not to filter it. Try to see the good and the bad. No future is perfect, if by perfect we mean free from pain. Don’t lie to yourself that an imagined future would have been perfect. It’s okay to recognize the flaws, the limits, the pain you’ve avoided. This doesn’t make you guilty. It makes you honest.
Living in the present
How can I grieve and continue to live?
I don’t know what happens next. I want to say, “Release it, as you released the past,” but I’m not sure it’s that simple.
The past has a definite timeline, a beginning and an end. An imagined future has no such limit. It can extend with us, indefinitely, a sidetrack running parallel to the real future we’re living. Every now and then, the train jumps the track. I don’t know that we can stop it from happening.
I don’t know that I want to.
I do know that an imagined future can eat up the complex and beautiful present. I don’t want that. I want to live, here and now, fully aware, feeling it all, as grateful as I can be. When my attention is on an imagined future, I miss something in the present.
I have to decide: how much of me do I want here and now? How much of me—this version of me, this present self—am I willing to send into an imagined, impossible future?
How do we set hard lines on a question like this? Maybe we don’t.
What I’m learning to do, instead, is find ways to connect with my mom that don’t require me to leave my present reality. I talk about her, and I talk to her. When memories come, I allow them. I feel them and am grateful. Sometimes I share them. I bring some of Mom’s traditions into my own family: these are ways I can honor her and feel the gift of her life, without needing to fly into the past or future to do so.
Resurrecting the self
This is the experimental section.
It’s a newfound discovery, for me. As I stay here, in my own present (which used to be nothing but an imagined future itself: Behold what I have created!), something odd and wonderful is happening.
I am resurrecting the versions of myself that died with my mom.
Oh, not exactly. Not entirely. The shading is deeper. The flavor has a salty, smoky, bitter tang. It’s not all sweetness and light.
The free and childlike version of me is back, is here, but with an edge, a dark streak. It’s much more interesting, but it can turn into desperation. I know this. I welcome my playfulness but recognize its weight. If I don’t give it ways to exist and expand in my present, it will find some dark corner and drag me there.
The stable version of me is back, but with power that has been forged deep, deep within. I no longer feel stable because I can trust others to take care of me. I am stable because I am committed to taking care of myself. I have mothered myself back to wholeness, and I can do it again, anytime.
The nurturing version of me—the grown-up version of the self who wishes to be nurtured—is not only nurturing, but also wise. I have looked upon the face of the devouring mother. Nurture can become something dependent, devastating. Control can masquerade as caring. I know the tragic depths of love, the descent it will make, to give itself. I know and respect this power, and so I walk wisely in it. Not perfectly, but wisely, requiring love first for myself and then for others; asking myself to give, always, a freedom equal to my love, a respect deep as my affection.
We cannot walk through life unchanged. That would be missing the point. Pain will visit us. Sometimes pain will sit beside the bed for a long, long time. We will not be unmarked by these visits. But we can be whole. @AnnieMueller (Click to Tweet!)
We can journey through the loss, the devastation, and the grief. We can honor the past, and release it. We can grieve the imagined future, as long as necessary—even for all our days—and be grateful for it. We can bring it into our present life, building what we want, bringing in the loose threads, untying the knots, weaving together the self and the future we want to experience.
Annie Mueller is a writer, reader, seeker of growth, and transplant to Puerto Rico, where she lives with her best friend and their four children. Her crash course in self-discovery came from experiencing job loss, financial devastation, Hurricane Maria and its aftermath, and major surgery—all in less than a year. She writes about creativity, personal growth, and spirituality; runs Prolifica, a content management consultancy for small teams and solo professionals; and sends out a popular weekly newsletter about feelings and freelancing. You can find more of her work on her website.
Image courtesy of averie woodard.