Grief in the Body
When I was 33 I was pregnant with my second child. That year and the four that followed were the most devastatingly intense and ultimately most healing years I have known. There was my life before and there is my life now. I'm still digesting those five years and their place in the story of my life. I'm choosing details here to tell you some of what I know now about grief and the human heart and body.
I think my dance with denial of grief and depression started long before that time, it just solidified at 33 into something that I could no longer live my life around. I was good at stoicism and pretending that I had it all under control, or at least of rejecting well meaning offers of help because I saw myself as a competent woman.
When I was 32 and my first baby was ten months old, we moved back to Victoria from Toronto. I went from living with Todd and my dog and my small babe to living with all of those beings plus my parents when we moved into the apartment upstairs in their house. I thought it would be easy and supportive, and sometimes it was, but often it wasn't. I felt hemmed in. I fought with my parents. I quit my PhD at the University of Toronto and so gave up a huge piece of my adult identity. Our home was messy and it bothered me. I started down the slope of what I now recognize as my manifestation of depression: exhaustion with no respite in sight, hair-trigger rage, a yawning pit of despair at my feet, a sense of constantly failing at everything, and mostly just wanting people to go away and leave me alone.
Also during this time, my best friend Kevin stopped speaking to me. He was struggling hugely in his life and was cutting people off left and right, I just never thought he would do it to me. He did. He didn't talk to me for a year and a half. I was intensely angry, but I never let myself drop down into the devastating sadness that was underneath the anger. How much easier would it have been on my whole body and emotional-energetic-mental health if I had been able to mourn the loss of his friendship?
We are not, in general, very good at grief in this culture. Some of us are more stubborn than others.
Into this, I got pregnant for the second time.
Almost immediately I had a quietly gutting interaction with my dad, after which he didn't speak to me for three days. I didn't let myself know how much that hurt. I carried on.
The pregnancy was complicated. I found out that I would have to have that baby by C-section, and that both of our lives were in danger if I went into labour. I had to choose a date for the C-section. My husband planned a work trip to Indonesia to fit into the space before the baby was born, he thought. I asked him not to go, once, but I didn't push it. I couldn't push anything. It would take a lot more words to spell out how wrecked I was on the inside during that time. So he went and he wasn't here when I started bleeding in the early morning and had to have the baby, who turned out to be Tristan, that day. It was a Wednesday. Todd didn't get home until Sunday. I said it was ok. Nothing was particularly ok, so what was one more thing?
Then Tris got sick and we were in the hospital for two nights.
Through all of this I had a toddler, my Emily, and I felt like I was failing her daily. I would go to bed at night with an aching heart, whispering to her small sleeping self that I was so sorry and that I’d try to do better tomorrow, all the while being sure that I would fail in some way, again.
Kevin finally phoned me. When I saw him, his teeth were all blackened and rotting. I couldn't cry. For months and months and months more, I couldn't cry. I would get close - tears would well up at the corners of my eyes - and then I would back away again. I wanted to cry, but there was so much dammed up there I was afraid I might never stop.
Somewhere in the first year of Tristan's life I got a rash under my right breast. It started as a small patch on my ribcage. Then it spread to be on the underside of the breast. Then it spread to the other side. I ignored it. Then I treated it with herbal creams at home and ignored it some more. I went to see my doctor. He treated it with cortisone. It worked, so I ignored it. Then it didn't work. That rash grew and receded and grew again, but never went away. At it's worst it was red, raw, oozing and stingingly painful to the touch. Summer was hell. I tucked small cloths up under my breasts so that my skin didn't touch other skin. It was the rash, the persistent, ever-present, sometimes intensely painful rash that made me look at what was going on emotionally. This took a long time and had many, many steps and realizations. I’m not sure that I can recreate the order that they happened in.
A healer that I saw somewhere along the way called the rash “tears on the inside,” and I can see now how that was so: so much locked away, unexpressed grief that my body was trying to do the crying that I couldn’t.
When Tris was 9 months old, I started a two-year Shamanism training program. It was a beautiful and intense crucible for transformation. Halfway through those two years, I learned another healing modality and completed my training in both of them a year later.
I learned that I had no idea how to love myself. I didn’t, in fact, even know that I wasn’t loving myself. Like, if asked, “Do you love yourself?” I would automatically have answered, “Yes,” but in day-to-day reality, my treatment of myself was closer to loathing than loving. That was a huge eye-opener. I started cultivating soft eyes for the suffering in the world and for my own very human self.
I learned that I had a pattern that was simple to express but oh, so complicated in its drive in my life. I had this rule that said, “If it’s the right choice, then you can’t be sad about it.” Think about that for a moment. In any given situation where I needed to make a choice, there was a right way and a wrong way, and if I decided that something was the right choice, then there was no room to grieve. No sadness for the path not taken. No space for mourning the fact that there was even a choice to make. So, for instance, when I chose to leave my PhD and give up the rest of my federal doctoral funding, there was no possibility to let my heart cry for leaving the academic world that I had been a part of for so long and that had shaped my self-perception and supported me for so many years. No. If it was the right choice, then there were to be no tears.
I know now that access to grief gives our hearts flexibility. The more you can grieve the large and the small things of life, the more you are able to open to life. The heart can trust that you will be able to move through whatever it is and to put yourself back together and digest whatever it was. Moving through heartbreak of any degree with as much integrity and tears as you can will build resilience. Your heart will know that it can take what life brings, and so you can invite in even more that you might lose.
Water on the lungs, asthma, chronic bronchitis, pneumonia, shortness of breath, tight chest in general, lymphatic and armpit things, and, it turns out, rashes on the chest, all lead me now to unexpressed grief when I see them in clients.
In the years of spiraling out of my darkest place, climbing that huge mountain to a place of clear mental health, my friend Kevin went through intense health issues. I don’t even know how to tell you, without using up a dozen superlatives, how important that friendship had been to me since I was 19. I was with him in hospital when he almost died but recovered, and again when he had a second surgery and was left paralysed. I still didn’t know how to grieve, and I only shed tears, “lost it,” I would have said, the sunny February afternoon that I found out that he likely would never walk again.
Through a beautiful series of people who came to me for healing sessions, I was learning about grief, but not yet applying it to my own life.
From a woman not much older than me who had just lost her mom, I learned that grief is not a problem to be fixed, and a healer should not try to take it away, but only clean up the edges to support the process.
From a woman who was nursing an ailing husband, I learned that grieving as you go through a death process with someone honours you, honours them, and honours your love and connection.
From a woman who was herself dying, though neither of us knew it at the time, I learned that it is never too late to clean up trauma and move deeper into you.
Then I found out that Kevin had died.
I still didn’t quite get it, about grief, but I saw immediately that I had to start getting it. I made the list in my head of all the people that would likely die before I do, all the people in my life that I love to pieces that I would need to grieve and want to honour with my mourning. I started the list with my aging dog, who definitely counts as a person. Next were my parents, my father-in-law, my teachers, and so on.
My rash was still with me, pushing me to further and further self-inquiry. Mostly what I found is that I had (and still have, to some degree) a very hard time letting myself feel my feelings as they are occurring. They come first to my notice as anger, or irritation, and only after a while do they come to my conscious awareness as sadness, disappointment, devastation, dismay... I had an automatic squash-and-stuff mechanism for uncomfortable feelings. In my own self-inquiry and in my work with clients, much of the “stuff” that comes up as pain and discomfort in our bodies has to do with clearing the way for feeling feelings.
I’m 40 now and this is the first summer that I have been entirely rash-free. It has taken seven years for this to be resolved. It takes time and attention, sometimes a lot of each, to heal complicated life patterns. But the thing is that you are living your life while the healing is happening. The more you can be with each piece of life and the healing process as it is occurring, the more you get to be deep in your juicy experience and the less, hopefully, you will have to go back and digest what couldn’t be digested at the time.
Grieving the small stuff brings us resilience for when the big stuff crashes down on us. Weep, my friends. Weep. Let your hearts break. Let the beauty of the first sunlight through a spider’s web bring you to joy. Let your beautiful life in as much as you think you can, and just a little bit more.