I am an expert in grief. By the age of 30 I had lost both of my biological parents and a brother. Statistically, this should be impossible, but my luck is just that good. It’s been just over 10 months since my brother, Bob, was killed, which puts me solidly in the still-so-sad-it-should-be-illegal-but-capable-of-looking-normal stage of grieving. And while grief is different for everyone, it tends to follow patterns. This means that, while I can’t say specifically what any single person’s grieving process will be like on any given day, I can predict the general path it will take. And that path looks something like this:
There is a tragedy. You are in shock. You can’t believe that this happened to you, to your family, in a world where things as pure as puppies and unicorn frappes exist. You spend weeks asking if what’s happening is really happening, because your mind refuses to believe what your heart already knows. There must be a mistake, right? You may ask this out loud so often that your partner/best friend/dog/therapist gets sick of it, but keep asking. It’s important to get (gentle) confirmation that, yes, this is happening–not to torture yourself, but to help anchor you to reality. Shock exists for a reason. It makes you capable of functioning through the hardest of days and the hardest of tasks. It gives you just enough distance that you can survive what should be unsurvivable pain. It also makes you vague, forgetful, and incapable of making a decision as simple as whether you should eat a turkey or a ham sandwich for lunch.
Which may be annoying at first, but being in shock may be better than what comes next, because once the shock wears off, you’re going to be so, so sad and so, so angry that you may not recognize yourself. You’ll lash out at the people closest to you and not be able to stop. You’ll say mean things to your partner and your children without knowing why. You’ll want to scream every single second of every single day and hurt those who try to help you. You have to be careful about being this sad and this angry, because if you aren’t, you’ll push away the people who you need to be there, supporting you, and the sadness and anger is unmanageable alone. There is a reason that people who have gone through a tragedy are at a higher risk for drug and alcohol abuse: if your options are to feel like your body is being ripped apart piece by piece by grief or feel nothing at all, you’ll be tempted to choose feeling nothing every single time.
But, listen, here’s the thing: you have to keep choosing sadness. You have to keep waking up and remembering what happened, thinking about it, living through it, because giving yourself time and grace is the only real way through grief.
And I promise, as bleak as this all sounds, there will come a day when you turn on the radio and start to sing. Or hear or a joke and start to laugh. Or see a dog and smile. This will catch you by surprise. You may feel guilty. Don’t. This is the first step to moving through grief. The next week you might laugh twice, or agree to go out to dinner with friends, or watch a movie that reminds you of the person you lost. Maybe you start up a hobby again, or clean up your house. Maybe you go on a date. Maybe you look for new jobs. Maybe you get a dog or fifty succulents. Whatever it is, somewhere down the line–three months or three years or three decades later–you’re going to notice that, despite everything, your life has kept going and you have been living it.
See, overcoming isn’t about forgetting, or pushing aside, or replacing. It’s not about refusing to grieve or heal. It’s not about who stops crying first. It’s about having a terrible experience and continuing to live. It’s the millions of actions you’ll make throughout the rest of your life that will all be touched by this experience, but not controlled by it. It’s recognizing that you were touched by this experience, but you aren’t defined by it. Overcoming is every little thing you’ll do for the rest of your days that says, “Yes, I was sad, and yes, my heart was broken, and yes, I am still here.”
We grieve because we loved and we were loved; we overcome because we still love and we still are loved.
Emily is a cat and dog mom, feminist, avid reader, and co-owner and COO of Young&BosSHE, LLC., a blog, podcast, and platform for young professional women and femmes. She holds an M.Ed. in Organizational Leadership and Communication and has worked as librarian, fundraiser, gardener, and exotic fish caretaker. She lives in Cleveland, OH with her partner.