I always thought grief was linear. That there was a defined path from devastation to moving on. Even after it happened to me, I had the expectation that grief was a process to move through, a tunnel that you walked through–maybe at your own pace, sure, but you always emerged out the other side.
I also thought grief was pretty straight-forward. It was difficult, but it was simply “grief.” I knew I would lose my parents some day. But I didn’t anticipate dealing with it in my twenties. My father’s death was a violent sucker-punch to us all. And what has been most frustrating about the experience is the total and complete lack of actual understanding I had about grief. Because it’s not linear. The first days, weeks, months are unimaginable, sure, but just because it starts to get better doesn’t mean it stays better.
It’s two months shy of two years since I lost my dad. I’ve had moments recently where it’s felt like his death was just yesterday, and suddenly I’m back at the beginning of my grief journey. It’s debilitating and has been disruptive to my life in ways I couldn’t have predicted.
I attended counseling in the weeks following his death. My counselor told me that if I was still struggling in six months then that could be problematic, but that at the time I was exactly where I needed to be. She was trying to reassure me, but I’m now realizing how damaging her words were. I used her timeline to gauge myself. Once the six months had come and gone and I was still unable to get out of bed, I wrote myself off as a failure.
We make great exceptions for grief in the hours and days following devastation. But after a few weeks, the phone calls stop. The food stops coming. People stop asking how you’re doing and no longer offer condolences for your loss. Time moves on and people expect that you do, also. But grief doesn’t care that your friends and colleagues think you should be doing better than you are. It doesn’t care that it’s been a year, or two, or ten. Assuming any sort of timetable for those who are grieving does nothing but harm. Because once it’s vocalized, the bereaved are constantly assessing themselves according to what the world expects of them. Nothing hurts a grieving individual more than feeling as though they are letting down those around them. After the acceptable amount of grieving time has passed, when a depressive episode hits and you find yourself unable to get out of bed for a week, people closest to you are often confused and unsympathetic. They don’t even think that it could still be a grief response, because how could you still be crippled by grief? Still?
Sometimes you can feel it building. This usually happens in the time leading up to anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays. But other times, it comes out of nowhere. It’s like another sucker-punch and the amount of damage that it can wreak on your life is shocking. Most often (and this is what your loved ones will struggle to understand) it is simply brought about because something else in your life is causing stress or pain. You’ve had a bad week at work? Expect that your grief will come visit, too. You had a fight with a friend or significant other? The grief wants to come keep you company then, as well.
Grief isn’t straight-forward, and it isn’t always just “grief.” It’s also anxiety, anger, self-destruction, anger, depression, anger, numbness, and I should also mention anger. Maybe you’ll take three months and indulge in some retail therapy, only to spend the next month in bed crying over your debt. Maybe you’ll be stone-cold for several months, throwing yourself into work or pretending to function like a productive member of society. Maybe you won’t be pretending. But then a switch will flip, and for the next few weeks you might not be able to stop crying. You’ll push away those you love, maybe with irrational anger, and insist “I don’t know” when they ask what is wrong with you. Because you won’t know. This isn’t still grief, is it? Still?
Yes, still. That’s the danger with measuring your healing according to timelines. Grief isn’t linear. It’s not an experience you go through before moving on and getting back to your life. There is no moving on. There is no getting back to life, because now your life is changed. So you have to learn to create a new life, and that takes time. It may take six months, but it may also take six years. Forget what everyone says, and don’t let them rush you. Most importantly, don’t rush yourself. Take all the time you need. Pull those who are trying to help you close, and those who are going through it with you closer. Practice self-care, and lots of self-forgiveness. Let yourself heal on your own time. Your only job sometimes, especially at the beginning of your grief journey, is just to stay alive. And if you’re reading this, then you’ve succeeded.
Yes, it gets better. But it doesn’t stay better. There will be bad days, weeks, months, even years. Expect them, and don’t fight against them. Let them pass, and know that the good days will be back.