I have been asked, over and over, when the grief journey "ends" or "gets easier." Many times these inquiries come from well intended people who love me and want to know when I will be "cured or from others beginning their own grief journey desperately seeking an end point.
Grief is a manifestation of the love surrounding a loss. I have learned, rather than fighting my pain, which is an impossible feat, if I accept the power of it, I can then choose to find ways to channel it into ways that serve me, and hopefully others, well. It's an interesting dynamic as my grief makes me sad, but using it in ways that have a positive impact in Leyden's name makes me happy. In a way, I suppose, I am actually using the intensity of my grief to comfort the pain of my grief.
My (magical) grief counselor, Kendra, taught me to explore the many losses that accompanied the loss of Leyden. I remember staring at her blankly when she said "what are ALL the losses you are encountering?" After a moment, confused, I said "I lost Leyden. What other loss are you talking about?" Gently, she helped me explore what she called "secondary losses." These included the loss of being a family, the loss of seeing my parents grandparent, the loss of seeing my brothers uncle, the loss of having my daughter grow up with my friends children or my cousins children. The loss of having Leyden a part of the school community; on the sidelines of football games and in the daycare right under my office. The loss of the dreams I had for our future. The list went on and on, but to her point, there were many losses that came about as a result of losing Leyden. Other than losing Leyden, the most painful loss, for me, has been the loss of being a mom.
Anytime I am triggered by something that reminds me of any of these losses, pain ensues. This meant, at first, every moment of my daily routine, hurt. And anytime I was with family and close friends, the the pain stabbed me, repeatedly.
Although tempting, I couldn't spend the rest of my life, sitting alone, watching Seinfeld in the comfort of Leyden's chair, shielding myself from the world in the safety of my apartment.
To survive (and keep my job) I had to learn to not only manage the pains, but to plan ahead and anticipate them. This meant looking my grief square in the eye, talking about it, writing about it and understanding it. This was not easy. At first, I could do it for a short period of time and then would need quite a while to emotionally recover.
Think of someone who has never stepped foot in a gym. It is a foreign world to them with words, norms and expectations that are completely unchartered waters. That individual would likely feel overwhelmed, lost and intimidated. If they were then put in a position to go lift an intensely heavy amount of weights, they may collapse, drop weights and struggle through. Their endurance to lift weights would be limited. After working out- waddling with soreness for days. Stairs become the enemy. It might be a week before he or she can feel strong enough to get back to the gym. Yet, after months and years of lifting these weights- the experience changes. The gym lingo and culture is understood. Workouts can last longer and muscles have built to more easily manage the weight. Recovery time is shorter. Stairs are no longer the enemy.
Much like the amount of weight lifted at the gym- the weight of grief doesn't change. But once immersed in the journey for a period of time, the griever finds ways to build emotional muscle.... or..... to avoid the stairs.
I had to be really honest with myself about what I could and could not handle. If I had a function Friday night that I knew was going to require a lot of strength for me to attend- I reserved Saturday as an "emotional recovery" day and committed to nothing other than quiet time alone. I had to become comfortable saying "no thank you" to plans or ideas. I needed to allow myself to ignore a phone call, not reply to a text or email until I was ready. Self-care was never really a strength of mine, and suddenly it was my only life-preserver as I was tossed in the tumultuous waters of losing my child. Holidays came with an escape plan. And I identified whatever might serve as my "staircase" and avoided it at all costs. If anyone needs to learn how to walk everywhere in my building without going by the day care- I got you covered.
Through trial and error combined with actively working to learn about grief, my emotional muscle strengthened. I am proud to say that I can watch more shows than just Seinfeld. I have maintained (and even built!) relationships. I don't turn and run when I see children and I haven't had to find myself a new family.
But I still need my emotional recovery days.
The weight of grief doesn't become lighter. And there is no end point. But you can build up your grief muscles to carry the heavy load. Learn about grief. Become aware of potential triggers. Allow the opportunity of doing so to deepen your relationship with yourself. Slowly lift the weights- get a little stronger each day. Find your pace and don't compare it to anyone else's. Embrace the self-care necessary to survive. Even though there is no end point, you can shift grief's power to be incorporated into your life in a way that comforts, inspires and strengthens you. I won't lie- it's NOT easy. But, I honestly believe, in your own time, your own way and your own form.... you can find the strength to lift the load of grief.