It’s easy (some might even say: inevitable) to get stuck in your grief. And by this I don’t mean to imply that grief has a beginning, middle and end; or that you “do” grief and at some point you “complete” it. When loss happens and grief comes, it will most likely become a permanent fixture in your life.
(Do not despair though! Grief morphs and softens as time passes. It will not have the same intensity two or five or ten years later as it does when the loss is fresh. This I can promise you.)
But there is a huge difference between being stuck in your grief versus living in acceptance of your grief. It’s a subtle, qualitative distinction, but it can mean the difference between your life shutting down and being a living hell, as opposed to a life imbued with meaning and purpose.
Imagine driving from Point A to Point B with your eyes glued to the rear view mirror the entire time. It’s awkward, probably unsafe and you miss all the interesting and beautiful sights that are part of your journey. It is inefficient, dangerous and a crying shame.
Big losses, traumas, even “positive changes” (the birth of a child, the big promotion at work, moving into the house of your dreams) tend to serve as major landmarks in our lives. We are changed by these events. So it’s natural for them to stand out and for us to repeat the stories about them when we share ourselves with others. They are defining (and re-defining) moments.
I have been telling the story about my son’s suicide for over eight years, writing about it for seven, blogging for four. I’ve engaged people in conversation about loss and suicide. I’ve watched movies, read books, listened to podcasts, visited other people’s blogs. I took a deep dive into the universe of suicide, and closely examined every detail of that world. I bought real estate there. And honestly, I could have lived there for the rest of my life.
At first, this seemed necessary. It did not feel like a choice. The Grief Shuttle just deposited me into this new, unfamiliar land. I believed this is what grief was, and this is where I belonged. My heart was broken, my life was shattered, and this was the terrain, the landscape where my grief-stricken life was supposed to unfold. It began to feel like home. So, so familiar.
But like anything else that becomes habitual after a stretch of time, it began to close in on me. I grew tired of telling the same old story the same old way: a tale of tragic loss. Period. End of story. Don’t get me wrong; that served me for a while. It was cathartic! But I began to question whether this place of catharsis was my final destination.
It was tricky though. I had to be willing to allow my gaze to drift from that rearview mirror. I reminded myself I could always look backward again if I needed or wanted to. The memories would be there. But I also had to let go.
People who are grieving hate hearing this. I myself bristled every time someone suggested that I needed to “let go.” I thought they were telling me to “let go” of my son. I misunderstood. Julian will always be a part of me, in my memories and heart, which is right where he belongs. This mama ain’t letting go; rest assured!
What I needed to let go of (and it’s still a work in progress) is the future I thought my son and I were going to share. I thought I was going to attend his college graduation. I thought I was going to meet his future wife (or husband). I thought I was going to hold his babies, my grandchildren. That future is no longer available to me. The sooner I make peace with that reality, the sooner I can turn around and start building an actual, real, non-fantasy future for myself.
And sure. The thought of no grand-babies can still feel like a punch to the gut. And I still indulge in a little self-pity. There’s still some lingering anger towards my son about his painful choice to leave us. There’s still a smidgen of guilt about the role I played in his no longer being here. But none of it devastates me the way it did when his death was fresh, over eight years ago.
I miss my son; a little part of my heart aches every single day. But I refuse to remain locked in the past, wishing I could still share my life with him, because – hello, reality check? – I can’t. He’s gone. It’s irreversible. That may sound cold and harsh, but it is the truth. People don’t come back from the dead, no matter how much we want them to.
I also refuse to let my life be all about the pain. But do not be fooled into thinking this is easy. I have to make a conscious choice. Some days that choice is harder to make than others. This is work. I have to check in with myself from time to time and ask, “Am I still willing?” Sometimes the answer is less than “yes.” It’s a mental/emotional “muscle” I must exercise regularly or it begins to atrophy.
The key for me is to believe in the future, my future. A great big fulfilling one. I know; it takes an enormous leap of faith, because the past has not been kind, and I’d much rather not risk pain and crisis and drama and tragedy all over again. But looking in the rearview mirror for the rest of my life is not going to get me anywhere except stuck in my sadness. I reject that. Life’s too short for the rest of mine to be all about what I’ve lost.
So here I go, two hands firmly grasping the wheel, pedal to the metal, eyes keenly focused on the road ahead. Because aiming myself towards the future, my future, no matter what it may hold for me, beats believing I don’t have one.