Have you ever had one of those days that started off with promise, only to be derailed by a flat tire, a broken hot water tank, a throwing-up child, or some other calamity? Suddenly, gone are your visions of productivity and normalcy, replaced by responding to the urgent that is both unplanned and unwelcome. Until you get the chaos under control, you cannot get anything meaningful accomplished. I hate these kinds of days, but they come to us all whether we like it or not.
And so it is with grief. Soul-crushing, joy-stealing, and suffocating, it moves in like an uninvited guest and camps out in the space right above your heart. It takes the wheel of your life and steers you onto an unwanted exit, while you powerlessly watch the freeway signs for your intended destination pass out of view. An otherwise perfectly lovely day (or week or month) becomes overshadowed without warning, overtaken by storm clouds.
It is normal and expected to grieve after a major event or catastrophe has come into our lives. There is no mystery. We don’t usually have to explain the reason for our grief to others, and we more easily give ourselves permission to be in the grief space. But when grief shows up for no apparent reason as we go about our everyday lives, it can be difficult to know how to respond.
Grief: deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement 1
Grief came calling on me yesterday, and I was completely unprepared. At first I missed the telltale signs – irritability, over-reacting, deep sadness, and heaviness like a small elephant inside my chest. More than the blues, more than just a “bad day,” and not easily shaken off by the distractions of everyday life. No, it grabbed me tightly, squeezed my heart without mercy, and would not let go. My normally positive and resilient self took a back seat, while my emotions and tears ran freely. As I waited for the pain to lift, I wondered: what do I do with this? How can I approach my grief in a healthy way?
What Just Happened Here?
My husband and I have been on what feels like a never-ending journey to expand our family again through adoption. Never-ending, as in four-and-a-half years long and counting. Four-and-a-half years during which one adoption agency unexpectedly shut its doors, where another agency misrepresented the program we were registered in, and where we returned to the public system only to be faced by the overload and inefficiency that sent us to other agencies in the first place. Years where we have had potential matches, only to have them fall through for a myriad of reasons, mostly unrelated to us. Four-and-a-half years of wondering if next Christmas will be the year when we get to put another stocking under the tree. In the midst of this, we have experienced other significant losses I don’t have time to list here. The past four-and-a-half years have been riddled with so much grief that I have almost come to wonder what life is like without it. Yet, at the same time, I have become a grief survivor. I am resilient. I fight back. I keep moving forward. So when grief suddenly knocks me over like a big Hawaiian wave, I wonder “what just happened here?”
One thing I have learned about grief is that we do not get to choose what the trigger will be. We don’t get to tell grief, “Hey, can you drop by at 9 PM, once my work is done, dinner is finished, and the kids are in bed?” It shows up on its own schedule, at its own time, and we only get to respond after-the-fact. As happens for many people, my grief yesterday was triggered by a small event that I may have normally have let roll off me. A same-day cancellation of an appointment by a professional, an appointment related to this roller-coaster adoption journey. The thing I most wanted to cross off my to-do list that day suddenly ripped out of my hands. Then the rescheduling call I was supposed to get never happened though I kept my cell phone at my side all day. I started out frustrated, then got angry, then fell deep into a pit of despair that made me come undone. The irrational emotions, hopelessness, and feeling of not being able to breathe finally clued me in that I had crossed over from frustration into the territory of grief.
What Am I Grieving?
Because grief magnifies emotions so intensely, it can be hard to know what exactly we are grieving over. When I asked myself the question, I was able to identify that I was grieving the loss of control over my life, and the loss of the family I have always dreamed of having. (There is more, but these are the biggies). These losses have been part of my life for about 17 years. But because these desires never really die, there is no end to the grieving. Instead, I have become used to living with the background noise of unresolved grief. I have directed my grief into action (call me the “Comeback Kid”!), but when I encounter roadblocks to achieving my subsequent goals, it resurrects my losses all over again. I am thrust back into the grief cycle unceremoniously.
It has been hard for me to see anything good in this most recent round of grieving. But while it continues to hang on, this is what grief is teaching me in this moment:
1) I am alive! Grief is a sign that something or someone has died. And when that happens, a part of us dies with it. The hardest part of grief is learning how to live again after loss. But the good news is, the pain I feel proves that I am still alive. There is still room to heal, to grow, to live again, even though it will take time.
2) I still have hope. The reason I continue to grieve on this journey is that I continue to hope for a good outcome despite being thwarted so many, many times. There may come a point where I have to adjust my expectations and hope for other things. But for now, when it feels like my hopes are mocking me by their lack of fulfillment, I know deep down that hope is a strength. It is the basis for resiliency.
3) I am human. Like the cartoon character Scrappy-Doo, I like to put my fists up in the face of difficulty and yell, “Lemme at ‘em! Lemme at ‘em!” However, grief reminds me that I have limits. I hate the blubbering mess that grief reduces me to, but ultimately I am reminded that it’s okay to be human with faults, limits and suffering. I am just like everyone else.
So, where does this leave us? If grief is part of the human experience, and if it cannot be controlled, how can we deal with it? Read more in my next post, “When Grief Comes Calling – Part 2”.
Your turn: Have you learned unexpected lessons from grief?
1 Definition courtesy of www.merriam-webster.com.