I used to call them “grief contractions,” the whole-body tightening that would happen when I saw a picture of Eric, or heard a song we had loved together, or remembered a memory we had shared. At first, the pain was acute and deep. I lost my train of thought as well as my breath. It felt like my heart had been stabbed and there was nothing I could do about it. When these episodes began, the sharp pangs would come every single time I hit a “trigger” – something that reminded me of my devastating loss. For a little while, my grief contractions were physically intense and lasted long enough that I actually lost feeling in my extremities and just had to lay down until they passed. They say it is possible to actually die of heartache. I do not doubt it.
The physical grief pains, unlike actual contractions, lessened over time and were spread farther and farther apart. I can’t pinpoint a moment, or place the first occasion… but at some point, they stopped hitting at every remembrance of my reality. My dad, who is a psychologist, told me that it’s possible that I actually got used to the “triggers” when they became boring to my brain. For example, I used to wince every time I saw or heard an ambulance, because the last time my children saw their father it’s because he was leaving in one. I used to duck when I heard a med-flight helicopter passing, because my husband’s heart stopped in one of those. Now that I live less than a quarter mile from a hospital, I see them a lot and they no longer bother me.
The pain also changed. Instead of a sharp pang in my heart at hitting a new “trigger,” they came less frequently but lasted much longer. Sometimes it feels like tension in my chest that makes it difficult to breathe, but other times it is more like general pressure and aching on a bruise. And given more time, even these physical manifestations of my grief have lessened.
After a while, I found something new in the place of some of the grief contractions… I felt a glimmer of happiness when I was reminded of a memory of Eric!
At first, it was very little things that brought a smile to my face… like the phrase he would have said or an action he would have taken. One day while I was driving, the person ahead of me forget to use their turning signal. I said, “BLINKER!” Remembering that Eric would have done the same thing, I smiled to myself instead of being sad that he wasn’t there to say it. Another time one of my kids did something that was pretty cool for a toddler, and I said, “WOAH! You are the most amazing person in the history of the entire planet!” While my kids are definitely awesome, they maybe aren’t as likely to be prodigies as that Eric-like statement would imply. Another day, the thought occurred to me that Eric would absolutely HATE being called my “Late Husband.” Eric was ALWAYS on time, and hated to be late to anything. It was a fight that we had often because I was not generally a punctual person, so it made me smile that I would now get to win the argument and the clock.
I still feel some pain in my body because of grief. Sometimes, even now, it’s so bad that I have to steal myself away for a moment, or leave work, or go to bed, or whatever it takes to just sob until it all comes out. Sometimes I feel raw from letting the grief wash over me. On the other hand, sometimes I laugh out loud at memories in my head and people look at me like I’m crazy! Grief is a complicated thing.
One day, while searching online to see if all of this was “normal,” I found this comment which was originally posted over seven years ago in a message board thread. It was impactful then, and I appreciate it a lot now…
Alright, so here goes. I’m old. What that means is that I’ve survived (so far) and a lot of people I’ve known and loved did not. I’ve lost friends, best friends, acquaintances, co-workers, grandparents, mom, relatives, teachers, mentors, students, neighbors, and a host of other folks. I have no children, and I can’t imagine the pain it must be to lose a child. But here’s my two cents.
I wish I could say you get used to people dying. I never did. I don’t want to. It tears a hole through me whenever somebody I love dies, no matter the circumstances. But I don’t want it to “not matter”. I don’t want it to be something that just passes. My scars are a testament to the love and the relationship that I had for and with that person. And if the scar is deep, so was the love. So be it. Scars are a testament to life. Scars are a testament that I can love deeply and live deeply and be cut, or even gouged, and that I can heal and continue to live and continue to love. And the scar tissue is stronger than the original flesh ever was. Scars are a testament to life. Scars are only ugly to people who can’t see.
As for grief, you’ll find it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you’re drowning, with wreckage all around you. Everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was, and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage and you hang on for a while. Maybe it’s some physical thing. Maybe it’s a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it’s a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is float. Stay alive.
In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don’t even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you’ll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out. But in between, you can breathe, you can function. You never know what’s going to trigger the grief. It might be a song, a picture, a street intersection, the smell of a cup of coffee. It can be just about anything…and the wave comes crashing. But in between waves, there is life.
Somewhere down the line, and it’s different for everybody, you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall. Or 50 feet tall. And while they still come, they come further apart. You can see them coming. An anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas, or landing at O’Hare. You can see it coming, for the most part, and prepare yourself. And when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side. Soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you’ll come out.
Take it from an old guy. The waves never stop coming, and somehow you don’t really want them to. But you learn that you’ll survive them. And other waves will come. And you’ll survive them too. If you’re lucky, you’ll have lots of scars from lots of loves. And lots of shipwrecks.
I didn’t know what it would look like to remain steady when a wave of grief hits my shores, but by God’s grace I’m standing there now. I posted on Instagram today that even after a tough conversation, and a sappy love song, there I was still standing. “It’s not that I’ve moved on, but that I have solid footing on the land so those waves can’t knock me around.” The difference between them and now has some to do with time… but a lot more to do with God’s steady hand guiding me toward healing.
One thing throughout the change that has remained constant: God has not left my side. He has not let the grief overtake me. When I feel like I’m drowning, his arms are open wide.
He promised they would be, and He is faithful!
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you (Isaiah 43:2)