I recently slogged my way out of a series of losses.
Though I talked of grief overlays, or cumulative grief, I didn’t address how one might do the work of addressing the presence of it in one’s life. So, let’s talk about overlays, a cumulative grief.
Ideally, one would experience loss, talk about it, think about it, sob with it, write about it, process it: Repeat.
But what does one do when grief upon grief upon grief stacks one on the other?
Was I weak to falter under the load? Shouldn’t I be sturdy enough having spent a lifetime perfecting resilience to find it now?
I ran aground early this summer over the loss of a location to house my standup paddleboard (SUP); it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
There had been a series of losses preceding this little one. When a new grief presents, it can bring back an old one that wasn’t fully attended to at the time.
While I was reeling with my inability to extract one grief to scrutinize and work on, another one muscled its way in for attention. And then another, and yet another. This downward spiral picked up speed.
Why couldn’t we keep living on the river that fed my soul? If only I had called the game one water balloon sooner, I’d have my eye.
What could I have done better to avoid the disaster of my first marriage? How could I have protected my children better? Let’s throw in a lifetime of grief over who my parents were and what they did to their children.
I tackled it. It’s what I do, right? Get proactive. Pick up one stick in the pick-up-sticks pile.
So, let’s take this one: grief of leaving the river. We were lucky to live in that house on the river an entire decade. Right. We were.
Yet, just saying that brought a visceral shard of loss. The “something better will come along” hasn’t. Not in the same way.
I go back to the river like a homing pigeon. I SUP it to find what it gave me for 10 years. It’s better than nothing. It’s. Better. Than. Nothing.
I haven’t finished that one, or many of the other overlays yet, although I think I’ve identified most of them. That’s half the battle right there.
My mind functions quite rationally. It was an accident, my eye. We found a lovely home, just not on water. I can get to the water with effort.
I would have needed more than a mentor to place my feet sturdily and healthily on the ground sooner but found my way there ultimately. I did protect my children when I finally sorted out the need to and how to do it. And I found emotional health and well-being.
So, how about grief in all of us?
It’s a unique process, different for each one of us.
There are a number of grief theories, all of which will tell you there is no shortcut, no instant cure. It simply takes time. Time to attend to each one.
When they overlay in rapid succession, your grief process will be more complicated, but don’t panic. It is doable.
Here’s what I learned:
- Acknowledge your stacked griefs – the overlays. It’s half the battle and helped me feel a bit less inept in the juggling of which one I could handle right now.
- Building resilience makes it possible to come out of the depressive nature of loss surer-footed.
- Talk with someone. Heartbroken in the middle of my difficult journey, I relied on my profound sisterhood of women. I shared aspects of it with empathetic men of honor, all of whom lent me energy, wisdom, prayer, understanding and love. My husband has been my rock.
- Look toward your spiritual connection and lean into it. It might be prayer or meditation or exercise or communing with nature. Rely on the strength you find within it.
- Any unattended loss and its accompanying grief will circle round again and again until you address that loss. That’s neither bad nor good; it just is.
- Grief is cyclical. It’ll give your heart and brain a break, and then pick back up when a thought or circumstance or picture or smell or whatever else brings it to the front of your mind again. That’s OK. We cannot wish the loss away and make it so. It becomes another weave in the fabric that is us.
- If you’re on overload with your grief, be wise; seek help. Needing guidance, a trained ear or empathetic therapist is not a personal failure. Nor is it about our level of faith; therefore, it’s not a spiritual failure. It’s not about our strength of character or ability to think something through or whatever it is that holds one back from getting assistance. That’s an arrogance we can’t afford. We rely on physicians to help us through physical illness or injury. Relying on a professional counselor to help us emotionally, having sustained injury through loss, makes perfect sense.
- Be kind to others who will grieve differently than you might. It was very hard to hear, “but that happened three years ago.” It did, of course, but hearing it said verbally (or in writing) implies I “should” be “over it.” Right now, I’m involved again in the work of softening loss into a gentler memory, an imperative I cannot, nor should I, ignore.
- Your losses must be integrated into your life. This happens by dealing with them. All the stunningly raw buckle your knees and emotions need to be given permission to be experienced. And though these emotions can be frightening with their intensity, making you feel as if you might fly apart from the inside out, trust that you are stronger than you think. You are.
I know that these losses, these experiences are now part of my history. Interwoven into the fabric of who I am.
I am pacing myself back into “you’ve got this” mode. I have been known to say that we cannot forget trauma, we must build on the foundation of it.
We also cannot ignore grief. It is there. If we do the work of it and weave the threads of loss into our life, we are the richer for it. Wiser.
I am sturdier today. And when next grief finds me, although I may not “welcome” it, I will embrace the need to acknowledge its reality. There is no other way to find a measure of peace and the beginnings of kinder memory.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here.
Laura Landgraf, author of “The Fifth Sister,” is a social activist, retreat leader and motivational speaker. Her TEDx Talk is “Razed by Lions: A New Way to Think about Healing after Trauma.”