The Truth About My Epic Attempt to Control Grief
Back when I worked in a cubicle (circa 1993), there was a bullet-shaped desk that divided the space between me and my cubemate Mike.
Mike was a good guy but he was LOUD. He frequently put headphones on and jammed out to his tunes, pounding on the desk like he was the actual drummer for Def Leppard (pour some sugar on me).
Co-workers across the aisle would stand and peer over their navy blue cushion-covered cubicle walls and hiss, “Mike, BE QUIET!!!” and then they’d look at me with the question in their eyes, “How can you stand him??”
I’d look up from my computer, confused ... ”What's going on?” Their irritated faces and bulging eyes looking sideways at Mike clued me in, “Oh him … I just tune him out.”
Suffice it to say, one thing I can do REALLY WELL is focus on the task at hand and ignore everything else.
A lot of the time this “ability” is a good thing. But when it comes to grief it’s a mixed bag.
On the one hand, my focus-power allowed me to return to my demanding job a week after Jackson’s death (2003) and raise my 2 subsequent children pretty much single-handedly (before and after my divorce in 2008).
On the other hand, focusing entirely on my responsibilities meant I didn’t deal with my grief. I compartmentalized it. I tried to control it ... by shoving it in a box and slamming the lid shut.
I went to work. I took care of my kids. I didn’t have time to pee, or eat, much less grieve.
Fast forward to 2013 when I joined a women’s Bible study. This was the first sustained social interaction I’d had in 10 years.
Week after week I listened to the ladies vulnerably sharing their painful stories … right there in front of 20+ other ladies … wow.
That’s when I realized how much I’d distanced myself from everyone … for 10 YEARS (Homer-Simpson-style forehead slap “D’oh!”).
Why exactly did I avoid connecting with people for so many years? Largely because a conversation about your child’s death is a conversation no one wants to have.
I experienced too many occasions when, after telling someone about Jackson, the tension was thick and the silence was thunderous. The death of a child is too terrifying to contemplate much less talk about ... so most people would have a sudden need to use the restroom and make a quick exit. I learned to keep my story to myself.
Thankfully, there was one exception - an online support group for SIDS moms. I did find tremendous relief in that group where I could share the whole truth about my grief and pain.
But I didn’t think I could be so disturbingly honest with my mom or sisters or anyone else who loved me because I knew how badly it would hurt them.
Plus, they couldn’t truly understand ... Another forehead slap “D’oh!” … because people don’t have to 100% understand to be there for you … I get that now.
But back then …
I focused on all my responsibilities and pretended to be OK.
And it’s not like I didn’t deal with my grief AT ALL. I wrote in my journal and I read a lot of books and I had my SIDS group. I felt I had “continued on with my life” with as much grace and gratitude as a person could.
But with hindsight I can see, I was using my focusing power not only to survive, but also to try and ignore/outrun/control my grief and pain.
After 10 years of running, the jig was kinda up.
The damn box, the one where my grief was held in captivity, it was intent on opening … to let out the rightfully demanding feelings.
I tried sitting on the box like an overstuffed suitcase packed for a ski trip to Tahoe but that didn’t work.
I began having sporadic fainting spells. A sudden hot flash would come over me and I'd feel nauseous. Then my vision would start narrowing, like at the end of an old cartoon, with the black and white kaleidoscope closing in. At this point I would just plop down before falling down.
I couldn’t be fainting in the conference room or the car or the kitchen making dinner, so I was forced to take action. I went to several doctors, got some therapy, and was able to solve my fainting spell problem.
And you know what I did after that? I went right back to my old ways … focus focus focus … I'm fine I'm fine I'm fine ... doing my job, taking care of others, letting no one take care of me, not even myself.
It took ANOTHER SEVEN YEARS before I took BIG action to truly deeply heal.
You’re probably wondering, “What was it Jennifer that FINALLY got you to take that big action after so many years?”
Are you ready?
It wasn’t about me. I thought I was doing OK. I took that big step so I could help someone else.
A client had come to me for help coping with the loss of her husband. And I couldn’t help her, not enough.
Even though I'd experienced grief, understood grief, and was well-read on the topic ... none of that was enough for me to provide a transformative experience for her.
So, I signed up for a training course to be certified as a Grief Recovery Specialist (2020).
As part of the certification process, you work through your life history of losses and drill down into one specific loss as well.
I chose to work on the loss of my relationship with my dad because I thought it would be easier than talking about the death of my baby Jackson.
And I thought I stood a good chance of not breaking down crying in front of the whole group … wrongo
I started crying in the first 30 minutes on the 1st day during the “go around the room and tell us your name and what loss (losses) brought you here.” I proceeded to cry for the next 2 days.
You may not know this about me but I’m not a crier, at ALL, and “I don't do vulnerable” (in the words of Brene Brown / The Power of Vulnerability).
Before experiencing grief recovery, I (unknowingly) lived under a tremendous weight of unresolved pain:
simmering feeling of brokenness
unhappy memories overshadowing/blocking the happy memories
guilt over things said and unsaid / things done and not done
tremendous regret and sadness over unrealized hopes, dreams, and expectations
After finishing the program:
My body felt light. My chest was tall and open, full of air and anticipation.
My shoulders were upright, not sagging in their usual way.
When I imagined what the future might hold, I felt practically giddy.
The walls I had unknowingly erected to protect my heart came down.
The PAIN was gone, leaving behind only LOVE and happy memories.
The point of this whole story is, I know facing the pain of loss is SCARY.
But you’re going to face it eventually … sooner is better than later.
Don’t be like me. Don't try to control grief by shoving it into a box. Don't hide from your family and friends and the world for 17 years.
It won't work anyway. The weight of unresolved pain will be there, your constant companion.
Only pain that is acknowledged, felt, and honored can be healed.