There are moments in life when you truly wonder: Will I get through this? Those are the moments when you are shaken to your very core, down to the bones.
My brother died in January. It was sudden. Too soon. Too unexpected. Too painful. Too…much of everything. And when he died, something inside of me broke. Yet, I kept getting up. Making breakfast. Packing and unpacking backpacks. Going to work. Breathing in and out. And deep inside, I was broken. Because that is what grief is: it is a silent, screaming shattering of the world you thought you knew.
I have taught about grief and experienced different forms of grief, but this one, this grief, was larger and bigger and more voracious that I had experienced previously. I knew the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I had been in the presence of grief more times than I can count, but the knee-dropping experience of my own grief was different than anything I had previously experienced. And, there were moments I cannot even adequately describe.
It is a very lonely place: grief. A place you often walk utterly alone.
I found that although I knew what grief was, and I could probably have told anyone else what was “normal”, I had extremely unrealistic expectations for my own grief. I felt like I was doing it all wrong. I was sending messages to myself about what I should and shouldn’t feel, and how I should or shouldn’t respond. And grief doesn’t take directions kindly. As a matter of fact, grief has a mind of its own
I thought, I knew grief, but I didn’t. I didn’t know grief in this way, and it was not a friend I wanted to have. You see, grief had never bared its teeth at me and chewed on my soft and vulnerable parts like this before. And I felt ashamed. Why wasn’t I stronger? Why was this so hard to bear? Could I possibly get through the heavy quicksand of my own emotions?
At one particularly lonely moment, I sent up a silent prayer, wondering why I felt so utterly alone, and in an almost fist-shaking moment, I asked God: Where is that person that will stand with me in my grief?
And I got an unexpected answer.
The answer wasn’t my neighbor or my friends. The answer wasn’t my relief society sisters, or the members of my church. The answer was simply this:
“I am here, Elizabeth. I am.”
And I knew that God was probably the only being that truly knew the innermost workings of my heart and the heaviness of the burden that I was carrying. God was there as I packed those backpacks and shuttled my children off to school with a smile pasted on. God was there as I cried to that silly Justin Beiber song and folded laundry and did the seemingly neverending meaningless tasks that we do every day.
In the blackness of my grief, God is there.
I take some comfort in the life cycle of the beautiful phoenix. The phoenix is a mythical bird that goes through a cyclical process of living a beautiful life, and then every few hundred years he builds a pyre and slowly and painfully burns to ashes.
This sounds terrible, doesn’t it?
But, the burning is not the end. The burning is part of the process of renewal; for out of the ashes comes a new bird, slightly different and definitely changed by the burning and refining process. The phoenix is young and vulnerable after the burning, but also somehow improved and transformed. The phoenix has special attributes: not only is it admired as one of the most vibrant and strong of the mythical creatures, but the tears of a phoenix have special healing powers.
In my selfish and limited perspective, I often would rather live life pain-free, and not experience the burning cycle of the phoenix. But God is teaching me a different way. Pain is an expression of the changes that are occurring: the growth and stretching that comes with expansion. But, I am not an object without agency. I could choose to let the burning make me angry and resentful. Or, I can choose to figure out what needs to be burned away and how to move forward. If I use my agency wisely, that burning process can make me a better person.
There are days when I have to force myself to get up and to do it all over again. Breakfast. Backpacks. Work. Repeat. But in the midst of all of those things, I have decided to make some space for my grief. Because as I do that, I acknowledge that I deserve to grieve, for I have lost something that I love.
This is the first step to grieving: acknowledging the loss and allowing yourself time and space to let it move through you. Let it happen in whatever way it comes, in whatever time you need, with whoever will stand by you in that dark and awkward place. Let yourself grieve.
And I write this so that someone else, who is in the midst of their grief knows this very thing: you are not utterly alone. I may not know the details or the depths of your grief, but I know mine. And I know that it has forever changed me. It is still changing me.
And maybe someday, like the mythical phoenix, my tears will have healing power for someone else. For now, it is enough that they are healing me.