What I’ve Learned About Grief

Grief is one of the most complex emotions, and this is partly because it is the most universal, and partly because it is the most individual. It’s a fact of life that we will lose people we love, and it is never easy. 

The physical side of yourself and the emotional are always linked, whether you realize it or not. When you are really truly happy, you might feel like your body feels lighter too, like you’re feeling it with your whole being rather than just your mind. And unfortunately, this works with sadness too. Grief as an emotion, attacks in different ways. It can make you feel tired and achy, or your mind could feel foggy and like things are a little blurry. It’s different for everyone.

I know when I am grieving, the word that comes to mind is overwhelming. It feels like it’s overridden every other signal my brain is sending- so I’m smelling in grief, and seeing in grief, and feeling in grief. All the senses, all engaged in this one overarching emotion; whether that be of sadness, anger, hopelessness, regret. There’s a lot of talk out there about the distinct stages of grieving, and I don’t want to pretend I know more than all of those ‘scientificky’ people who have spent their life studying it, but it all feels a little simplistic really.

I’m not sure grief is as logical an emotion to separate itself into steps- in reality, you end up feeling all of them all at once, or at the very least they blur together so much you can never really tell how far you’ve come or how far you’ve got left to go. I think every time I have felt grief, I have felt it differently. Sometimes it comes in waves, and sometimes it stalls and really hits you months afterwards, or sometimes it’s a tsunami as soon as you find out. 

I remember watching a TV program and hearing one of the characters say to another: You are in a long-term relationship with grief. And that kind of rings true. Unlike feeling sad, feeling loss isn’t necessarily something that ever goes away. There’s this old Greek myth about this man called Sisyphus, he was supposedly punished by the Greek God Zeus, with his punishment being he had to push a large boulder up a hill, by himself, for eternity. The trick was of course, that every time he would near reach the top, it would roll down again.

That, for me, has been the best way that I’ve ever been able to describe what grief feels like. That it is something you will be navigating forever, and sometimes it really does feel like you’re reaching the top of that hill only to fall back down it and be stuck right at the beginning again. And it does feel a little like a punishment; it’s painful, and you get stuck in feelings of whether it’s fair or not. And it’s not. But it’s not unfair either. This process is just the inevitability of loss, and the only comfort here is think to yourself- if you are grieving someone, it means you loved them. And to have a life where you have loved, in any form, makes you lucky. 

And the other thing, about Sisyphus, and this boulder he’s pushing- he has to push it alone. I think that’s one of the trickier things to come to terms with in grief. When we feel sad, we want contact and people to bring light and laughter. We want the opposite emotion, feelings of happiness, to hug us and smother the darker feelings. And so, the healthy thing to do when you’re grieving is not to isolate yourself. Lean on whatever support system you have and don’t be afraid to ask for help. 

But, the other healthiest thing to do is accept that, this relationship you are in with grief? It’s monogamous. It’s just the two of you. Which means nobody else has the right to tell you how to handle it. They can give advice, and support you, and you shouldn’t shy away from any of this, but when push comes to shove, it’s your emotion. You want to cry and watch crappy TV and eat good/bad food in bed? That’s fine. You don’t cry, and want to go back to work or school to distract yourself? That’s fine. 

Just like any other relationship, everyone around you is going to want to put their two cents in, and they really will be doing it out of care, but like any other relationship, it can be frustrating when your own voice gets lost among the opinion of what others think you should do. The most important thing is to remember, the only person who knows what is right for you is yourself. If that means you want to speak to a professional therapist to properly talk through what you’re feeling, do it. Equally, if you want to write it all down on a piece of paper, and then fold it away or rip it up and throw it in the bin, do it. Be sure to tell your friends and family how much you appreciate their love and support, but also know you have the right to process your feeling however you feel is best. Listen to your mind and listen to your body. Trust that you know how to look after yourself. 

bats flying against a sunset

I know now every time I have grieved; it has felt different. Not harder, and not any easier- just different. I like to think the way you heal from a loss is not just a result of your own character, but of the person you’ve lost. I think part of grief is a mirroring of them, who they were, because it is our brain’s way of keeping them alive a little longer, even if it’s only in our head.

You learn a lot from every loss, every nasty, painful, uncomfortable form of grief. But it wasn’t until this time around, where I have had to grieve on my own, with an ocean between me and the people I would usually lean on, have I learned what it really means to grieve alone. When you’re grieving around other people, your sadness and theirs merge together, and the room becomes a blurriness of feeling, but you can’t necessarily distinguish what is your own and what is others. Having to grieve as a college student, apart from my family and friends, and anyone who knew the person I am grieving, it feels even more isolating. I don’t know if it’s harder, or if each kind of grief brings its own challenges, but it’s new. It’s forced me to confront harsher aspects of living with loss. Often, when you are grieving, it feels almost like a bubble, it is hard to focus, or think straight, and nothing really penetrates the sides of this ‘grief-bubble.’ Things that usually matter become inconsequential and you lose perspective of any sense of consequence of putting your daily activities on hold.

Managing grief at college, especially abroad, has been a little different in that for the first time I haven’t really been able to just stop. Because no one around me is experiencing the same loss (although there are bound to be people experiencing their own), it feels as if life just carries on. And so, you are forced to carry on with it, and go about the days as if nothing has happened. This is hard both physically, with the exhaustion that comes with emotion, and mentally, because it doesn’t allow you space to process what is brewing in your head. It’s always important to process grief, with time and space. Because otherwise those feelings keep brewing, and eventually they’ll spew over and cause a mess that is much harder to clear up than if you had dealt with it in the first place. 

I think here, the best solution is to let the people around you know; both friends, and teachers/trusted adults, so that if anything, they can cut you some slack if you forget a piece of work, or don’t feel like you can show up to class one day. Carrying on is good but stopping is important too. Think of it as a broken bone on a football pitch. Those first few weeks, as much as you have to endure the uncomfortable nature of it, you do have to give yourself time to heal without diving straight back into the action. And like I said, if you break your foot, or your wrist, it will heal but maybe not entirely- maybe it will feel a little different for the rest of your life. And that’s the same with loss. You are a little different after it, every time, forever. But that doesn’t mean you have to decide that you’re going to stay broken. It’s adaptation. You can feel loss, and still live at the same time. And after a while, you can look back on the person with fondness, and memory, just like your brother can laugh about the time he broke his wrist trying to hit the ball into the net and missed. 

I think then, with grief, you are living on a spectrum of ‘easier-easiest.’ It’s never going to feel easy. But there will be times it’s better. Maybe when you’re crying with laughter at a funny TV show in sixth months’ time with your best friends, it will feel easier than it does right now. Or maybe in five years’ time when you’re travelling some exotic country, and swept away with the adventure, or in 10 years’ time when you’re looking back through photographs of the person you lost and remembering the way they used to repeat a phrase a certain way over and over and over, and for the first time it’s funny instead of sad. Maybe that’s when it will feel easiest. Even if it never becomes ‘easy.’

Grief will come in waves, and eventually those waves become ones you can dip your feet in without fear of drowning- it becomes more peaceful. They no longer feel like the tsunami they once did. 


Cameron Smith-Barcelona Spain Europe Beach Abroad Mediterranean Sea Water Girl Sunny Summer .Pdf