The right way to grieve

They say there is no right way to grieve, but I see this as a partial truth.

It can mean: You’re OK. Don’t add to your torment by telling yourself that what you feel is wrong. There is no shame in feeling, just as there is no shame in not wanting to feel.

This message is important and stabilizing. We need to be told that we are having normal reactions to an abnormal situation. But that doesn’t mean that our actions don’t have consequences – on ourselves, on others, on how we get through this day to the next. No matter how understandable our inner turmoil is, when it comes to what we do with it, I’m certain there are wrong ways to grieve.

A precarious balance

From the moment we learned, 9 months ago, that our baby girl will die around the time of her birth, my life became a balancing act between keeping it together and letting the grief have its space.

I want my little boy to be as unaffected as possible, my marriage to continue to be warm and loving, my career not to suffer, and my network of friends to remain close. All of this requires being switched on to a degree that is challenging. But not keeping these parts of my life in check would be destabilizing in ways that would make things worse. And so, I try to reign in the grief without stifling it or letting it overwhelm me.

It’s like taming a beast. The successes are dubious, the failures calamitous. I might be able to pull it off eventually but it takes all my energy, it’s unclear how long it will be, and I’m not really sure how to do it. 

Some manage, and they come back to tell us that it gets easier with time. Some stay silent, and we’ll never know if they are the majority

Setting goals

It’s not about putting this behind me. I want to carry some of this grief inside me forever, because it is entwined with a deep love. What I want is to own my grief.

I also want to take the least possible amount of damage, aside from the inevitable damage of the loss.

And I want to one day be able to think of my baby with more tenderness than pain.

Since I do have goals, then perhaps there are steps to take – and steps to avoid.

Confrontations and hesitations

Ideally, it’s good to dive in, go to the darkest corners, and confront the demons. Ideally, after a frighteningly intense start, each new confrontation will be easier, and I will come to a place where I can look back on everything with a measured distance – able to plunge back in to the sadness if I want to, able to keep it at bay if not.

In practice, the pull towards the grief is strong and I have control over only a fraction of it. It becomes a background buzzing first in my body and then in my mind that I get less and less able to push away, while at the same time I get increasingly anxious in the presence of anything else that demands my attention. Then I’ll give the grief some space, turn it into words, and it will let go of me – for a while.

Voluntary retraumatization

I read about a terrible thing someone said to a newly bereaved mother, and I was pierced by my own pain again. Then I remembered that someone had said the same thing to me. At the time I felt comforted because I knew the words came from compassion. What if this idea of getting a measured distance through reading about other people’s experiences is all wrong? What if I’m making things worse by looking inward?

People tell me I’m strong. A cynical part of me then feels like I’m being nominated for bereaved mother of the year. I can confront the pain. But I don’t know if this helps me keep it in check, or if the pain instead slowly consolidates into a less penetrable structure. And what happens if repeatedly releasing it wears me down until I can’t take it any longer?

Where do I go? Follow the river

It’s a terrifying journey. I know where I want to end up, and I have some idea how to get there. But this might be too much of a challenge for all my inner strength and external sources of support. I have no idea how long I’ll keep unraveling.

However, I don’t think it’s a matter of choice: I couldn’t push this away however hard I tried. So I just ride the waves and try not to misstep too often. The key is to stay nonjudgmental when it comes to my needs, but critical when it comes to finding ways to fulfill them. And maybe, some day, I’ll come back to tell others that it does get easier with time.

3 Little Buttons
Pink Pear Bear
Papa Tont
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