What Grief Looks Like
Updated: Oct 31, 2019
I've been meaning to write about this for a long time, and I've avoided it because it's hard. It's hard to think about, hard to dwell on, hard to feel. The community of people with whom I went to university lost yet another member of our tribe this week to a totally random, unforeseen brain bleed. A young person, a bright, creative, kind soul who many people will miss very much. I say 'yet another' because even within this small, tight-knit community we have lost many people—an improbable number—to suicide, to freak accident, to disease. And it will never get easier.
I was in a play senior of college. It was the last play of my college career in a role I was really proud of, written and directed by and performed alongside people who were a pleasure and an honor to work with. I had emotionally intimate and intense scenes in this play with someone who became a good friend—Paul. He was fun and quirky and brilliant and talented. He challenged me on and off stage to be a better actor and a better person, and he killed himself the weekend before our play was supposed to open.
I don't want to describe what it felt and still feels like, because I don't have any words for it, and all attempts at my expression of that feeling sound empty to me, like an echoed performance of my grief that doesn't mean what I want it to. The words slip away and wriggle off and form something entirely different from how they felt inside of me, so I have stopped trying to perform it for anyone. If I talk about it, it just comes out raw and painful and unfinished...which is what it is. But I can never seem to put it into some concrete piece of thought (although this is certainly an attempt). There is nothing that can say how I feel. And then I feel guilty for saying nothing, and then guilty for feeling guilty because none of this is about me in the first place. Paul's suicide was about his pain, his struggle. Everyone left in the wake of it has struggled and will struggle with the same things: loss, guilt, sadness that feels like it has no bottom. But it will feel different for everyone and it will look...well. If it feels different for everyone, it certainly looks different for everyone. Some people needed to post about it on social media and felt comfortable doing so, posting beautiful dedications and expressions of loss, some of which I still have saved on my computer because their words helped me give shape to my own grief. Some people needed to talk about it with fellow cast members or mutual friends, and some people couldn't, and for a long time I couldn't. And then I did post something but it didn't feel right and I feel like I did it because I felt like I should, because there was this expectation to—an expectation which was mostly self-imposed.
In the wake of deaths there are rituals. There are funerals and memorials and wakes and therapy sessions. There will always be someone who was closer to him. Someone who lost more than you did when he died. And you feel guilty that you let him die and you feel guilty for feeling the way you do because you didn't know him that well, not really, and you feel guilty for not saying anything in the aftermath because you just can't choke out the words. No one should be judged for the way their grief looks or sounds or how and if they perform it, but that perceived judgment is a very hard thing to escape.
I have many friends and loved ones who have lost mothers, fathers, siblings, and friends, too soon. This is part of each of our lives at some point, but it feels anything but mundane. We feel such deep, physically heart-aching sadness and grief for them and their loss, we feel that loss through them—but it's always filtered, permutated through our own individual experience. I will never know what someone else's grief and sadness feels like. Some people believe in afterlives and some do not, some people find comfort in the ritual and others can't bear it. And that is one of the hardest things about grief—that it is so isolating. Grief, like love, is one of those emotions that is perhaps the deepest felt and thus the hardest to communicate. But unlike love, grief is not so easily shared. People in love can be satisfied that they love each other deeply and take joy and pleasure in the fact that the love is felt differently. Love can be shared almost fully, but everyone will have secret parts of themselves that they will never be able to communicate; deep, private, formless thoughts and feelings that will never be put into words simply because they are completely inexpressible. Grief is that, but so much more of it is that secret, deep darkness.
The added issue with grief is the self-consciousness. Grief is so hard because there is an expectation of what your grief should look like, sound like, feel like—even if not overtly, there is always the shadow of that expectation. No one creates it on purpose or imposes it on anyone else, but it's there. The second that someone speaks about their grief, everyone else starts to think about how theirs should be expressed. And some people feel comfortable with this and others do not. Grief is an obscure, shapeless thing for everyone, and for everyone it is utterly unique. When Paul died there were outpourings of love and support for everyone left behind, which really was wonderful. I would not have gotten through it without the help and unconditional love and support and forgiveness of my loved ones. Everyone needed that, and in the small ways that we could, we shared our pain with each other. But I also felt that there was a pressure to perform my grief, and I know other people feel this pressure too. People were posting on Facebook and holding ceremonies and I just felt like I couldn't do it. I couldn't put anything into words, I couldn't get out of my own head long enough to go to any of these events and then I felt guilty, like maybe people would assume I wasn't sad or that I didn't care. And then I felt guilty for making any of this about me. And I was just so, so angry, about everything.
When Anne died in a bike accident earlier this year I couldn't bear to even talk to anyone about it. I couldn't read about it online, couldn't face it in any of its capacities. This is probably a form of denial. And then I felt the guilt again. The guilt of feeling that because I had not performed my grief in public no one knew about it and therefore it wasn't valid, it didn't exist, and that people would judge me for that. And then feeling so incredibly small and foolish and petty for thinking even for a second that anyone cared about me in this situation, for feeling that even one iota of this was about me. Even writing this feels performative—what right do I have to talk about any of this? What right, what position, who said this was allowed? Why do I feel like I need someone to tell me I am allowed to feel this way, to tell me I am allowed to talk about this?
Because here's the thing. Grief is selfish. Grief is almost an entirely self-centered emotion—in very simplified distillation it's how you feel about someone's death, how it affects you and those you love and care for, how you feel for other people who are grieving. The conclusion to all this spiraling self-doubt and anxiety during the grieving process is, I think, to forgive yourself.
Let yourself feel the way that you feel without thinking about how it looks, how it performs, how it may be judged. God knows it's hard enough as it is. But if you can do anything, it is to be kind with yourself and with the others who are affected. Love each other. Be there for each other or leave each other be, and ask when people need one or the other. They may not have the answer, but I bet they'll be glad you gave them the choice. I found speaking with a counselor can make a real difference in the way you're feeling—expressing everything to someone who is unbiased and uninvolved can be very freeing. Please do seek help if you feel even remotely like that may be something that will benefit you. Read about it, write about it, walk about it, try not to think about it, dwell on it—whatever you need to do for you. Grief is a Thing With Feathers is a good book for processing. I am not a mental health professional or even someone who has experienced a lot of either life or death, so I feel like a bit of a fraud offering any of this advice. But if it helps even one person to know that this is normal and that other people feel this way, then that will be enough.
If anyone needs anything, let me know if I can help. If anyone can relate—or has had a different experience—and you feel like you'd like to talk to other people about it, please feel free to start a discussion in the comments. This is a judgment-free place. Thanks for listening.