Many moons ago – in what now feels like a past life – I used to teach a novel called Sixty Lights to my senior Literature students. In essence, the novel is an examination of grief and how it lingers and haunts when it’s repressed, and how it takes enormous courage to continue moving forward when your world falls off her axis.
In teaching the novel to a motley crew of teens, it reinforced my understanding: grief is universal, regardless of the forms in which it manifests; grief can follow you all your life; grief has the power to overshadow all that is wonderful, if you let it; and grief can feel manageable on one day and unbearable the next – with no particular rhyme or reason.
Sixty Lights got me thinking about how the collective ‘we’ deal with grief in its various guises and levels of intensity. Some of us have moments when we feel proud of our coping mechanisms and resilience, but other times we feel like a few hard truths are necessary to serve as a stinging reminder that things could be worse. Sometimes all we need is a long hug and a gentle nudge to recognise that life is indeed a little tough (and occasionally morbidly unfair).
There are five stages of grief and loss:
Everyone works through each stage at a different rate. What might take you a year to come to terms with, might take your best friend a decade. It would be great to skip a stage or two and wind up at Acceptance in the time it takes to order a McChicken Meal, but unfortunately it doesn’t work like that.
If you’re stuck somewhere between Denial and Anger, chances are you’re on an emotional pendulum that swings wildly from upbeat to murderous in a matter of minutes. (🙋♀️Been there!)
You probably want to:
- Cocoon yourself away from the world – under a weighted blanket (whoever invented those needs ALL the awards!).
- Lose yourself in the fictional worlds depicted in whatever you’re bingeing on Netflix this week.
- Do nothing more than is absolutely necessary to get through the next day, week or month.
- Whittle away at the most turbulent hours by planning your next steps. Maybe you:
- Google “best dog breeds for single women”
- Buy a ticket in the US Green Card Lottery (just me?!)
- Look up jobs in a land far-far away
- Browse rental properties with courtyards within walking distance of the beach
- Write up an exercise and eating plan that will allow you to feel fit again
- Plan a dream holiday that involves stints in bucketlist-ville cities like Lisbon, Istanbul, Mexico City, and Buenos Aires
Grief, is a pervasive beast with the unbridled power to catapult us headlong into the abyss. The flip-side though, is that through grief we gain perspective, resilience, and a bucket-ton of courage.
So, after my own challenging battles with grief that have required me to muster a mettle defying comprehension, I thought I’d offer up the 5 things I’ll do if ever I end up back on that emotional pendulum – swinging wildly between head-in-the-sand and blind rage.
Courage, friends. Let’s do this!
I. BE KIND TO YOURSELF WHEN MEMORY MONTAGES SHOW UP UNINVITED
As fascinating as it is that our sense of smell is the biggest trigger of recall, it also reinforces that it takes enormous courage to navigate the landmines of memory laying dormant in unsuspecting corners of everyday experience.
One minute you’re absently wiping the kitchen bench, the next a waft of freshly cut grass slides in on the wind, and suddenly you’re back on that rickety train in the Czech Republic with your head out the window – raised to the sun – your hair lashing your cheeks and an irrepressible grin plastered across your face.
It’s incredible that we can remember the little, seemingly insignificant things, but it’s also terrifying because you never know what’s going to pop up to mind-f*ck the day ahead of you.
It takes immense courage to face your triggers, your grief stokers, your painful past. And therefore, it’s absolutely essential to be kind to yourself when memory montages show up uninvited. Don’t chastise yourself or get stuck on a loop – take a breath and remind yourself: THIS TOO SHALL PASS.
II. KEEP MOVING FORWARD
I consider myself to be a fairly resilient critter. Like all of us, I’ve had a few knocks, taken a few hits, been left with a couple of unsightly war wounds – but no matter, scars are valour stamps – and yet I keep on smiling, keep on truckin’ and tell the world, time and again, to “come at me, bro”.
It helps to have the right people in your corner – the ones who tenderly call you “a little soldier”: the ones who make you shrug and smile a diminutive smile – strengthening your resolve to find the positives in the dire, and sunshine in the black.
Whether your hard times arrive with the unexpected death of a dream, a love, or game plan, you have few choices but to keep moving forward. Whether you have to find courage to navigate a change of heart, a change of pace, or a lifelong aspiration without a Plan B, there’s little else to do but keep moving forward.
As Adam Grant writes:
“It’s liberating to look for the doors that are open today. You can’t change who you’ve been. It’s never too late to choose who you want to become.” In other words: keep moving forward.
III. HAVE THE GUTS TO DITCH THE LIFE PLAN WHEN IT AIN’T WORKIN’…
Since I quit living a conventional life and gave up on conforming to other people’s ideas of what my existence should entail, I’ve had lots of moments of feeling really lost, emotionally volatile, frequently flustered, apprehensive and in a clusterfuck of anxiety. But I’ve also never been so content with my choices, or happier in my heart.
Adult me couldn’t be further from 18 year old me. She had a watertight game plan, an overwhelming desire to please, and a willingness to suppress the aching hunger for anything that would take her away from safety.
At 18, I was straight-laced and compliant and blissfully naïve – with no desire to be a renegade, with no aspirations to rage against orthodoxy, or obligation, or expectation. It took the simultaneous very-near-death experience of my husband, an unprecedented global health crisis, and being told to stay in my lane one time too many, for my rebellion to kick into overdrive. I’d just hit the big 4-0.
Now, my game plan isn’t meticulously mapped. I’m no longer swear-on-my-life certain about the direction of my future. If my boat breaks free of her moorings and I end up adrift in the rolling open seas, I no longer fear flailing, or that I will drown under the expectations of others. Instead, I’m embracing the maniacal search for purpose and joy and courage in waters so vast I can’t differentiate between sky and sea.
For the first time, I like that there is no obvious trajectory plotted before me. I like that I’m not tied to the same old jetty I’ve been docked at for years. And I like that I’m brave enough to get out on the open water – even if it is goddamn frightening some days.
Supposedly, we are all looking for our compass in other people and experiences and tangible “things” – but the only north star that truly counts is located somewhere inside ourselves. I like that I had the guts to ditch the life plan when it was no longer working for me. And I encourage you with every fibre of my existence to do the same, when you’re ready.
IV. HOLD STRONG TO THE KNOWLEDGE THAT THE DOTS WILL SOMEHOW CONNECT
One extraordinary speech I revisit every few years is the commencement address Steve Jobs delivered at Stanford University, in 2005. Jobs makes many inspirational, impassioned points, but what jumps out for me each time, is his declaration that one must follow their heart.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever”.
Jobs also affirms that life is short, stating:
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life…Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most importantly, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
At this moment in time, you might feel incredibly uncertain about what lies ahead – but somehow, you need to find the grit to be okay with that.
Embrace the uncertainty and trust that it will all be okay, somehow, some way, some day. Tune in to your inner voice and heed her suggestions, her desires, her whimsies more so than the voices of influence that belong to other people in your world. The dots will somehow connect. Just you wait!
V. GIVE YOURSELF TIME TO FEEL IT ALL: THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY
Moving forward and moving house are both oxymoronic: they can be equally exhausting and invigorating, gloomy and hopeful – much like reminiscing whilst closing old doors.
Richard Kadrey once said:
“Memories are bullets. Some whiz by and only spook you. Others tear you open and leave you in pieces.”
Yesterday, I was fossicking in the cupboard-of-crap in my back room – trying to be ruthless and unsentimental, but failing miserably because I am neither of these things.
I found a journal-of-sorts from my early twenties – which I thought I had burned in a moment of rage. I allowed myself to get lost for an hour, crouched awkwardly against the wardrobe, flicking through pages and pages of fragmented thoughts, torn-up photos of my first love (which I’d tried to paste back together in an instant of deep regret), rhymey-rhyme poems about tomorrow being a better day and the like, and quotes from my favourite authors.
For the majority of the time I was smiling – because I know the girl who wrote all those things so well! – but what brought about the tears was the stream of consciousness writing I seemed so compelled to undertake, for a time. The trepidation, the repeatedly broken heart, the decimation of a life-long friendship and the acute anxiety clawing at me from the page was just too much. I flung the book across the room and started leafing through travel itineraries – for Vietnam and Eastern Europe – instead.
Sometimes we need to consciously make time for ourselves to feel. To feel ALL of it: the good, the bad and the ugly tears that go hand-in-hand with gentle wanderings down memory lane.
Feel the hurt. Feel the love. Feel the gratitude, regret, sadness, courage, joy, passion and every other emotion that springs forth from your memories and experiences. Because the thing is, sometimes you’ve got to feel it to process it, to reframe it, or to move past it.
As Alysha Speer writes:
“Life is painful and messed up. It gets complicated at the worst of times, and sometimes you have no idea where to go or what to do. Lots of times people just let themselves get lost, dropping into a wide open, huge abyss. But that’s why we have to keep trying. We have to push through all that hurts us, work past all our memories that are haunting us. Sometimes the things that hurt us are the things that make us strongest. A life without experience, in my opinion, is no life at all. And that’s why I tell everyone that, even when it hurts, never stop yourself from living.”
Occasionally, it’s okay to ponder how unfair the world can be, but dwelling on this is as fruitless as putting your fingers in your ears and yelling “LA-LA-LA NOT LISTENING!”: you’ll either end up wallowing on a pillow covered in tears and snot, or you’ll consider taking to the world with a hammer – smashing the shit out of everything in sight, with enough force to bring the whole planet down.
It takes courage to talk it out and confide in others about the way challenging experiences have impacted your life story.
It takes resilience and mettle to keep your fists up and ready to take on Goliath, when it feels easier to yield without so much as a whimper.
It takes pluck and brazenness (and an extra serve of sass) to laugh loudly and unrestrained at the absurdities of being a deeply feeling, deeply flawed member of the human race.
We have to hold on to the hope that the dark clouds will eventually blow out to sea, that sorrow will grow weary and give up his chase, that tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow are going to be better days.
KNOW THIS: you are bold, beautiful and brave – and that makes you a mthrfkn badass in my book…
You can read Adam Grant’s post HERE.
You can watch Steve Jobs’ Stanford Commencement Address HERE.
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