“You’re doing grief wrong.” No-one has ever said this to me. Not directly. And I hope that no-one has ever said it to you, either.
But I have a question for those of you who have grieved: have you ever felt like this is what others are thinking?
Have you ever thought to yourself, “I’m doing this wrong. This isn’t what grieving is supposed to look like. What is wrong with me?”
I have. And I’ve found that it manifests in two ways.
First, there are my own realisations that I’m not dealing with grief. That I’ve effectively denied that my father is dead, or my mind hasn’t yet accepted it on the subconscious level.
For years after my dad died, every time the phone would ring I’d think it was him. Not consciously. I’d just bolt for the phone, and then feel crushing disappointment when it wasn’t him. And then supreme embarrassment for thinking, on any level, that it might have been.
Similarly, for years after my dad died, every time the doorbell would ring I’d think it was him. It was a reaction I couldn’t suppress despite knowing that not only was he never coming home again, but that even if he was still alive, he wouldn’t ring the doorbell of his own house. He’d just let himself in.
I would have these reactions, every time, and then chastise myself for having these reactions. Every time.
I was doing grief wrong.
Then, there were observations of others that, although (usually) delivered innocently and with no intention of guilt, had that effect anyway.
I remember mum telling us that dad had died. I stared at the floor for hours, trying to make sense of it. I couldn’t make my brain function, let alone react to the news. A relative said, “It’s okay to cry. Don’t hold the tears back.” And I thought, “I’m supposed to be crying. I’ve just found out dad is dead and I’m not crying. What is wrong with me?”
I went back to school a week after my dad died. I had always enjoyed school and wanted to get back to the one thing that would hopefully still make sense in my world. (Spoiler alert: it was different, because I was different.) A friend said, “I can’t believe you’re back so soon.” And I thought, “I’m supposed to stay at home, curled in a ball. I’m a week into having no dad and I’ve come to school like my life is the same. What is wrong with me?”
I was doing grief wrong.
Some time after my dad died, I participated in a program called Rainbows (now called Seasons for Growth). It was a program for young people who had experienced change or loss, and within my group of eight teens, there were some with ‘unreliable’ parents, some whose parents were divorcing and some who had lost a parent.
I don’t remember much of the program, but I have a crystal clear memory of one particular activity we were asked to do. Each of us was given some clay and tasked with creating something to represent our feelings about the change we were currently going through, or to represent the person we were grieving for.
I couldn’t come up with anything. NOT A SINGLE THING.
I sat there, watching everyone else get to work to make their objects. Some people divided their clay into segments so they could make more than one thing.
Meanwhile, I looked at my lump of clay and saw nothing but a lump of clay. And I thought, “I’m supposed to make something that reminds me of my dad. My dad meant the world to me, and I can’t think of anything. What is wrong with me?”
When it came time to show the group what we’d done, we went around in the circle. When it got to me I just ripped my bit of clay in half and said that I felt like my dad’s death had ripped me in half. And then I cried. For what I think was the first time during that program.
The young girl who went after me presented her items with a flourish: a tiara and a garbage bin. She said that the tiara represented the rare occasions in her life that her dad had visited and spent time with her, because she had felt like a princess. And that the garbage bin represented the rest of the time, because his absence made her feel like trash.
She said it matter of factly, with a shrug. And I started crying again. For what I think was the second time during that program.
She held my hand and promised me that she was okay. That she was done feeling like trash, and that her dad was the one missing out.
And then I kept crying, because I felt even worse. Because I hadn’t been crying for her. I’d been crying for me. I’d been crying because not once – NOT ONCE – in my entire life had I ever felt like trash. Not once in my entire life, even now that my dad wasn’t around, had I ever doubted – even for a second – that my dad loved me.
And now he was gone.
And that was when I realised I wasn’t doing grief wrong at all. I was doing grief the only way I knew how to. The only way I could.
Grief. You can’t do it wrong. You can’t do it fast; you can’t do it slow. You can’t do it in increments. You can’t parcel it out into digestible, bite-sized chunks. You can’t do it in one hit. You can’t binge on it and get your grieving done in one sitting.
When I was a teen, I came across a quote that went something like this: Love is a space in which all other emotions can be experienced.
I feel the same way about grief. Grief is a space in which all other emotions will be experienced.
But there is no timeline for those experiences. And, just to make things confusing, grief is also a space that can push out all other emotions, cocooning itself against those emotions and feelings to make days bearable.
Grief is what it is. Grief is different for everyone, every time that they grieve. Grief takes whatever form it takes, and it takes as long as it takes, and there’s nothing you can do about it except feel it.
Have you grieved? What was/is your experience of grief?
(Why did I write this? Were my dad still alive, he would have turned 60 last week. The thoughts have been percolating. Just like they were last year when I wrote Untabooing grief.)