Two weeks ago - August 19th - I wrote about the grieving process itself in Grief and the Upside Down Shovel, sharing with you the fact that in the past, I'd done a terrible job of grieving, and vowing to do better this time.
Using the symbol of the upside-down shovel used at Jewish burials, I tried reminding myself (and you) that burying our loved ones - grieving their death - isn't supposed to be an efficient or quick process. It's messy. It's exhausting work. And it takes time.
Last week, I started to write about grief again, but stopped myself, and wrote about something else.
A few days ago, I spoke to a trusted friend and counselor to get his advice: how often is too often, and how much is too much to share?
In response, he said something fascinating:
"John, your reluctance to write about grief is emblematic of the way our culture looks at it, which is basically 'okay, you wrote about it a couple times. Now move on.' Wisdom, however, says something very different. Wisdom - and any good mental health professional - would tell you that ironically, the best and fastest way to 'get over' your grief is to slow down and stay in it."
So - by way of "still grieving AND getting over it" (and trusting that you'll scroll on past this article if you don't find what I'm writing here useful to you, at least not now), and with thanks to my counselor friend, here are five lessons I've learned, or re-learned about grief:
1) Grief is compounding, not additive. A new death or event that causes us to grieve is NOT simply its own event placed into an otherwise empty space called our heart and mind. Rather, the grief is added to the sum total of all past deaths and events that have caused us to grieve. The longer we live or the more things that have caused us to grieve, the greater any new grief event is. Grief is compounding, not merely additive.
2) For that reason and more, grief is exhausting. It's humbling (and embarrassing and frustrating and even a bit infuriating) to recognize how physically exhausting grief is. I've managed to only miss one Sunday in all this - the Sunday of Kathy's actual funeral - and have generally kept up on emails, phone calls, and other work responsibilities during the day. But let me tell you: for something like five or six days in a row in late August after getting back from Indiana, I went to bed at 8:30 p.m. and woke up at 8:30 a.m. That's twelve hours of sleep a night verses my normal seven. And yet, after waking up, all I wanted to do was take a nap.
3) Ironically, the best and fastest way through exhaustion - and grief - is to surrender to it. For a few days I refused to surrender to the tiredness, and tried to push through it. I'd drink a couple pots of coffee -- eight to ten cups, strong -- but they had ZERO effect. (At one point, I would have bet my savings account that some evil burglar was sneaking into our home at night and replacing all our coffee with decaf.) I would exercise. I would take cold showers. But when I realized that despite all those efforts, I was still just mostly staring at the wall, I did the wise thing, and surrendered. I took a full day off to give myself permission to nap when I wanted to nap (and that was about six times). Still, it was only after another light day and then my normal day off, and four or five more 12+ hour nights of sleep did things shift, and I got (am getting) my energy back.
4) Everyone grieves in their own way, and the only way to do it wrong is not to do it: to minimize it, or to try to hurry it up. Everyone grieves in their own way, yes. But it is also true that there are phases that are normal to experience. The most famous of them are ones I never really liked, or found useful -- the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross "stages of grief" that have become popularized (you know: "denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.") I don't like them not because they aren't true, but because they're so commonly oversimplified, misunderstood, and mis-applied. Rather, I find this summary (written shortly after 9-11 so excuse the dated references) much more useful and practical and encouraging, because in it she shares phases such as "shock, awareness of loss, conservation/withdrawal, healing, and renewal."
5) Grief takes time - and our culture absolutely sucks at giving it to us. It says a lot that the news media would refer to Vice President Joe Biden as "still" grieving his son Beau's death. "Still"? Beau died on May 30th. 2015. They lost their son only three months ago. And yet our culture says they are "still" grieving. Used in that context, "still" is a judgement word. I'm as guilty as anyone for having said it in the past, but I will work hard not to say someone is "still" grieving.
They're grieving, period.
AND - by doing so - they are moving on.