Today I have been thinking about the subject of grief. It has kept coming up throughout the day, as I stumbled upon something old that I found still stung, and in a conversation with a friend. I suppose I have kind of done it to myself – in a fit of unnecessary productivity over the weekend I decided that I would go through and organize the 10,000+ emails that I have in the inbox of my yahoo mail account, an account that has been open since 2003. The last ten years have had a variety of relationships, of ups and downs, and being the emotional packrat that I am, I quickly found that I have apparently never deleted an email from a friend, family member, or lover (former or current at the time!).
Things that I had completely forgotten about were suddenly right back in my face. The good and the bad coming back to the surface with travel confirmations, receipts for flower deliveries, and in a lot of cases emails from both the beginning and the end of relationships. I have emails after my ex-husband and I separated that I know are just full of us being horrible to one another and saying awful things meant only to hurt. Those emails I didn’t delete but I also didn’t open. As I created new folders called “Old friends”, “Family”, “Old relationships”, and began moving things into folders that already existed, one name in particular kept hurting me in a way that I felt it should not. Subject lines like “To my S-” and “My love” cut my soul in a way it seemed like should be long gone, and I began to realize that maybe it wasn’t long gone so much as long buried.
I began to wonder if there is a “right” way to grieve. Grief is a misunderstood process I think. People seem to believe that closure is what’s needed to move on from the death of a loved one, a break-up, or a job loss but grief is ultimately what closes that door. Grief is allowing ourselves to feel exactly what we feel in that moment; opening ourselves up to all the pain, all the sorrow, all the doubt and fear and shame because all of those feelings are legitimate, they are normal, and most importantly they are there whether or not we choose to allow ourselves to process them. What if we don’t allow ourselves to grieve though? Will those feelings just come back, washing over us when we least expect them, like when we see an old email? In my experience, yes, and much of what I’ve read in psychology and self help subjects say that if you don’t deal with it now, you will be dealing with it later.
Part of my problem is, for the majority of my life I was terrified of my feelings. I have an emotional sensitivity disorder that went undiagnosed until I was in my early 30s. I don’t talk about it openly a lot because there is a lot of stigma surrounding any kind of mental illness, let alone one of those scary “personality disorders.” When I do describe the feelings to people, I ask them if they’ve ever been in the ocean. Feelings to me have been very much like the waves in an ocean: they can very suddenly loom larger than you expected, crashing around you, knocking you down, pulling you under so that you have to fight to breathe. Your brain can tell you that you need to be calm because panicking will make you more likely to drown, but when you’re under the waves, salt water in your nose, short of breath, not sure which way is out, the panic will set in. For a moment, you might think you are going to die, that there is no escape from all the water that engulfs you.
Luckily it is not possible to die from drowning in emotion, but it is the despair in those moments that cause many people to attempt or complete suicide. Because nothing besides what is in that moment is real – what you feel right then you will always feel. It will always be too much, it will always overwhelm you, it will never be ok again, only the moment is reality and until you try over and over, painstakingly reprogramming your brain to react to uncomfortable, unwanted emotions in a different way, this is absolutely what is real to you. That is really hard for people who don’t have an emotional sensitivity disorder to understand, but that ocean analogy is the closest I have ever gotten to explaining in a way that I felt was understood.
So how do you grieve something that happened 3, 5, 12 years ago; something you probably “should’ve” already gotten over? Now that I’m ready, is there a “right” way to grieve? I don’t really know the answers to some of those questions. I know that I never really dealt with the feelings around this particular situation, and I know that I have to now that I realize it’s a problem. That’s the problem with denial, once you’re out of it you can’t continue because that’s an active choice and no one wants to actively choose to be unhealthy. So now I have to try to feel and let go of feelings that I should’ve dealt with years and years ago. Sometimes it’s really exhausting being me. That sounds melodramatic, but I don’t care. 🙂 Every one of us has days when it’s hard to be us, the ideal is just that those days are few and far between. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting there.