“Sit with it. Sit with it. Sit with it. Sit with it. Even though you want to run. Even when it’s heavy and difficult. Even though you’re not quite sure of the way through. Healing happens by feeling.” ~Dr. Rebecca Ray
When my husband died from terminal brain cancer in 2014, I learned all about deep grief. The kind of grief that plunges you into a valley of pain so vast it takes years to claw your way out. In the beginning, I didn’t want to deal with grief because the pain was too intense. So, I dodged grief and circled around the pit of despair, trying to outrun or outwit it.
My biggest grief fault was imagining an end. In my naiveté I figured I’d reach a point where I could wash my hands of it and claim, “Whew, I’m done!” But that’s not how grief and living with monumental loss works.
Grief doesn’t like to be ignored. The hardest lesson for any griever is learning that grief never goes away. You just figure out how to make room for it.
A few years after my husband died, I kept seeing the quote “what you resist persists.” It was like grief sending me a message to stop running and pay attention.
This message reached me at a critical time because I was exhausted from avoiding the pain, so I decided to let myself feel the sadness and see what happened instead. I stopped asking, why me? and started asking, what am I supposed to learn from this? Instead of evading grief, which was too grueling anyway, I let grief teach me what I needed to know.
Much to my surprise, amid the discomfort and sorrow and suffering, I learned a whole new way of living.
I didn’t realize I was morphing into a new, more self-actualized me because it’s hard to see the changes happening in real time. You can’t possibly appreciate your progress until you look back at how far you’ve come.
With the benefit of hindsight, I can see how grief’s guidance taught me the following important life skills I never would have learned without it.
How to Accept My Feelings
Prior to my husband’s death, I didn’t have time to feel my feelings. I kept busy with distractions, and whenever a tsunami of emotion surrounded me, I shut down.
The mistake I used to make was thinking my emotions meant something about me as a person. I convinced myself that sadness meant I was weak, and I couldn’t possibly be healing if I still cry over my husband’s death all these years later. I thought I must be an angry person because I get angry so often or something must be wrong with me because I feel overly judgmental sometimes.
Because grief brings with it a whole slew of emotions, it forced me to get better at feeling everything. With practice, I started naming my emotions, and I uncovered what I was feeling and why. Instead of labeling my feelings as good or bad, I accepted them as nothing more than the brief emotional surges they are.
I took a deep dive into all the self-help guides I could find to determine that every emotion has its place. We feel things so we can process what’s happening in our lives, learn from it, and eventually express its meaning. None of my feelings were better or worse than the others. None of them meant anything about my healing or how well I coped.
I learned I’m not an angry person, I’m just a person who occasionally feels anger. I’m not a judgmental person, I just feel judgmental sometimes. And sadness doesn’t mean I’m weak. It means I’m a human being experiencing a human emotion.
It took me a while to believe that my feelings were nothing more than blips on the radar screen of my human existence. If it weren’t for grief, I might not have uncovered the secret to accepting all my feelings –they mean nothing about me as a person.
If I’m being honest, I still get angry way more than I want to. But I don’t keep busy with distractions anymore. I feel my feelings when they come up, let them pass through and thank them for giving me an opportunity to understand myself on a deeper level.
How to Be More Vulnerable
In the past, I rarely admitted when I made mistake, when someone hurt me, or when I was afraid. As far back as I can remember, people viewed me as strong, brave, and determined because that’s what I portrayed. Few people ever saw the anxious, disappointed, or terrified side of me.
So, it was no surprise after my husband died, when card after card poured in with the same sentiment: “I’m so sorry for your loss. But I know how strong you are. If anyone can get through this devastation, you can.”
It comforted people to think I was “strong” enough to endure my loss. As if “strong” people grieved less than their more fragile counterparts. But their condolences were of little comfort to me after I learned a very basic principle of grief; it doesn’t discriminate. It tests the mettle of everyone’s soul.
Grief forced me to expose myself emotionally. I had to show my vulnerable side because fear took over and I didn’t know how to conceal it anymore. It seeped out of my pores
The upside of exposing my vulnerability was building deeper, more authentic relationships. I never knew how much people craved to see the real me until I noticed a favorable shift in my personal connections after I admitted my fear, shame, and regret. When I was honest about the intense stress of grief and the toll it took on me, others trusted me with their innermost secrets too.
I much prefer letting others in now. I never want to go back to keeping people at arm’s length and pretending to be someone I’m not. I did a grave disservice to myself by appearing so aloof for so long. Before my husband died, I got away with it. After he died, there was nowhere left to hide.
I’m not afraid of being afraid anymore. I can readily admit now when I’m scared. I also admit that I cry and break down and throw an occasional temper tantrum when life gets to be too much.
If it wasn’t for grief, I would’ve never known the benefit of letting others see the real me.
How to Ask for Help
As a person who avoided feelings and shunned vulnerability, I never knew how to ask for help. Not that I didn’t need help. I just hated asking because I assumed people would say yes when they secretly wanted to say no.
I didn’t want to be a burden on anyone.
After my husband died, I needed help with lawn maintenance, household repairs and childcare, among other things. I realized quickly I couldn’t do it all on my own and it took everything I had in me to ask for help because it was such a foreign concept.
One of the biggest things I learned on my grief journey is that healing requires honesty. And honesty requires practice. When people said, “let me know what you need” I understood what they really meant was, “I have no idea what to do! I feel so helpless and I’m begging you to please just tell me what you need, and I’ll do it!” People aren’t mind-readers, so I practiced being as honest and explicit as I could.
It took me a while to get good at asking for help. But I appreciate how wonderful it is for the person on the receiving end to get specific instructions. People want to help and now I let them.
My healing heart and relationships have vastly improved by implementing this one simple change.
How to Settle in with Uncertainty
I used to think I controlled the universe—until my husband died. Control is an illusion, and that truth smacked me upside the head the day his doctor diagnosed him with terminal cancer.
I’ve never liked uncertainty. I’m not a spontaneous person. My world works better when I know what’s going on and no one has any surprises up his or her sleeve. But after my husband’s diagnosis, we lived each day with uncertainty because we knew for sure he would die from his disease—we just didn’t know when.
The twelve months between his diagnosis and death were pure torture. However, we settled in with uncertainty anyway because we had no choice. Instead of focusing on the when of the future, we made the most of the present.
After he died, I learned that grief and uncertainty go hand in hand. When you’re grieving, you don’t know what emotional wave will hit you from day to day. You go through life without the security of knowing what will happen next because something terrible already happened and it could happen again. And you can’t control it. This is both a blessing and a curse.
The curse is the uncertainty, of course, but the blessing is you get to take the responsibility of the world off your shoulders. You surrender because you understand you were never in charge, anyway.
Now, I welcome the peace of surrender and not knowing. I discovered it’s easier to live in the moment instead of focusing on things outside of my control. Talk about lifting an enormous burden! I ride the emotional waves as they come and remind myself to stop forcing things and just let them be.
Whenever the control urge starts to churn and makes me think I have a chance to influence an outcome, I imagine my husband tapping me on the shoulder and whispering, “remember how we used to surrender? Please do that with me until this feeling passes.”
How to Allow Others to Have Their Own Feelings
When I got better at feeling my feelings, allowing vulnerability, and settling in with uncertainty, I also learned one of the most important life skills—how to let other people have their own feelings, too.
Because I know I’m not in charge and I don’t control the Universe, I know I can’t control what other people think or feel either. If grief has taught me anything, it’s that everyone has their own way of doing things and thinking about things and expressing their feelings about things. And none of it means anything about me.
I used to get upset when someone else was upset or get offended if someone else offended me. I tried to fix people and things to make everyone happy because I thought it was my responsibility to help others live in harmony.
Death put the kibosh on that distorted way of living.
I no longer had the time or inclination to teach everyone how to live in harmony because my world was one breath away from potential collapse. I had to concentrate on myself. When I focused on getting my mind right, making peace with grief, and learning how to handle my feelings, I understood it was an inside job. No one else could do it for me. And I couldn’t or shouldn’t try to do that for anyone else. Everyone comes from their own level of understanding about themselves and the world.
It took me a long time to understand this because it took me a long time to understand me.
Now I don’t pretend to know what or how or why someone else should think or feel a certain way. When other people tell me how they feel, I believe them.
It’s not my job to try and change someone else’s feelings any more than it’s their job to try and change mine.
The Way It Is Today
I don’t wish my monumental loss on anyone, but looking back now, I see how my crooked, confusing, and soul-crushing path taught me essential life skills I wouldn’t have learned otherwise.
Even though I’ve had my fair share of hard days and months and years, I became a more compassionate and considerate person with grief’s guidance. I changed my world view because pain changed me. And these days, I surrender to what is instead of trying to change circumstances outside of me.
It’s only after spending time with your pain that you develop an understanding of its purpose. I never thought I’d find an upside to grief because I thought grief was all about death. But I found out that grief teaches you about more than just death and surviving loss.
It teaches you how to live.