When coming up for a title for this post, I was thinking of my SA-based long time blogging buddy (and very talented textile artist), Mariss of Fabrications, who titles her posts “On…”.
So this post is “On” grief.
As many of you know I am a widow and lost my partner of many years back in 2018. In the earlier days of my grief I read books such as Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant (see post New Library Stack and Option B) and Resilience by Eric Greitens (see post Soup’s On), as I tried to navigate my new reality, but in general I have avoided books that primarily focus on grief and grieving.
That was until recently, now over 3 years since my loss, when I decided to read It’s OK That You’re Not Okay: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand by Megan Devine.
I finished like book nearly 2 months ago and I am still thinking about it.
The book’s audience appears to be those with a new major loss in their life; and focuses on life shattering losses such as the death of a life partner or a child. It provides a different way of looking at grief and grieving from a therapist who lost her husband (she apologizes in the book to all her former clients who were grieving and how she counseled them before she experienced her own loss); as well as provides tools for grieving people to help their loved ones support them better during their grieving. It even has a whole chapter for those who are trying to support someone in their life who is grieving.
One of the greatest lessons or perhaps greatest insights I got from this book is: You cannot take away someone’s pain who is grieving, it is theirs that they must bear – all you can try to do is to ease their suffering (or at least not add to their suffering with things you do or say).
Here are a couple quotes from the book to share more of the author’s insights as a widow and a grief counselor/therapist:
The reality of grief is far different from what others see from the outside. There is pain in this world that you can’t be cheered out of. You don’t need solutions. You don’t need to move on from your grief. You need someone to see your grief, to acknowledge it. You need someone to hold your hands while you stand there in blinking horror, staring at the hole that was your life. Some things cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.
When you try to take someone’s pain away from them, you don’t make it better. You just tell them it’s not OK to talk about their pain.
We need to talk about the hierarchy of grief. You hear it all the time—no grief is worse than any other. I don’t think that’s one bit true. There is a hierarchy of grief. Divorce is not the same as the death of a partner. Death of a grandparent is not the same as the death of a child. Losing your job is not the same as losing a limb.
The cult of positivity we have does everyone a disservice. It leads us to believe we’re more in charge of the world than we are, and holds us responsible for every pain and heartbreak we endure. It sets up a one-false-move world, in which we must be careful not to upset the gods, or karma, or our bodies with our thoughts and intentions.
Acknowledgment–being seen and heard and witnessed inside the truth about one’s own life–is the only real medicine of grief.
These quotes above are only the tip of the iceberg of all the wisdom and “truth-bombs” that the author drops in this book.
At the start of reading this book, I connected with many of the painful ways (causing more suffering) that some people in my life tried to support me during my early days of my loss. But as I got further into the book I thought about how they were doing the best they could with no personal experience in such a loss.
And I thought about the absolute disaster I was in the past in supporting people in my life who experienced such devastating loss, before I experienced such loss myself.
I thought in particular about a boss a used to have in the early 2000s who was an awesome leader, fun to work with and supportive. Then she suddenly lost her husband of 30+ years to a motorcycle accident. He was her best friend and they were inseparable. He was a long time motorcycle enthusiast and hit a random patch of gravel at high speed and was killed.
She was out of work for about a month and when she returned she was a completely different person. We (her staff) had pulled together money and sent flowers and a card, etc. and for some reason thought she would be okay when she returned after a month off, even if she was sad at times as expected.
Instead she was unable to focus at work, apparently heavily medicated (whether doctor prescribed or “recreational”) and pretty much non functional. This went on for months and finally she was convinced to step down from her position and let someone else take her job.
I am so sad that I was one of the staff members who was impatient with her, especially after a couple of months since her loss. It was like I expected her to “be over it”. I wish I could go back in time and hug her and apologize for how I just did not understand.
Fast forward to 2018 and my loss. I actually thought about her (after not thinking of her for years) about a month after my husband died. It was like “I get it!”
Although I did not use much medication (though in retrospect I would not have minded be numbed out of my mind for a while in the early days) to help me cope, I struggled focusing at my job or even caring about my job. I hid it and tried to be the same as I was but ultimately, when you lose the person who is your whole life, everything else seems so unimportant and meaningless.
Around the first anniversary of my husband’s passing, I had a colleague confront me about not getting an important project done on time, and all I could think is “but I am still alive a year after losing everything”. I tried to explain I was struggling with the 1 year anniversary but she did not get it, she was still annoyed.
I cannot fault her lack of empathy as I was guilty of such lack of empathy myself before experience such loss.
I feel redeemed though in my failures of supporting grieving people (I am skipping a couple other stories of how I was not the most helpful when people in my life loss their spouses before I experienced it myself) as I had an amazing experience connecting with a former neighbor who lost her husband last May. I feel so lucky to have been able to be there for her and listen to her journey, and share whatever she wanted to know about my journey as a widow.
It felt like I was paying it forward in honor of those who truly helped me in my journey, and continue to help me.
One of the most powerful concepts I gained from reading It’s OK That You’re Not Okay: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand is:
Some things cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.
I’ve come to accept that I will carry this grief with me the rest of my life. And that is okay. There is still much joy, happiness, and peace to still have in this life, even with grief by my side.