Grief is the intense sadness that is often associated with the death of someone we love. Other losses can also provoke the same agonizing pain. Though the events that cause us to grieve vary, the experience is universal. Understanding the different types of grief may provide some security and community in the shared journey to acceptance. Being able to go on after a significant loss might seem like a profound uphill battle. We are overwhelmed, and confused, and can’t imagine how we will continue going through life without their presence. Life will never feel the same, and it won’t be.
I didn’t always recognize it, but grief has played a role in my life since I was a child. My father is an alcoholic, and after a drawn-out, gruesome divorce from my mom, his presence was toxic and, probably for the best, very infrequent. My mom became addicted to prescription medications and spent most of her time sleeping. To escape the disfunction, both of my sisters moved out and finished high school living with different family members. I never even considered college for myself, so I dropped out and began working menial jobs. As soon as I was able to afford to rent a room, I moved into a shared house with other, equally adrift, young adults where drug and alcohol abuse was standard.
I was desperate to establish some form of stability in my life. I had no path or a plan. I was insecure about not having an education and when the people around me began to find their place in life, I felt even more unsure of what my future was going to look like. There was a void that was difficult to pinpoint, and I wasn’t sure what would satisfy it. Each step I took, changing jobs, settling down with a partner, moving in, and getting a dog, was an attempt at obtaining that fulfilling life I wanted. Becoming a parent for me was deliberate. I thought building a family of my own, like the one I wished I had, must be the step that would finally fill my cup.
I held on to my resentment of my parents. I regretted many of the decisions I had made that left me feeling discontented. Expecting my children to resolve these needs was unproductive, and unfair to them. I had been in therapy on and off throughout the years, trying to work through my experiences growing up, but it wasn’t until my most recent therapist asked me if I had had the chance to grieve the childhood I didn’t get, did it finally click. It had never been put that way for me and I didn’t realize the emotions I had been battling were part of grief.
As we know, the stages of grief are not linear. They can appear in varying sequences, and we can return to previous stages along the way. For me, denial was the first stage. I remember as a young adult having a hard time relating to my peers. I remember being called immature by a family member and that stuck with me. In some ways, they were right though. I didn’t want to grow up. I couldn’t imagine working towards a career, I put off getting a driver’s license because I was terrified to drive, I never considered buying a car or even living on my own to be possible options. Denial that, despite feeling less than prepared to face adulthood, life was moving on regardless.
The bargaining stage presented as being unable to acknowledge how I was affected by the life I had been given. I saw that my experiences had been problematic, but I continued beating myself up over what I perceived as my failures. As an adult, I would reflect on my performance in school and wonder why I just didn’t try harder. If I had applied myself, things could have been different. If I had made better choices in dating, I could have enjoyed my teenage years rather than been stuck with an older, abusive boyfriend. I denied the role that being in perpetual survival mode played in my inability to live the life I saw others leading.
I closely identify with the anger stage associated with grief. I still experience a lot of anger. It’s not fair for a child to have parents with emotional issues greater than their ability to support, teach, encourage, and guide us. Loss isn’t fair. It’s something we have little to no control over and it’s hard to accept that. Each year around Mother’s and Father’s Day, the cards and social media posts lauding the best moms and dads of the world stung. These holidays are an annual reminder that I will never know that bond that some people get and that I desperately wanted, with my parents. I can attribute my past of drug and alcohol abuse to the anger that I harbored which was one of the challenges I revisit and reflect on often in my sobriety.
It can be difficult to distinguish clinical depression from just being unhappy with life and its circumstances. The depression stage of grief comes in waves. Being able to view my experiences through the lens of grief has allowed me to mourn. Some days are harder than others and some moments are more painful than the next. It can be exhausting just getting through each day, but it is getting better.
Finally, acceptance. Though this is often viewed as the final step, it is normal, and okay, for it to fluctuate. I am in a lot better place now than I was before. I was able to view the effects of prolonged childhood trauma as grief. Facing life sober has given me a clearer mind and has allowed me to work through the anger and resentment, rather than covering them up with substances. I have accepted that I cannot go back in time, that I had done the best I could with what I had, and that I can channel the challenges in my life towards something productive. I can use my life as a lesson to improve my relationship with my kids and provide them with the love and support they deserve and feel proud of the progress I have made. It’s been a wild ride, and none of it has been easy.
Grieving is a very personal experience. The situations that cause us to grieve and how we process them will be unique to each of us, but we don’t have to face them alone. Finding support in others who can relate to the devastating loss of a loved one, a career, or your childhood, can set us on a path forward. Grief groups give us a chance to share our thoughts, feelings, and struggles. We can focus this energy in a therapeutic manner, helping others and receiving help in the healing process.
Katey is a former intern with the CHAN Project, who provided valuable time working with the team on our Grief Circles, content copy, and was part of our Media Design team. She has shared multiple stories with the team, to which we will be sharing along the way. Watch for more to come on Katey's Blog entries with the CHAN Project.