The Many Faces of Grief

Learning to walk down the street

Posted Mar 30, 2011

We all know grief...in our own unique way. We remember how we felt when our grandmother died, or how our father looked at his childhood-friend's funeral. We remember slumping into a seemingly endless depression after our boyfriend or husband of many years told us that he needed to move on. It was tears. It was carrying a lead weight on our shoulders that made every step difficult to take. It was sitting on the edge of the bed, numb, staring at our shoes and thinking about nothing in particular for long periods of time.

But there are other sources of grief besides grandma, childhood-friends or boyfriends. There is grief for pets who have been our companion for so many years, who always sensed our inner thoughts and moods, and in hindsight mark the chapters of our lives. Grief for roads not taken - the girl we never had the courage to marry, the job we never took, the person who so touched us, but who we never reached out to to express our thanks. These are the small or large griefs that we notice in the midst of our hours or days, or which stir our dreams. They linger, on and off, in the background of our lives, but we rationally shake them off as something else - stress, a tough day, a moment of unexpected vulnerability.

And then there are the other faces of grief that don't seem like grief at all. Road-rage, the irritability that clings and never leaves, the low-grade depression that makes us feel for years that we are slogging through a swamp, that graying of the world that makes us constantly expect the worst or think why bother?

Those things that hurt us instinctively cause us to figure out what we need to do to protect ourselves from further hurt. It is the proverbial accidentally falling in the hole in the middle of street. We find ourselves not just cautiously walking around the hole the next day, but adjusting our path and avoiding the same street all together.

So we decide it is better to not get close to anyone, or to try and get close, but only if we have total control. Or we give up making decisions about our lives, and leave our fate to others. Or we stay perpetually on alert and always sit with our backs to the wall so we can see who might come through the front door. Or we give up and become addicted - to someone or something - and essentially give up control of our lives to them, to it.

Is there a way out, a way to heal the underlying grief that propels and shapes our lives? Yes, but it is always harder than what we have been doing. We need to realize that what is haunting us is grief - not the fear or ambivalence, anger or addiction or depression that drives and fills us. We need to move against our grain and walk again down that street - cautiously, perhaps, full of dread - but understanding that these are old wounds that we can only heal by finding that the unexpected doesn't happen again.

We need to acknowledge that our grief has exacted its toll on us, but also appreciate what we have learned; understand that we can, and that those who cared about us want us to, move on.

Most of all we need to remember and deeply appreciate what we were given.