Sitting with Grief
Sitting with Grief
by Joya Taft-Dick
Between my mother’s cancer diagnosis and her passing, we had about three weeks. During that time, she was mostly sedated, with the exception of the last few days, but even then, it was difficult for her to talk given the length of time she had feeding and hydration tubes in her throat.
It is, as you can imagine, a time that blurs in my mind, and then, every so often, comes into razor-sharp focus. Images of a hospital bed, many, many doctors, endless car rides to and from the hospital, trays of food brought to the house—a house that quickly became filled with flowers once she actually passed. I remember thinking how much she would have loved seeing all those bouquets filling every room.
I was 30 years old when my mother died. Older than some, younger than others. No matter how much perspective I attempt to maintain (and trust me, the “it could be worse” list is topped with gems such as, “You have not been abducted by ISIS or sold into sexual slavery by Boko Haram”), this grief fills my head, heart and veins with cement, slowing my every thought and move.
Seven months in, I remain far too mired in this process known as grief to offer any real words of wisdom or epiphany; however, I am already very much aware of what has started and continues to shift in me.
It has taken this—this loss—for me to finally take a breath.
Grief has strong-armed me into doing something I have talked a lot about over the years, pontificated on, underscored the importance of, encouraged others to do—all the while largely skirting it myself. Self-care.
Sitting, being with yourself, in whatever shape that self is in. Tapping in. Being less afraid of the sadness that just sits under the skin, ready to seep through your pores at any moment. Letting your skin seep and whisper: Let it be.
I have been working since high school on issues that might broadly fall under the category of human security, with a particular interest in physical and sexual violence. As a result, I am very familiar with the phrase “self care.” When and if self care was brought up, I would be the first to affirm how important it was, how one must be kind and in-tune with oneself in the face of work that brings agonizing realities and hardships to the door daily. I would vehemently encourage friends and loved ones to take care of themselves, sharing my thoughts on how exercise and journaling had always helped me. I might even have talked about my experiences with therapy and how I had found mental health care to be central to the taking care of self.
I believed all of these things cerebrally. I did all of these things: exercise, journaling, confiding in others.
But never was I ever really able to sit with and acknowledge the hardships swirling around me—to take what I knew cerebrally and experience it emotionally. At the end of the day, it tended to be easier to buy a plane ticket, write a blog post, or throw myself into some new volunteering opportunity. When one keeps moving and stays busy, engaged, and challenged, it’s easier to avoid what may be residing, patiently, just beneath the skin.
I have found that grief has stripped me of my ability to pretend. Grief can take all of one’s intricately designed self-defense mechanisms or escapisms and render them completely ineffectual.
I have never felt so completely vulnerable and exposed in my life. I am the emperor with no clothes, except I am intimately aware of my nudity.
I am that girl who struggles with small talk and is exhausted by 9:00 pm every night. Socializing is pure taxation after more than an hour or two.
You know those occasions when you are in a loud space, maybe a loud bar, and you are trying to have a conversation with the person next to you, but in order to do so, you have to yell and strain to hear? That’s how all my conversations feel at the moment—more trouble than they are worth.
So, I am sitting this one out. I have a new job that I am growing to love, a gym membership, and a partner who seems to know innately what it is to just sit with pain. Day after day, my partner meets me where I am and just sits. Listens. Offers a hand, a hug, a heart. He isn’t rushing me to get better. I am not rushing me. I eat well, sleep a lot, exercise, go to work—rinse, repeat.
I am someone who—along with the majority of my peers—has been told for a long time that to be someone and to be worth something, I must be busy; I must produce; I must achieve and climb ladders and power through and grit my teeth and be strong and carry on. So, this sitting and being thing is tough. Those messages that say one must have a full social calendar, work long hours, and volunteer or run marathons in one’s free time are hard to quiet or ignore.
For those of us who work in the do-gooder sector, I think there often exists a risk of ignoring our own pain for that of others. I am not a stranger to convincing myself that my pain is nothing compared to that of a rape survivor or a child growing up in a refugee camp. There’s that perspective again, which, for the record, I think is absolutely valid and offers important grounding: We should all maintain perspective in times of hardship. But it’s disillusionment to convince ourselves that because greater pain might exist ours does not matter.
This is what grief is teaching me. I am finally holding myself with care and not coping. In fact, I am doing my best not to cope. I have been coping for a long time, and that is something I can do. I want to do more than cope, and in order to do that, I need to welcome the sadness in. Sit with it, understand it, accept it, and then, when ready, move past it.
Someone shared with me a quote not long after my mum passed. It said something to the effect of: With great pain comes a greater capacity for joy. That for me is the goal right now. If my dream of sharing and experiencing compassion, care, and love with people all over the world is to come true, then, as they say, I simply have to start with myself. This is far from a new idea, but it is a new lived reality for me.
When I was in the 6th grade, I went on a ski trip organized by my school, and both of my brothers and my parents also attended. At the very end of the ski week, there was a race divided up by levels of experience. My younger brother was about seven years old at the time and was one of those seven-year-old boys who was very active and not a stranger to things like bike or skateboard accidents, skinned knees, and the like. When it was his turn to race down that mountain, race he did. I remember seeing his little self, dressed mostly in red, tearing around the markers in the snow. Right as he approached the finish line, rounding the very last marker, he completely wiped out. He was flat on his back, with his skis in disarray around him. And he just lay there.
It wasn’t all that serious a fall, so we weren’t initially concerned by it, but after a few seconds of the kid just lying completely still in the snow on his back, my parents started to rush towards him, realizing he might actually be hurt.
Turns out he just knew he had already messed up his timing, and so, somewhat defeated, was in no rush to hoist himself up and face the yet-unfinished finish line. In that infinitely wise manner that kids sometimes have, he was catching his breath and accepting the moment.
We laughed about this rather dramatic ending for a while afterwards, and I am remembering it because I think I am now lying in the snow. I have experienced a wipe out, and I am just gonna lie here. There will be other races, other trips, other markers and moguls to navigate around. There will be other finish lines and crowds and outdoor adventures.
But for now, I say, you win, snow—or universe. I hear you. I have fallen down, and I am in no real rush to get up. My back hurts a little, my legs are tired, and my heart is heavy with the weight of something unfinished and yet so completely over. But the sky is beautiful from this angle, and the snow feels soft on my back. §
Joya Taft-Dick is originally from Vermont but grew up moving around overseas as the daughter of UN World Food Program employee. She has spent the last 9 years working on human security, development, and violence prevention, all with a focus on gender. Joya received her B.A. from Middlebury College and holds a M.A. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. You can follow her on Twitter @joyz44.