The quicksand of grief

Grief by Romain Donato, on Flickr. Used via Creative Commons licensing.

Loss is an inevitable part of life, and grief is the natural response to loss. None of us can avoid experiencing grief, but we sure do try! In the process, we only make things harder for ourselves.

Grief is hard and messy and uncomfortable, so we do our best to escape it, numb it, or bury it when it appears. We hide from it in busyness of all kinds. We turn it into anger to allow us to feel powerful instead of lost. We run from it into new relationships or circumstances. We numb ourselves with distractions and bury the unprocessed grief deep in our souls, thinking that we’ve managed to avoid it.

But those unshed tears and the unprocessed grief stay there, slowly forming an ever-widening mire of quicksand that forms a treacherous emotional landscape for future trips through grief. It eventually only takes the smallest of griefs for the ground to give way and suck us into this stored up wasteland of old grief that is still waiting to be felt.

I had a taste of this experience last week when a friend died. This wasn’t a friend that I was particularly close to, but the loss still hit me hard—at least partially because I was still holding onto some unprocessed grief from the death of another friend (who was closer to me) in the same group who died the week before Christmas.

Last week’s loss was a real loss and a real grief—she died way too young and will be missed by so many—but the depth of my grief was much larger than would have been expected because this loss dropped me into that sinkhole where unprocessed grief from the past had accumulated and was waiting for me.

For many years, I avoided feeling grief altogether (to the best of my ability). It just wasn’t done in our family. When a close family member died, it was expected that we should celebrate and rejoice that the person was now with God. Grief over our own loss was considered sinful because it was deemed a lack of belief in God’s promises. That conditioning set in early and remains hard to shake.

It doesn’t help that it is reinforced by a cultural discomfort with grief. We tend to act like expressions of grief are a weakness to be embarrassed of rather than acknowledging the strength it takes to face the grief and deal with it directly. We are uncomfortable with expressions of grief. Even the most sympathetic people in our lives tend to hurry us to move on faster than the natural rhythms of grief play out because we (as a culture) don’t know what to do with others’ pain.

I remember a co-worker of mine many years ago whose husband and two dogs (who were like their children) were viciously murdered in an unsolved homicide while she was out of town on a business trip. She had only a few days off with bereavement leave to deal with the funeral, the police, cleaning up the disaster area in her home, and finding a new place to live before she was expected back at work as usual.

I can’t imagine how she functioned during that time. But outside of the funeral (when I suspect she was still in shock), there are no cultural norms to help us deal with this kind of grief. We’ve abandoned the traditions like the wearing of black clothing for a year or more after a death that made our private griefs more visible and acknowledged.

My own inability to deal with my grief over my lifetime came to a head a few years ago when I was hit with a period of one loss after the other in rapid succession. Those losses on their own would have been more than enough to bear, but they also shoved me into that quagmire where all the accumulated unmourned losses of years were waiting for me.

My unshed tears had so saturated the ground of my soul that when I landed there, the mud sucked me in like a pit of quicksand. The more I struggled, the deeper I sank. I eventually learned that the only way out was through. Just like with quicksand, I had to stop fighting and slowly move to float in it in order to survive. As I grieved and mourned and cried (and cried and cried), the quagmire slowly dried up and eventually I was able to stand again on dry land and move on.

My experience last week tells me that there are still depths of grief into which I have not yet plunged—even my one (very long) dip into that quagmire was not enough to drain it completely. But at least I am learning. Instead of trying to ignore this grief because it “shouldn’t be this big a deal,” I’ve let myself feel it and mourn what needs to be mourned—both in the loss of these two friends and in the other losses that these deaths bring to the surface. I cry when I need to. I rest as I need to.

Grieving is still not fun, but it’s easier to take it in these smaller doses as it arises than it is to wait for life to knock me again into the quicksand I’ve created from allowing it to collect for too many years unprocessed. This current loss is still a small grief in the grand scheme of things, but I’m learning to see my ability to grieve as a strength to be celebrated rather than a weakness of which I should be ashamed.

How do you deal with grief? Do you have unprocessed grief that is waiting for you? If so, how might you begin to deal with some of that accumulated grief in small ways to avoid getting thrown into the whole lake of quicksand one day down the road?

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  1. David Youngs

    Thank you for helping to point out that grieving is a real natural process that should be allowed to happen and should also be allowed to proceed to healthy point (we will all need to move on). A family (or community) culture that inhibits appropriate exhibitions of grief, in the medium and long term, will be harmful. It can also, in my opinion, be somewhat worse for men since it’s more expected norm that men don’t exhibit grief (e.g., ‘real men don’t cry’). I’ve learned the hard way that I should cry, I should grieve. If I don’t, it only gets worse later when, like your case, I get sucked into that deep pit. My worst example of this emanated from the fact that my father died when I was 19. I was so shaken that I couldn’t bear to go to the funeral – I was surprising the grief – I knew that I would break down in public. I’ve only been able to come to grips with this in the last few years – 40+ years after the fact. I now know that expressing grief and not being afraid to ‘let it show’ in public is more than an OK, and perhaps expected and a preferred behavior.

    1. I agree that it is often worse for men. Our culture places such a burden on men with its suppression of men’s emotions. Such a shame! I’m so sorry to hear about your experience with losing your father and not feeling “allowed” to grieve. It sounds like you have come a long way in your refusal to allow those norms to control you. Good for you! Thanks for sharing your story with me.

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