Clare Saumell VanderWeele

essays on living

What They Don’t Tell You About Grief

“Grief, as I read somewhere once, is a lazy Susan. One day it is heavy and underwater, and the next day it spins and stops at loud and rageful, and the next day at wounded keening, and the next day numbness, silence.”
~from Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott

When I finally came to the realization that I couldn’t do this whole grief thing alone, no matter how stubborn I was, I began to read voraciously. I’m fairly sure I’ve read 99% of all books written about grief.

Another poignant quote comes from one of my favorite authors, C.S. Lewis, in A Grief Observed:

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in.”

Both of these quotes speak profoundly to my heart. These are people who have loved deeply and understand grief intimately.

However, there’s something I’ve found about grief that I’ve never seen written by anyone:

At some point in the process of coping with loss, grief becomes a mirror, reflecting the deepest, most hidden parts of your soul.

Grief as a Mirror

mirror

It was terrifying when it happened. I am not someone who would get an old-school psycho-analyst excited by some repressed traumatic background. And yet, when death’s fingertips brushed by me to steal the man I loved, I was suddenly confronted with a reflection of myself I didn’t like very much. I was flooded with memories that boiled over with guilt and shame. Many of these seemed entirely unrelated to the loss itself, but instead brought my entire 27 years worth of existence into question.

I looked into the mirror of grief and in my eyes saw a selfish, greedy young woman. I saw an impatient and judgmental mind. I saw someone who craved control and who was too possessive to give generously.

How had I become this person?
Did anyone else see these parts of me? Or had I become so good at hiding these things that even I couldn’t see them until I was face to face with death itself?

In retrospect, I think this is partly why I flung myself into a million goals with such urgency. My grand plans to live life to the fullest had another motive: To quickly transform myself into a better person; someone I respected, someone who could leave a more positive mark on this world, someone I wouldn’t feel ashamed to be. Someone who would make a good role model for my son.

Change and Forgiveness

I so desperately wanted to be better, to cure myself of the guilt I felt, that I unknowingly but inevitably set myself up for failure. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I burned out quickly and disastrously under a whiskey-tinted haze.

I learned the hard way that while the death of a loved one may instantly change your life forever, changing the person you see in the mirror will never be instantaneous, and it can only start with forgiveness.

With reluctance, I realized that forgiveness is not a one-time event that cleanly washes away the past. Forgiveness is a process. The waters are salty and the past may sometimes taste a little bitter. But, most importantly, self-forgiveness is even harder than forgiving someone else.

Un-Birthdays

baby foot
Last week, I turned 28. I stubbornly refused to celebrate my birthday, knowing that it was an age Chris would never know. But somehow birthdays have a way of turning up anyway. Coworkers baked delicious cupcakes and made an awesome birthday video. Friends sent messages and family sent cards. And in spite of myself, I even threw an un-birthday celebration with a barbeque and beers in the snow.

In the quiet moments, I found myself reflecting on the past year. Now when I look in the mirror, some 18 months later, I see a completely different person. But the devil on my shoulder wonders if anyone else sees a changed person; if they don’t, I reasoned, then I have failed. If they don’t see more compassion, more love and faith, then I have failed. If they don’t see me challenging my fears, tackling my vulnerability, finding passion for life, then I have failed. I closed my eyes and all I could see was failure, an undoing of all my progress towards self-forgiveness.

And then the greatest thing happened. While I was busy refusing to celebrate my birthday, someone else decided to celebrate theirs: On the afternoon of my 28th birthday, one of my beautiful best friends gave birth to a healthy baby boy. I had a birthday buddy, and suddenly nothing else mattered except the preciousness of life.

As long as I was living in constant awe of the gift of life, I knew I wasn’t failing. As long as I was continually thankful for every day – even the messy and dark ones – the guilt and shame were washed away.

Grief does things to a person I never imagined possible. It’s heavy and sorrowful and paralyzing. But most profoundly, grief shows you to yourself. When you are confronted by mortality, your heart breaks wide open to reveal what you’re really made of. I know everyone has their flaws; I know it would be stupid to aspire to perfection. But I don’t have to settle for the reflection I see.

Puddle reflection photo courtesy of Danny Plas
Mirror photo courtesy of vassilis galopoulos
Baby foot photo courtesy of Gonzalo Saenz

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2 Comments

  1. Very well written and hits straight to the heart…<3
    Like I've said before, I've experienced much of the same feelings. It is refreshing to know that I am not alone with the battles I have with grief. In some weird, twisted way, death builds you stronger than you could have ever imagined…Thank you for your article.

    • Thank you, Erica 🙂 You’re absolutely right about the way grief somehow strangely makes you stronger. It just as refreshing for me to know I’m not alone, so thanks for stopping by the blog once more. Take care!

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