Grief, to me, is the soulful ache that comes from an expanse of emptiness we feel when we have lost something… someone, we cannot get back.
There is no longing, no amount of love, work or effort that changes grief. Grief changes us. For those who are fighters, taking on life with resilience, determined to not back down, grief humbles. For those who fight against life’s troubles with an indignant stance against how it all unfolds, grief angers. For those who feel life deals blows they are not, and never were able to fight, grief isolates.
How then, can there be gifts in grief?
Saying grief is a gift, I admit is akin to saying having a leg amputated is a gift. There is no gift of grief in the beginning. There is only pain. As you move through grief, which can take 5-10 years to truly process, you will receive more than pain. You will receive these gifts: knowing submission, accepting time, finding the ability to withstand and release judgement of others, and you will learn, taking one day at a time, you can and will survive.
If you allow yourself and others to feel the pain and have grace through the process, you will become a more complete, more understanding and more compassionate version of your former self. As with most other types of painful experiences, the answer is: Yes, there are gifts in grief.
The Gift of Knowing Submission
Submission has such an ugly connotation by itself. It implies weakness. I have found, submission when it is our choice to submit, is entirely the opposite, it is a choice to accept what is. It is such an easy thing to misunderstand that it bears repeating: Submission in the form of peaceful acceptance of life, is a gift.
The ability to submit to the pain, to accept the reality of its existence, rather than try to outrun or outwork it, has taught me to give myself and others, grace. Submitting to the process without knowing how it will go, has taught me the possibility of outcomes I could never predict.
Grief has stages, but we don’t experience them in a clean, consecutive fashion. In submitting to the unknown of what each day, hour or moment’s emotions might bring, I have received the gift of letting go of the illusion of control over life.
I also have peace in trusting Him more than I ever thought prudent or possible.
The Acceptance of Time
It is a gift to accept time. I used to fight it and curse it. There were never enough hours in the day, never enough time to enjoy. There were difficult times I wanted to speed through. Times when I was excited and didn’t want to wait. Time felt more an enemy than a friend.
In grieving, I learned to accept time for what it is. It appears solid and predictable, but grief showed me how earthly time is and how totally irrelevant it is to the soul’s journey. Time also morphs when you remember a moment that seems like yesterday. Tremendous pain can erase our awareness and memory of time in hindsight.
About a year after Chris’s death, a friend came to visit. She is also a widow and was 7 years ahead of me in grieving her husband. As we sat on the couch, she lovingly told me, “There will be a time where this life, will feel like a different life.” I felt a physical pain in my chest as if the heartbreak was so big it was threatening to break my ribs.
Against my will, I started sobbing. I wanted the life I had. I didn’t want to lose it and I didn’t want to feel like it was a thing long gone, in my past, as if in another life. It would mean Chris was even further away if this life felt further away. And I sobbed because I knew, I would have no control over this either. Time would steal this life from me as much as the murderer stole my husband.
With grief, time cannot dictate progress anymore. There is no “I will do A and B in C amount of time.” We cannot complete X and Y by Z date.”
There cannot be a plan for grief made by the clock.
The Gift of Withstanding and Releasing the Judgement of Others
Before Chris was killed, I watched many in the sisterhood enter the world of widowhood. They were living my worst nightmare. I had no judgement of their path to healing, only compassion.
Sadly, I heard plenty of judgement from others about how these women acted, reacted, moved through, hurt, healed and more. Whether they married again quickly, began drinking heavily and going out with friends, or stayed single for years, they grieved and they suffered…for years. We all react to pain differently as we stumble through an unknown future.
As I reflect back on the times before grief, when I was in the most intense physical pain of my life, I needed and as kindly as I could muster, demanded space because it felt like if anyone touched me, I would lose my focus on staying strong and calm. It felt like any interruption could worsen the pain. Other times, when life was chaotic and terrifying, I wanted someone to hold my hand, sit with me, let me lay my head on their shoulder, or just hold me in the way a parent wraps their arm around their child as if to shield them from the world that delivered the pain.
Other people want entirely different things when they are in pain. How then, can we possibly know what someone else is going through and how they are feeling by what we see from the outside? We cannot. Still, the judgment of others also grieving the loss of the same person or others who have “no skin in the game” seems an inevitable insult to the tremendous injury of grief.
I often felt I walked around a shell of a person with my actual self, living an alternate reality on a busy corner of a major city where I was physically gutted and left on the sidewalk to bleed out. Perhaps that sounds extreme, and it was exactly what I saw in my mind’s eye more often than not as I continued to walk through life. When someone would hurl anger, hatred, lies, would seek to take pieces of Chris for profit or personal gain, I could only think “Do they not see me here, gutted and bleeding out?” I felt I was fighting for my very survival, sometimes if only for my children.
Even as I was experiencing it, I would wonder what made people behave so cruelly. Over time I began to see more clearly:
Often those who judge are people who, rather than feel pain, choose to be angry with someone else. Perhaps it is easier, or more familiar to feel anger rather than the gut-wrenching pain of heartbreak.
Still others need to be a victim to get the care they wanted and didn’t get in their life. These people create a story around whatever thing or person they need to in order to get more attention during their grieving. They hope to heal by demonizing someone else in order to be seen as a greater victim.
Some feel the pain of regret so strongly, they re-direct their regret turning it into blaming someone else for either the death, or the life of the person who is gone.
When looking at others, one doesn’t have to look at oneself.
What can we do about it? We can try to make peace. If it isn’t welcome, we need to move forward giving them grace - from a distance. I have found, creating some distance until they heal and come to us in a different way, is wise. If they don’t come back, they probably haven’t healed and it’s perfectly acceptable to leave them to God. They are His children. He loves them and will not give up on them.
The Gift of Acceptance
If there is a part of us that can be depleted, I believe it will be depleted with grief.
I grew up believing if I worked hard enough I could accomplish what I wanted to. Fortitude, resilience and persistence are all great qualities. Grief taught me, there are some situations when those qualities will not help. Sometimes, the way to attain progress in healing was to sit still in the eye of the tornado where it is oddly quiet and calm. I learned to have faith I would not be damaged in doing so. Instead, I would be much safer. Resting. Pausing. Letting the emotions live out their lives just as they wanted to. I didn’t have to stay in the eye of the storm, but I did have to take time to be there often enough for my spirit, mind and body to connect the dots and agree together, that it was okay to heal.
This one gift of acceptance led to a ripple effect of learning to accept what is. I am still learning the balance of knowing when it’s time to bring fortitude to the table and when it’s time to sit and let the dots of life connect. I think of it now, as giving God the time to work. I think of it as receiving the gift of acceptance.
My Hopes For You
My hope for you is, you will not need to learn the gifts of grief the way I did. If you are already in the throes of grief, I hope reading about these gifts will give you a glimpse of the future where you will know: the power of submission, the power of letting go of any impulse to judge someone else, the beauty in releasing any concern for being judged, and the peaceful truth in acceptance.
I hope you are encouraged in knowing one day, someday down the road, your pain will likely still live, but it will live more peacefully, tucked away behind the gifts of grief.
I hope you count on this: You can and WILL survive. One day at a time, the sun will rise and it will set, you will make progress, you will be set back, you will progress again. One day, when enough time has passed, and you’ve taken the chances to heal when you’ve had them, you will be able take the opportunity to accept these gifts fully, and you will thrive.