The funny thing about grief is that no one really explains it to us. Save for the Five Stages we are told we must falter and trip our way through, we don’t really know anything about what profound grief can and will do to or for us. It’s an experience and emotional endeavor that we can’t begin to fathom until after it has wholly enveloped us. We see it clearly once we’ve clawed ourselves out from under it. The asshole that is Grief cannot – and will not stand to – be fully understood until we have finally moved through it. In all of my wisdom and intelligence, it never occurred to me that grief doesn’t only show up when someone dies. I understand now the disastrous effects of my naïveté. As it turns out, grief cleverly meanders its way into our lives when we least expect. Grief, like joy or happiness or fear or any other emotion we feel, is always present. It lies in wait for when we lose or let go of a relationship, when we get fired or laid off or lose our livelihood, or when the autumn fades into bitter winter. This past year, grief snuck up on me and cast me unsuspectingly adrift in a sea of loss. Through it, finally coming out the other side, I’ve realized that what Brianna Wiest says is true, “grief is a faster teacher than joy.”
But grief is also a goddamn liar.
I spent the last twelve months trying to convince myself that it wasn’t grief I was feeling. How could I be experiencing grief when no one I loved had died? Sure, my marriage was basically over, I was being pulled in a thousand different directions, my shame was spiraling out of control, the people I loved most in the world turned their backs on me, I found myself hating myself more and more every day, sometimes entirely unable to recognize my own reflection, and nothing seemed worthwhile anymore. “But that’s no reason for grief, ” I reminded myself firmly, vehemently, emphatically.
Turns out I’m really great at lying to myself, which is surprising because 1) I’m a shitty liar and 2) I absolutely hate being dishonest. Despite my natural inclination to always-tell-the-truth-no-matter-what, I told myself over and over again that I didn’t need space to grieve. No. One. DIED. So I swallowed the grief like a too-big bite of super dry bread and forced myself to accept the belief that my depression had returned.
Depression is a liar, too. An even more vicious one than grief.
Depression carefully and cunningly convinced me that, despite repeatedly hearing and seeing otherwise, none of my closest friends, my In Case Of Emergency women, wanted me around. My sorrow was too large a burden. It told me – through my own voice and the voices of others whom I trusted wholly that I was a terrible mother. Depression led me to believe I was selfish and self-serving for giving up on doing the work it would take to fight to save my marriage, to maintain the trajectory of the future I had promised my family. But none of that was actually true for me. These accusations and character assassinations were my deepest shame-fueled fears about who I truly was showing up in the words and actions of others. Cleverly disguised as difficult-to-accept-I-love-you-so-I’m-going-to-be-honest-with-you hard truths.
Spoiler: These things – these ideas and sentiments and treatments and feelings – were neither true nor were they my truth.
I am not a bad mother, I am not burdensome. Once I accepted the grief and let go of shame, I realized that those who chose to exit my life in my time of crisis did so for reasons of their own, not because of who I am or what I am endeavoring through. I am not selfish or self-serving by erecting and enforcing healthy emotional boundaries, by shedding codependency in my relationships with others, by choosing to surrender a fight I lost all too long ago, or by venturing headlong through a scary-as-hell cliff jump toward my truest self. I am recovering from the past, from the heartache and the crises and the pain and the setbacks and all of the things that happen in all of our lives that are hard and hurt like hell. As Glennon Doyle Melton, my spirit animal and ultimate girl-crush, wrote in her book Love Warrior, “Recovery is an unbecoming. My healing has been a peeling away of costume after costume until here I am, still and naked before God, stripped down to my real identity.”
I’m finally learning who I am and in this new and fractured light, despite all the mistakes I’ve made and choices I’d make differently and people I’ve hurt and unkind words I’ve said and stretch marks or belly rolls or the utter lack of a thigh gap I’ve berated myself over, I have yet to look in the mirror and hate what I see. Instead, I see a woman I cannot wait to know. To understand more deeply. To love more wholly.
Even if no one else does.
A month ago as I was sitting in Estes Park, Long’s Peak cradled by storm clouds in the distance, I realized that no one was going to walk up to me and hand me a permission slip to live my best life. No one was coming to rescue me, to hold my hand and guide me toward discovering my truest and best self. The work was up to me to do. I had to throw the door open to my pain, invite it in, sit with it in the thin mountain air and let it ruminate inside of me. I had to feel. To acknowledge that my suffering existed due to my refusal to accept what was, and to let it be. It was time to stop trying to define everything as okay or not okay, good or bad, helpful or hurtful, right or wrong. So I let go. Once again I looked to Brianna Wiest and discovered the truth I was searching for all along; “you owe nothing to your younger self. You are not responsible for being the person you once thought you’d be. You do owe something to the adult you are today.”
On that mountainside the grief finally came. It washed over me and cleansed my spirit and heart and mind and soul, as water so often does. I moved through the stages as one flows through vinyasa and felt a sudden lightness, a weight finally lifted from my shoulders. I am not the mistakes I have made. None of us are. The thing about life is that it’s hard. Not because we’re doing it wrong or making the wrong choices or feeling the wrong things or loving the wrong people or taking the wrong job or wearing the wrong clothes, but because it is hard. For all of us. The things we experience and endure will mold and shape us, as the river does the rock, into the people we are meant to spend the whole of our lives becoming. The only place we can ever plan or count on arriving at is our death, so let us make a conscious and concerted effort to let go of wherever it is we think we’re supposed to be in our lives right now or what it is we think we ought to be doing or loving or living or saying or wearing or traveling or instagramming. No matter what we choose today, we will always be able to look back and see how we could have chosen differently. That’s the fucked up thing about hindsight; it leaves us wishing we had known better and convinces us that we will know better next time. Yet seeing or knowing our future isn’t a gift that belongs to us, living it is.
Through this past year, not a day has gone by in which I haven’t asked myself, “Did you do the best you could, with what you have, where you are?” It surprised me how frequently – how almost always – I was able to answer yes to all three of those questions. What more can any of us hope for but to do our best every single day? Life isn’t about how often we screw up, because we’re going to. I think the most courageous and strongest of us will fuck all kinds of shit up, likely more often than most, and when we do, when all the circuits get crossed and we find ourselves unrecognizable, or a little lost, we’ll know that it’s okay. Not only because we’re stronger, but because we are smarter too. Because we’ve let all of the experiences we’ve lived through nurture and expand and change us. In the growth that accompanies the survival of grief, we uncover an unwavering knowledge that, at any time in our lives, we can begin again. Map a new path. We learn that life is constant evolution.
A month ago, I finally started over. I began again. I became again. I feel more myself today, sitting at this computer typing and editing and spewing my truth like lava onto the screen, than I have for the past year. The past two years. The past decade. The house is quiet – eerily so. The record I was listening to has ended, I’ve failed to get up and flip it over. The clamor of the wombfruits stomping feet and slamming summer doors has ceased, replaced by the hum of the occasional airplane and a lawn mower’s nagging, whiny engine. I’m discovering myself again, learning who I am and loving all the pieces of her, and I’m sharing that here. Which means I’m opening myself up to the ideas and opinions of others. I’m always going to get criticism and judgement for sharing so much of myself online – on Instagram and this blog and on the internet in general. There are always going to be those who don’t understand why I choose to be so open, so exposed, so real and raw, and that’s okay. I write because it’s how I breathe. It’s how I learn to know and understand the truest and deepest parts of myself, and it also happens to be when I am my most authentic self. When I write I don’t put on a mask or a costume, writing is likely the only thing I’ve ever done where I’ve never worried what other people think. Writing is how I love.
The act of giving (and receiving) love is the greatest work we can possibly do. Loving ourselves and others is a constant processional toward acceptance and failure and triumph and joy and trauma and grief and every tiny and huge feeling or moment or experience in between. Everything and everyone we encounter has the power to change us, to connect us, to nurture or destroy us, to bring joy or grief into our lives forever or for a season. It’s up to us to choose what we do with the things that are presented to us.
I can’t know what the future holds for myself or for my family, but I can trust that in following the path toward self-love and real, honest, acceptance of who I am and who I will become, that neither grief nor depression will be able to control me. I can be the rock, molded forever by the river of emotion coursing through me and around me, each thought and feeling as important as the one that came before, each of them leaving their mark on the woman I’ve always been and will forever venture forward to become.