It has been a few months since my grandpa died. Since then, my grandma and I have shared many conversations about him, their marriage, their lives as individuals, and the grieving process.
As I sat in line at the carwash a few days ago catching up with “Memow” on the phone, I asked her what grieving means to her? She didn’t know. I wasn’t sure exactly what it meant to me either, at least not in a way I could succinctly describe in the moment. We decided then and there that we’d do some journaling on it and share our results later in the week.
So, what does it mean to grieve?
Grieving means surrendering to, or at least being aware of, the monumental shift happening in you and around you.
Grieving is complex and looks different depending on the person. I believe that grieving is acknowledgement. Deep, honest, raw acknowledgement of the way things were, and that suddenly without your permission, they are no longer that way. Acknowledgement doesn’t always have to be a public statement. In fact, I think acknowledgement is often a quiet truth whispered to yourself in the still moments. Acknowledgement can come out as a question, a statement, a letter, a poem, tears, laughs, or simply a feeling of surrendering yourself.
Acknowledging something means that you are present to the feelings and emotions that come and go. It means you are present to the feelings that sit, stay, and overstay their welcome. What does it mean to be present to feelings? That can sometimes sound a little esoteric. Being present to feelings means not resisting them. It means paying attention and asking yourself, “How do I feel right now?” and listening for your honest answer.
Grieving is giving yourself permission to be where you are. Some days you may operate almost as normal, at least to the outside world. Other days, the feeling of loss, absence, and forced change threatens to swallow you whole.
Grieving means crying in private, and sometimes in the checkout line at Trader Joe’s. Grieving may also mean not crying at all, and allowing yourself freedom from worrying if you’re “doing it wrong.” Grieving means allowing yourself the freedom to express yourself in any way that you need, even when that outward expression changes minute by minute.
Through grieving, we are honoring. Grieving is a ceremony that can be boisterous and full of tributes, songs, and prayers, or it can be as quiet as holding their t-shirt, breathing in their scent, and whispering “I love you” and “your life mattered and changed me.”
Grieving means recognizing that there is a hole that someone left behind. It’s not grieving if you throw a few wooden boards over the hole and say, “OK, all is well and that chapter is closed now.” The hole exists whether you want to believe it or not. And one day, you’ll misstep and will go crashing down into the hole. And it will fucking hurt. It hurts now, it will hurt later when you fall into hole you thought was gone. Grief hurts.
So, there’s this hole. What does it mean to grieve in terms of this hole? I think it means slowly filling up the hole with dirt. Grief dirt.
Instead of boards haphazardly thrown on top of the gaping hole, it’s a more mindful, compassionate, and gentler way of filling the hole. It’s hard work and labor intensive, grieving is a verb after all. It’s not sitting next to the hole saying, “I wish this hole didn’t exist.” Sometimes grieving is inactive and involves sitting in the hole, momentarily paralyzed. But grieving is also figuring out what to do with the hole. It’s vulnerable and messy. But the hole closes a little more every day no matter how slowly you fill it up, even if it’s a tablespoon at a time. And when you’ve filled it to the top, when your tears, testimonies, prayers, ceremonies, rituals, rants, laughs, and honoring traditions have sealed the hole, it still doesn’t mean the hole is gone.
The hole is still there. The grief dirt is softer than the surrounding soil, so you sink a little as you walk over it. But you have ground to stand on because you did the work. You added that grief dirt. Everyone fills their holes differently, but you can only fill it if you accept that the hole is there in the first place, and you decide to find a meaningful way to fill it.
When you walk over the soft grief dirt, sometimes you still sink down into it like quicksand. You may stay sunken in sorrow for a few days or weeks, but you climb your way back out eventually. And you see that adding grief dirt to the hole is a never ending process. You add some, and an unexpected storm washes it away. You add more, your friends and family add some too.
Grieving means accepting that some days you’ll feel okay, and then you may feel guilty for feeling okay. And that’s okay, too. Grieving means accepting that other days, you’ll feel so far from okay you don’t know if you’ll ever find your way back there. But you will. You’ll remember to get your hands dirty with grief dirt– whatever that means to you. Sing, scream, write, paint, read, organize, reminisce, say their name, adopt a dog, meditate, exercise, sit, rest, sleep, talk, feel, be. Allow yourself to be.