When my dad first passed away a number of people who had lost loved ones told me that you never really get over your loss. At the time it felt like I was being told that I was never going to be okay again, that somehow I was now broken beyond repair and I truly hated hearing it. Over the past few months I’ve been pushing myself to maintain my usual routine, believing that if I just kept pushing through I would somehow come out the other side. But the real truth is there is no other side to grief, it’s not finite, it’s not a linear path or a journey to a light at the end of a tunnel. It changes with you and it comes in and out like waves rolling onto the shore. After much soul searching I can finally say that I’m okay with that. I’m okay with no specific end to my grief and I’m comfortable with my pain.
It’s been a long journey to get to that point. I went through what seemed like a really good period where I felt almost weirdly together and at peace with everything. Looking back now I’d say it was a pretty heavy case of denial. Then the reality of how much I had lost started to set in. I found myself reduced to a crying mess day after day and I began to get really frustrated. I could cope with bits of sadness here and there but being upset every single day really started to take its toll.
Desperate to find some reprieve from the constant crying and sadness I began to hunt for a fix. I decided that I must be out of balance and so I went to my list of self care activities. I went through all the possibilities in my head: maybe I need to practice more yoga or run more or just get more sleep or perhaps regular massages are the answer…everyone loves a good massage. Now while self care is extremely important to good health it really doesn’t work if you’re using it to try and numb unwanted emotions. You see the problem with numbing is that you can’t selectively numb emotions. Just like yin and yang all of our emotions are interconnected and you can’t numb sadness without numbing happiness just like you can’t really appreciate light unless you have known darkness.
At this point I hadn’t recognised just how much I was trying to avoid my pain. I confided in a good friend that I’d been crying and feeling down every day and that I didn’t know what to do to pull myself out of it. I was desperate for some sort of advice on how to make it stop. What I got instead was raw heartfelt honesty, he told me that I’d just been through one of the most significant and testing periods in my life to date and I can’t expect to just bounce back out of it and think I’ll cope. His words cut me to my core, I was immediately reduced to tears and could hardly breathe. This was the first moment that I realised just how badly I wanted to bounce back and return to something familiar. At the time I felt so defeated and a big part of me wanted to argue that I could bounce back I just needed to do A, B and C. But instead of getting defensive and at least talking about how I felt, I did what many before me have done and internalised my feelings. I took the argument inside my head.
Still desperate and believing that I could find a way out of my pain I began to go through all the things I was doing in my life that were perhaps too much for me. The list I came up with was pretty much everything and that sent me into a total tail spin. The thought of having to pull back from everything in order to be okay made me feel stressed and anxious. Note to self – Internal problem solving while overwhelmed is not the best idea. So I then found myself in a sad, crying, stressed and anxious mess and it was time to see my psychologist.
At this point I’d been seeing my psychologist for a little over two months and I’d never let myself cry in front of her. And yes I know that it’s crazy to not let yourself cry in front of someone who’s there to help you work through your pain but I’m working on the whole vulnerability thing. In contrast to pervious sessions, this session I was a blubbering mess. I told her how I felt like I’d come such a long way; I’d made peace with all the painful circumstances surrounding my dad’s death, I’d let go of my fixation on better understanding his cause of death and I even felt untroubled by this death being under investigation and yet despite all of this I felt like I’d reached an all time low.
With tears running down my face I went on to tell her my idea about needing to pulling from pretty much everything. The next few things she told me really shifted the way I was seeing things. Firstly she pointed out that part of the reason that I was feeling so frustrated was because I’d been through a good phase and this down phase felt like a step backwards. Because it felt like a step backwards I was then looking for a fix it in order to get back to good again. Secondly she spoke about the necessary role that tears and sadness play in healing. And thirdly she also told me that I didn’t need to stop doing things just because I was feeling down but if I did decide to scale back anything that I’m doing I should change the language that I’m using. She said that saying I “need” to do this because I’m not okay was making me feel like I had no choice in the matter. Instead I could rephrase to I am “choosing” to do this to give myself time and space. It was such a simple rephrase but it lifted a huge weight off my shoulders.
I walked away from that session with a new sense of calm. Over the next few days I still found myself randomly crying every day but I wasn’t as troubled by my sadness. Then another bit awesome wisdom came in the form of a YouTube clip by Marisa Peer called You can be enough. In this clip Marisa instructs her audience to set two reminders in their phones one for every morning and one for every evening. The reminder is to tell yourself “I am enough”. She also suggested to write it on a mirror that you see each day to really drive the message home. I decided to give it a go for a week and I was amazed by the things that began to happen. The biggest thing that came from it was letting go of many of the unfair expectations I put on myself. Letting go of some of the expectations I held for myself meant that I began to feel a lot more comfortable in my own skin and I was able to really accept where I was in my grief journey.
I can now see that all the time and energy that I put into fighting with my pain was actually time and energy put into my own suffering. Pain and grief are unavoidable parts of life that hold enormous potential for growth and learning. The same cannot be said for suffering. We make ourselves suffer when we wish for a reality other than our own.
Self acceptance has been huge in getting comfortable with pain. Showing up for myself and truly embracing who I am right now and how I feel in each moment has allowed me to detach from this idea of needing to be okay. What the hell does okay even mean anyway! We’re never in a fixed state where everything comes together perfectly and stays that way. Things are constantly coming together then falling apart, it’s the nature of life.
With my new found self acceptance I found myself able to make decisions that really honour what I need from myself right now. I stopped forcing myself to push through things and I was able to discern what was making my life harder than it needed to be.
The one thing that stood out to me was my Chinese medicine course. When my dad first passed away I was in my first trimester of my course. I was determined to not fall in a heap and pushed myself really hard to get all of my assignments done to a high standard and in on time and I did well in all of my exams. This current trimester has been a very different experience. I would sit at home listening to lectures on the physiology of the heart and lungs and relate every last bit back to what was going on with my dad. After a few weeks of continually relating most class content to my dad I became emotionally exhausted and began to disengage with the content to protect myself. I went from being a student that got great marks to being a student that was just scraping through. Acknowledging that I wasn’t doing that course justice, that I couldn’t expect anything more from myself and that I needed some time out to heal wasn’t easy. But as soon as I made the choice I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders and I knew I had made the right decision.
We often get so caught up in chasing these long term goals we set for ourselves – finishing a degree, saving for a house, working towards a promotion – that we don’t pay attention to how we’re actually experiencing life on a daily basis. I don’t know where this great urgency comes from that makes us feel like we must be in a certain place by a certain age but there’s a huge amount of harm in the hurry.
While I would give anything to have my dad back I can truly say that I’m grateful for just how much I’ve learnt and become aware of over the past few months. I consider his passing my wake up call. A reminder that you never really know how long you’ve got so don’t get so caught up in the pursuit of long term goals that you forget that you’re only really living right now, don’t try and avoid hard feelings they hold invaluable lessons for you and most importantly know that you are always enough, so make sure that you turn up for yourself, back yourself and know that whatever life bring to you….
You got this
5 responses to “Learning to Live”
I love that you always speak so openly & honestly. Thank you so much for sharing this. Much love to you xo
It is almost as if you’ve written this about my experience. It helps to see your feelings and thoughts. Thank you.
Beautiful post. I know it will help others going through the grieving process. Thank you for sharing.
Thank you for sharing. I am inspired.
A wise post. Sometimes we pathologize our need to withdraw after a serious wound, forgetting that animals routinely do this as part of their physical healing process. Humans tend to see withdrawal as a sign of mental disease that must be “treated,” and I suppose, in extreme cases, it can become such, Often, though, we need to honor that impulse, for however long it endures.