Grief changes you. There is simply no getting around it. Grief is like the grim reaper, the unannounced presence that will knock on everyone’s’ door someday. And he brings much sorrow with him. He’s a weird thing, though, because if we let him, he can also give us many unexpected gifts as well.
What We Loose
My experience with grief started a few years back when I had a miscarriage. It was early in my pregnancy, yet there is still an unexplainable sorrow that happens when life dies within you. Anyone who has experienced a miscarriage will understand this. But my feelings of grief had only just begun when a few weeks later I found out I was pregnant – again. My feelings of grief did not go away. I still mourned the loss of my last child as a different one grew in my womb. Grief manifested as anxiety. I thought this would go away after Nora was born. It did not. After her birth, my feelings of grief actually compounded as I experienced post-partum depression. I grieved the loss of my child, and I also grieved my expectations of motherhood. I thought to myself, “Isn’t this time supposed to be full of joy?” I had feelings of joy – yes. But they were quickly countered with loneliness, sadness, and rage. I felt so lost in my identity and who I was. I felt broken. About six months after my daughter was born, the waves of grief turned into a tsunami, and my entire world fell apart. My Mother - my beautiful, bright, loving Mother - unexpectedly died. The broken pieces I had been desperately trying to hold together completely shattered. I had not only lost my unborn baby and my Mother, I lost who I was too.
Through the next few months, I tried to pick up the pieces of the old me that had shattered. I was finding, much to my frustration, that many of the pieces no longer fit. Many of my world-views, beliefs on faith, and even values just didn’t hold in this new life I was wandering through. I didn’t care for surface level relationships anymore, because they felt too much of a burden. I knew the material things of this world while pretty, would not hold the wonder and truth of this world. The neat and tidy religion of my youth just didn’t live up to the pain I had experienced. In short – many of the ideas I was carrying around before didn’t serve me. Like they didn’t seem relevant anymore, or they just didn’t hold through the pain.
When I first noticed this, I became enraged with myself. I felt deep shame that not only had I lost my first child and my Mother, but I was loosing my faith and identity, too. A counselor described to me what happens when we experience significant loss. She described it like the universe all of the sudden rips and there is a black hole, and now the universe has to mend and figure out how it will now exist. But that universe is going to change shape as it mends that hole, becoming something different than before. The same goes for us during grief. I had to realize that there was no going back to who I was before grief. And I don’t think I need to – it’s changed me. And if I looked hard enough, there was much that Grief was trying to give me, too.
What We Gain
Grief had left me broken, but as I am slowly putting the pieces back together, I am finding some unexpected gifts too. I am somehow fuller than before. Still wounded and scarred, but somehow more authentic and abundant. How could this be? How could I find myself more abundant than before when I was first pregnant or when I had my Mother? It seems strange to think. And at first the realization left me with shame and guilt that somehow I didn’t love them at all. But my more abundant life is a testament to the sorrow that I felt in their loss. It was like the greatest sorrow had concaved my soul, creating more room to experience fuller joy and love. This does not negate the pain or the deep sense of loss. No, it’s just the other side of it. I read a poem that joy and sorrow are in fact inseparable. The poem reads, “When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again at your heart, and you shall see the truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” The longer I live, the more I find this is true.
It was like the greatest sorrow had concaved my soul, creating more room to experience fuller joy and love. This does not negate the pain or the deep sense of loss. No, it’s just the other side of it.
It was in my darkest places that not only experienced fuller joy, but I also learned the most important lessons about love. As I struggled to see God’s goodness in the dark, He sent me angels who showed me the truth about love when we find ourselves in the darkest places. I love what Brene Brown has to say about this. “Much of the beauty of Light owes its existence to the Dark.” In my darkest place, there was my husband, whose embrace was so comforting – it was both gentle and strong. Gentle in his eyes towards me and my pain, but he was also strong in his embrace, never letting me go, no matter how hard I tried to run. He was the closest to me as I slowly fell apart this past year. He showed me a relentless love I didn’t know existed. In my darkest place, there was the sincerity and purity of my daughter’s presence. Her laughter and elation for adventure was contagious. Being in the presence of babies and children during these times of loss are so powerful; they remind us that there is still hope, love, and a future for this world. And there in my darkest place was my community, my people. They showed up for me in such an irreplaceable way. I learned the importance of life together during these moments. They were the ones who let me be who I needed to be during my grief. No assumptions, no judgments, no pushing to “grieve correctly.” Just an unconditional love that said, “We are here for you – no matter what.” It was in the middle of grief and sorrow that I learned these things, and I’m not sure I could’ve fully understood them any other way. Perhaps others can. But that’s not my journey. Through grief, I had lost my Mother, my first child, my faith, my identity. But I had also gained an understanding of joy and love that can never be taken away.
We must not let Grief steal our life. That was never his intention. Grief came and tapped on your shoulder because this world is unfair and imperfect and death is now apart of its story. So when Grief comes to you, it’s going to say, “It’s your turn now. I have the ugliest, most unwanted, unfair gift life will throw at you. But you are a mother effing warrior – and there are gifts on the other side of this bizarre thing. Scars, pain, sorrow – but also great love and strength too. And I know you didn’t want to learn this way. I’m sorry for that.” I didn’t want to learn these lessons this way. And sometimes the gifts don’t feel good at all, and I just wish that I could have my Mother back and see whom my first child would’ve been. These longings to have our loved ones with us will never go away. They were apart of us, and in many ways they still are. But there is still life to be had in this lifetime. Until we meet our loved ones on the other side, there is adventure to be had, love and joy to be experienced. We owe it to not only ourselves but to our loved ones to continue on in this life. We will never be the same without them, and that’s okay. But we do need to figure out how we will go on without them, who we will be without them.
Who We Become
And through it all, I came out the other side. Not that my grief journey is over. In fact, I believe it’s only just begun. It’s still painful, and I still ugly cry over it all. I miss my Mother so much. However, Grief doesn’t quite haunt me like before. I don’t feel ashamed of the changes or gifts that Grief has given me.
Through the pain,
I am different, new. I am becoming more unashamedly me – because I learned that life is too short to live any other way.
I am a person who has tested her faith, thrown it against the wall, screamed at it, and somehow found my way back it to. It looks much different than before, but it is a faith that is stronger, more vulnerable, and truer. There are still questions, there always will be, but there is no denying the relentlessness of our God.
I am a person who can experience joy more fully, because I have experienced great sorrow. And not only meaningful, deep joy - but silly, uninhibited joy over things like dancing with my daughter in the living room.
I learned how strong I truly am, that I can put myself back together again. Because DANG. Grief pulls us through the ringer when he knocks, doesn’t he? He is more ugly than I ever expected him to be, but he is surprising in the beauty of his gifts too.
I would never wish Grief to knock on your door, yet I know he will. He knocks on everyone’s’ someday. Grief is weird, and He’s messy. There isn’t a way to tie him up in a neat little package. But I’ve learned in order to get through it must be true. You can’t mask it, stuff it, hide from it, or numb it. This will only make Grief enraged that you’re ignoring him. Grief must flow through our bodies, or else it will eat us up or manifest into a whole new thing later. So no matter your journey or what your visiting Grief looked like, I know this for sure – walking with Grief makes you a mother-effing warrior, my friend.
Written by Desiree Carleton
In Honor of MaryAnn Whitney (1966-2017) and Michael Carleton (Feb 2016 - March 2016)