Progress in Grief: What It Actually Looks Like
Updated: Jan 10, 2020
A year has passed since we lost Ev. Well, for everyone else anyway. For myself, this has been one, long, agonizing moment.
The dictionary defines "progress" as a forward or onward movement toward a destination.
I don't have a destination, unless you count death. Death is my destination. But when I say things like that, it upsets people. I'm often praised for my rawness of emotion, for being able to express my pain without sugarcoating it. But the downside to that is very few people have the stomach for that level of authenticity. My honesty about what I am feeling in real time makes many people uncomfortable. They look away. They step to the side. In some cases, they simply close the door. I reflect something in them they have worked very hard to ignore. I am like hugging a pincushion, always needle sharp. I will poke you in your tender places. If there are wounds you haven't tended to, you may find my company untenable.
My therapist insists, despite how I feel, I am making progress in my grief. I take her word for it because I often can't see it for myself. I must be reminded. There is a list of changes she recites to me in these moments. A list I have grown and will, on occasion, recite to myself.
-I can be alone for short periods of time now.
-I can drive myself places.
-I can work modest hours at my job ... most weeks.
-Some days I can cook and clean for myself.
-I can walk the dog (progress for both of us).
-I can go to the grocery store on my own and not always cry in the middle of the aisle.
-I can get dressed and affect an appearance that will satisfy most of the public.
-I can laugh at things that are funny, with or without the sucker punch of guilt that follows.
-I can smile when I feel like it, or when it makes people leave me alone.
-I can help my kids manage their own lives and schedules a little more.
-I can write one to two chapters a week that may not be half bad.
The list is meant to make me feel better about where I am in this godawful journey. Some days it works. Other days, it just feels depressing. I have a history of not feeling "good enough". My brain likes to torment me with the list of things I can't do much more often. I won't write that list out. It doesn't deserve space here. Most of it's not even true. But there is a third list. A list of stills. If you want an accurate portrait of my grief, you must read these two together. The list of changes and the list of stills.
-I still cry every single day.
-I still miss her and long for her the way a body on fire would cry out for water.
-I still feel responsible for what happened to her, for not preventing it (translation: guilt).
-I still hate the upstairs and avoid it at all costs.
-I still need counseling and support and compassion by the truckload to get through each day.
-I still have to distract myself for inordinate periods of time in order to survive.
-I still feel exhausted and struggle to find the energy to do basic tasks.
-I still experience PTSD symptoms like hyperarousal (anxiety), upset stomach, sleep deprivation, and disturbing dreams.
-I still have mornings where I wake up crying.
-I still hate this "life" and resent this experience.
-I still feel unsafe in the world.
-I still fear for my other two children's lives.
-I still struggle with questions about faith and belief and what comes after.
-I still want to die, but I am still choosing to live.
I've learned a lot of things over the course of this last year, too.
-I've learned how to put on the mask that others need me to wear in order to be in my presence.
-I've learned what compassion really means, what it looks and feels like to the one who is suffering.
-I've learned where my pain threshold is, and where it is for most of the people around me.
-I've learned who my friends are ... and who they aren't.
-I've learned that death terrifies many people to such an extent that they will abandon all their principles to distance themselves from it.
-I've learned how we lie to ourselves and others.
-I've learned that honesty may be the best policy, but don't expect it to make you popular.
-I've learned that a heart can still beat even after it's been decimated.
-I've learned that all pain is valid and deserves a voice.
-I've learned that it's impossible to "cry yourself out".
-I've learned that surviving is not everything it's touted to be.
-I've learned that people who kill themselves are not selfish, they are desperate.
-I've learned that no one is truly safe, ever, even when they are not in danger.
-I've learned that vulnerability is the truest expression of the human experience.
-I've learned that contrary to popular belief, a mother will survive the death of her child.
-I've learned that even in the darkest dark, there are sparks of gratitude.
-I've learned that family—the one you get and the one you make—is the only thing worth caring about.
-I've learned how to love others better than I did before.
-I've learned how to give, how to lean in, how to sit, and how to listen.
-I've learned that suffering awakens and connects us all.
-I've learned what a real hero looks like, and how people who have been through hell can become the closest thing you'll get to heaven while you're here.
-I've learned how to let myself fall, and when to pick myself up.
-I've learned how to ask for help when I can no longer help myself.
-I've learned that most things we think are important don't actually matter at all.
-I've learned that time is just an idea, that there's nowhere else to be but right here, in the present moment.
-I've learned that love is the only thing that matters.
-I've learned how to breathe without her, through the most excruciating pain.
I can't say that I appreciate all the lessons I've gained in this year. Many of them hurt like hell, and I would trade every one to get her back. But you find ways, when the mind is beating itself against an unsolvable problem, to pivot your focus before you actually go insane or jump off the first cliff you can find. You find things to feel good about, to be grateful for. You find whispers of relief, and you do your best to generate them whenever possible.
A year is nothing. It's not even a wrinkle. The only hope that gives me is that the rest of my life will pass as a flash. Suffering makes time inconsequential. See what I did there? Another thing to be grateful for. My gratitude journal will not look like yours, that's true. Because my world does not look like yours. It has a giant, unfillable, Ev-shaped hole in it. That hole changes my perspective completely. And it's not going away. Ever. I live in the space where she was because there is nowhere else for me to be. But I know things, see things, because of that perspective—things that can make this place a little better. I don't want you to lose a child. I don't think child loss is an antidote for the world's stupidity. But I encourage you to find someone who has, find someone who has truly suffered something, and force yourself to stand next to them for a while. Open your eyes and your ears, if you can bear it, to what their suffering, and your own, has to teach you. Be willing to sit with their pain. Be willing to sit with your own. Make friends with the hurt inside of you. It's not going anywhere, and the results are far preferable to making it your enemy.
I try not to think in terms of time because for me, the future is a hell I don't want to imagine, and the past is a haunt that is always at my back. They both hold more pain, and I don't really need to take on anymore than what this moment can dish out. But I try to appreciate that for others, time still exists. It still feels like something. It still registers somewhere. A year has not passed for me, and I'm not sure progress is the most accurate word for what's transpired. But there is movement of a sort. There is flow. There is some kind of inescapable pulse that animates our experience of space. There is the now. And the now after that. And the now after that. And like stop motion animation, I can see where I am a little bit different in each one. And I suppose, for this now, I'll take it.
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