What's the worst thing about grief?
My Why audio version of this blog available here.
Well, if ever there was a depressing subject heading - this might be it. Let’s take one of the worst things on the planet, grief, and look at what’s the worst thing about it.
But as we continue to meet people going through many different losses on The Silent Why, I’ve found myself asking the question, what is it about grief that makes it so horrible? What do we specifically go through that gives it the reputation of always being horrendous?
I don’t know what your answer would be and I suspect it varies from person to person, and grief to grief, but from my side of things and my experience, having initially thought about it, I surmised it was the debilitating lack of control. I don’t mean that I want to be able to control all aspects of grief, it’s more about the all-consuming feeling that descends on you that makes you realise something has happened that you are completely powerless to stop, your mind is awash with awful realities of things lost, and things gained that you don’t want, and the feeling is so strong it instantly makes your body react physically in ways you can’t control - and that, quite frankly, is scary.
It’s not like grief comes along, slithering past you and you try to redirect it to be what you want and where you want it to be, but you have no control over it. It’s more like you’re caught up in it and it drags you kicking and screaming away from what you want the most, and you’re painfully aware there’s not a single thing you can do about it. You’re aware others are watching this terrifying scene unfold and they all react differently, some try to help and make it worse, some help and are invaluable supporters, some who you thought would be there slowly back away and some are triggered by your experience into their own grief and fears. There’s nothing about it that’s comfortable, redeeming or enjoyable to watch or endure.
But most of this is based on the grief of a bereavement, when the thin line between life and death is crossed and you find yourself without someone or something that you didn’t expect to be without. There’s a definitive moment with death when we are taken from this planet, and at the point it happens (and happen it will) there are, if we’re blessed, people grieving. Grief over what we were, what we could have been, what we’ll miss, and what they lost.
I heard a talk from Priscilla Shirer the other week where she said that our age isn’t determined by our birth date, it’s determined by our death date. We all have a death date, we just don’t know what it is, but if you’re 15 and your death date is when you are 20, then you’re old. If you’re 40 and your death date is when you’re 90, then you’re young.
We live on the dash between our birth date and our death date. Jesse Jackson
None of us know how long that dash is, every day you’re talking to people who are somewhere along that dash, and their age is no indication as to how far along it they are. That’s why when someone dies suddenly you hear people say things like ‘but I just saw him yesterday’ or ‘I was chatting to her only last week’. Our brains can’t fathom how a human being is on the planet one minute and gone the next. Despite the millions of people that have come and gone before us.
So the grief is real, strong, understandable and definitive in the point it happens.
But then outside of a bereavement and death, you have the other griefs that are a little more complicated to get your head around. These griefs are ongoing, more subtle, less obvious and sneaky. Sometimes they result in a death, but sometimes they don’t.
Rather than finding yourself dragged along kicking and screaming behind it, you’re sort of flowing along inside it, unaware that while life continues, and you’re making decisions, and trying to piece things together, you’re being carried away from something you wanted. Then one day you look back and realise, there in the distance is something you’ve lost, and it’s only from that perspective that you understand the enormity of it. And you suddenly realise something is gone, and it needed grieving, but you didn’t realise until now, when your grief and reaction feels out of place and ill-timed.
‘I didn’t know I’d never work again.’
‘I didn’t realise that was my last chance at a family.’
‘I never knew that door was now closed to me forever.’
‘I had no idea my health would stop that being possible.’
‘I didn’t realise this would be my life or who I would end up being.’
And it’s hard to process, hard to explain and difficult to grieve.
Making yourself grieve something you’ve never faced in a definitive way like death, is not something you can just switch on. It’s like all grief, it’s not a one time thing. Grief and loss have large big moments along the way, but then there’s also all the tiny reminders and the sneaky attacks that pounce out on you when you’re not expecting it.
Then you’ve got the fact that grief is completely different for every person, in every situation, with every relationship - it’s impossible to be the same.
And yes, we try to compare losses, we think we know what’s the worst, what’s the easiest, what’s the most confusing, but do we? Not really. Death of a child is pinned up as being one of the worst griefs there is; out of the natural order of things, so much potential lost, a life so young hardly begun, cut short, the flesh and blood of two parents combined, who aren’t supposed to still be here to endure the death. What about the parents that lost two children? Or three? What about the car accidents that have killed a mother or father, plus some of the children? What about the families that have been lost in their entirety? Or the slow death of family members one-by-one through war, persecution or genocide? What about the mothers that watch their children die because they have no clean water?
There is no comparing grief, there is no comparing loss, whatever rips your heart in two is your grief and whether that occurs through loss of an old grandparent in the natural order, or a horrific murder, or the slow realisation of a life that wasn’t to be, it is painful and comparison adds no value in any shape.
It doesn’t help to know your loss could have been better, it doesn’t help to know your loss could have been worse.
So the worst thing about grief isn’t the control thing, it’s that it’s completely unique. If everyone went through the exact same grief, we’d be able to help each other in the exact same way needed. If we all went through the same losses we’d know exactly what to say to each other. If we all went through the same suffering we wouldn’t feel uncomfortable talking about it. If we all knew the exact emotions tied into it, we could prepare and prepare others. But we can’t because it’s not just what you lost, it’s so many other things. It’s how you were brought up, what you experienced and when, who was around you, what advice you got and took… the list goes on.
However, the worst thing about grief, is also the most beautiful thing about it too.
Out of our grief and loss come many tears of sorrow, but out of our grief and loss also come the tears that heal and restore and encourage and bring joy.
Think about an uplifting story that’s made tears run down your face. Now think about the loss that made that story wonderful - I know it’ll be there. I bet, sitting behind the heartbreak and the decision to rise up and do something amazing - was a loss.
Watch a marathon and see all the people running to raise money for a cause they believe in, usually because something was taken from them.
Watch the man or woman who stands up to give a speech about something huge they’ve achieved, spurred on by the fact they lost a parent at a young age.
Watch the films about people groups who have endured extreme hardship or discrimination, but who fight for the next generation to not have to walk the same path.
Read the books written by people who have grieved and want to offer hope to a hurting world for those that come after them.
Hear the stories of those that have battled addictions and triumphed over them in their own strength to be clean and deny their urges.
None of these stories have the same power without the loss.
Loss creates beauty, it builds strength, it refines us into amazing human beings.
Do we want to go through it? Hell, no.
Do we invite it? Nope.
Do we embrace it when it arrives? Errr… no.
But can we get over it and through it? Yes.
And can something spectacular be born out of it? For sure.
And is that enough of me questioning myself with answers I already know? Probably.
So again, as it so often does in life, it comes back to choice. At some point, days, weeks, months, years, decades (it’s different for everyone ) we have to choose our response, and choose what we let grief and loss take from us, and we will take from it. And because it’s unique to us and our grief, we’re the only ones that can make that decision. So the pain is uniquely ours, the journey uniquely ours, but so is the triumph, and so is the joy. And we can choose what we give away to others - the worst bit about grief, or the best bit.
I recently read The Book of Joy, recording a conversation between two great friends, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, by Douglas Abrams. In it, Abrams tells the story about meeting Anthony Ray Hinton, who spent thirty years in a tiny cell in solitary confinement on death row for a crime he did not commit. During this time Hinton became a counsellor and friend not only to the other inmates, fifty-four of whom were put to death, but to the death row guards, many of whom begged Hinton’s attorney to get him out. When he was finally able to walk free he said: “One does not know the value of freedom until one has it taken away. People run out of the rain. I run into the rain. How can anything that falls from heaven not be precious? Having missed the rain for so many years, I am so grateful for every drop. Just to feel it on my face.”
When Hinton was interviewed by an American television programme the interviewer asked whether he was angry at those who had put him in jail. He responded that he had forgiven all the people who had sent him to jail. The interviewer asked, “But they took thirty years of your life—how can you not be angry?”
Hinton responded, “If I’m angry and unforgiving, they will have taken the rest of my life.”
Grief will take the rest of your life in the same way unforgiveness can, if you let it.
Many people we’re speaking to on The Silent Why have shared with us that they wouldn’t be where they are now if it wasn’t for their loss. Their loss was not in vain, they’ve turned it into something good, either for them or others. Some have even said they’re grateful for it.If you’re not sure about how this is possible, just listen to all the Hermans (and if you've no idea what that means click here).
Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do, is learn to swim. Vicki Harrison