Grief Lessons

I did not expect my grandmother’s death in December to bring so much of the pain from my past losses back to life. On a lot of days, my grief spills over into other parts of my heart, reawakening the devastation I felt from the loss of L, the therapist I stopped seeing last May, as well as the sadness of missing my close friends and mentors from undergrad.  I always knew that grief would take me on a curving, misery-laden path – no linear progressions, no easy fixes, no strong emotions that just fade into weaker ones over time – but you still feel heartbreak even if you prepare for it. Someone makes a mean, insensitive comment to an employee at work and I think, my grandmother would have never treated someone like that, and a pounding ache hits me right at the top of my ribcage. Or someone says something about relationships in a therapy class, and it reminds me of a close friend I used to see every day and tears prick the back of my eyes. Or I go on a jog in the woods while listening to my favorite new pop artist, BlackPink, and I suddenly break into sobs because I remember how I would watch Ariana Grande music videos with L, and I think, I wish I could show him BlackPink, even though I know he would find my new pop obsession just as silly as my past one.

My mother taught me a lot about how to judge myself, about how to evaluate myself based on my production. When grief – the sadness, the anger, the sheer painful emotion of having had and now having no longer – hits, I often judge myself. Sitting in my sadness does not help me accomplish my goals. If I take too much time to just let myself be, I am failing the people I care about: my friends, my mentees, the people who I say I cherish but then take way too long to message back. I kind of suck a lot, honestly, even if I have listened to Ariana Grande and BlackPink more than literally any other person on this planet.

Despite these thoughts, I am trying to treat myself with the self-compassion I know I deserve, to give myself the same space to grieve as I would a friend or a therapy client. The truth is, when I feel my feelings, it does make me less productive, at least for a little while, and that is okay, because I am more than my curriculum vitae or my resume or my LinkedIn profile. I would rather feel the enormity of my loss than avoid it, because that enormity shows how much I cared about these people, and how much they cared about me.

iconic gail caldwell quote about loss

An iconic quote from one of my favorite books, in which Gail Caldwell writes about the death of her best friend, Caroline Knapp.

I cared, and I care, so much about my grandmother, L, my friends and my mentors. And they cared, and care, about me in the deepest and most nourishing of ways, offering me that rare source of connection where I felt seen, understood, known, for all my strengths and my weaknesses, my darkest secrets and my weirdest quirks. The other day I read a splendid feminist essay collection by Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, and one line in particular reminded me of what these connections gave to me: “The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us – the poet – whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.” I do not think that thinking and feeling are mutually exclusive, but in a patriarchal society that prioritizes traditionally masculine traits like rationality and intellect, the compassionate power and empathetic importance of feeling is often undermined. I am so grateful for all of these connections: to L, for giving me the space to feel my anger and my shame, for my grandmother, for holding me as I felt my mother’s abuse rain down on me, and for my close friends and mentors, for not just caring about my productivity but for prioritizing my feelings, above and beyond my work. As Gail Caldwell writes, each of these connections, even if they are no longer physically present, are all a part of me, and I hope to embody and put forth the same kindness and gentleness I have lost and received.

I feel like I will always be learning lessons in grief. There is no end to this pain, only ways of coping with it, honoring it, and letting the compassion from these connections live on through my own choices and actions. I struggled my first two years of undergrad, and I am struggling now: a new city and social environment, a new set of pressures associated with grad school, and a new set of losses to hold and to feel. But I have hope, because my grandmother, L, my friends and my mentors all came into my life amidst or right after times of great pain. I feel hopeful, and curious, to see what new connections and losses await.

red hair thomas with glasses

Hello, because I am boring and non-innovative, to stick with tradition here is a selfie, but with glasses, and red hair. Also Ariana finished her fourth album so get ready for it!)

I feel grateful for the readers who have made this blog such a wonderful space for self-expression and connection, as well as the friends, new and old, who have stuck with me through this grief process. Would be curious to hear any thoughts on grief, feelings, loss, etc. you may have. Until next time!

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Grief Lessons

  1. You do NOT suck. Working through your grief now means you will process it and it won’t get stuck and locked in and mess other stuff up further down the line, and you know that and probably the proper psychotherapy words for that.

    I’ve been more deeply affected by the loss of my grandmother at around the same time (you might not remember that, that’s fine!). In my case, she wasn’t a great person to be around but she was 105 so it felt like she’d somehow always be there. I can’t go into the details here in semi-public but basically with that event came the realisation I will never have a family on that side of my heritage, and that’s caused a long loss and grieving.

    So I hear you. And if you’re “not productive” because you’re doing emotional work, then you’re being productive! You have my permission to ignore your mother’s voice in your head. If that helps.

    • Aw Liz, thank you for your compassion and tough love! I agree that dealing with and honoring the grief now will help abate the negative consequences of not doing so later. And I really appreciate your vulnerability and honesty surrounding your own grief and I’m sorry about the loss of your grandmother, that realization sounds really tough and I hope you have the support and resources necessary to cope with everything. I’m thinking of you, and I’m grateful to have an e-friend who recognizes that doing emotional work is indeed productive, even if not in the typical sense as outlined by capitalism.

  2. x.w

    Hi Thomas,
    First of all, thanks for your warm wishes and great reply last time.
    And second, I completely related to the way your grief has been coming and going through your life. My most recent ones are moving back to China (and missing my fav people and the city I lived), and two month before that, I also said goodbye to my therapist, an amazing woman, who has been working with me for more than a year. I started my therapy mainly because of a bad relationship ended and I was too sad and angry. I never thought over the year with her, I ended up talking a lot about my childhood (I have a complicated and hard relationship with my mother), along with so many issues and questions I needed to deal with. We talked about books, relationships, and family,,, and feminism, racism…. …. I wish I could just keep doing that forever.
    I remember one time I asked for an emergency session because something has triggered my a dark memory and raised a big crises for me. By the end of the talk, the only thing I could do was crying and shaking on her couch. She keeps saying, “you don’t have to face it alone anymore.” And I would never forget how she looks at me with so much care and support. I would never forget the last time of therapy, we both had tears in our eyes but I tried very hard to be calm. I have tears now when I’m writing this! (I hope this won’t make you feel too uncomfortable or sad thinking about L). What I want to share with you is that I know how much I miss it, and it hurts too much to know I may never talk to this woman again in my life. But whenever things are getting too hard for me, I will think of her saying, “you don’t have to do this alone anymore”, It feels warm and I know I am getting stronger, and somewhere in the world understands you. (And maybe you will meet someone else who understand you like this in the future.)

    I am fully aware and I am ok with the fact that i’m a bit attached to her: I used to think why I didn’t grow up in the U.S.? Why I didn’t go to college with people like her …?! But later I started to feel grateful: I met her anyway, I made my way to get her help and for me, I think it is a bigger achievement than having a degree from the U.S.,because I have dealt with so many issues I couldn’t face before.
    The hardest time of missing my therapist was about three month after I came back to my country. One way that helps me a lot is to take notes. (So I think we sort of did the same thing, except for my notes are not very readable ) Even if it’s just “I have been thinking of her a lot, I just needed to write it down. Sometimes I took a notebook to write passages as if I’m writing an email to her. When I see someone in a movie looks like her,especially a therapist, of course I think of her. Besides missing her, I talked to my best friend about seeing this therapist (I tried to keep it topic related, not just like a groupie— I also find I barely do this anymore, I only need it inside my heart/mind).

    Sometimes I feel that griefing works like waves from the ocean. The waves can hit you very hard. sometimes they are just great memories and they are beautiful. Sometimes it’s medium level, just a bit watery eyes when riding a bus out of the sudden (I always blame the smog). I am also very interested in books about self-compassion (And it’s good to know those from your blogs too) Recently I have been reading (on and off) “the mindful path to self-compassion” by Christopher K. Germer. He believes that we need to fully accept the pain, the misery, when we stop struggling with the pains, we could start to find ways to accept and move to the next stages… … (Even if it’s helpful to me I need to take breaks reading about those stuff because I am still very sensitive, lol. But leaning into pain,yes it works for me.)
    Maybe the longevity of grief depends on how great and close the person to us. I think the hope in this is that eventually the love the support we had will always be there– it’s very warm and spiritual.

  3. x.w

    And so sorry about your loss. Your grandmother is such a wonderful woman. Hugs.

    • Awwwwww x.w thank you so much for this detailed, compassionate, self-disclosing note, I so appreciate your vulnerability and insight. Reading this really did remind me of my own experiences – so much of your relationship with your therapist reminded me of L (how you started therapy after the end of a bad relationship, how you miss her a lot but are grateful to have met her at all, etc.) It sounds like you had/have such a meaningful and beautiful relationship with her, and while I don’t want to minimize the grief surrounding its loss, I’m so impressed that you have such a self-aware grasp of your feelings and that you reached out to engage in therapy in the first place, as therapy can be quite uncomfortable and dark, even though it’s oftentimes healing overall.

      I love your idea of grief as waves that come in different sizes. And I am so into mindfulness and self-compassion: I haven’t read Christopher Gerner’s book, but I’d totally recommend Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach and Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff, as well as Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart. It’s so cool that you’re continuing to read about mental health-related things after therapy and I hope it continues to be helpful and aids you on your growth. To sum up, thank you so so much for this amazing comment, it’s helped me feel less alone and I’m glad we both have had such wonderful relationships and experiences with therapists, even if we grieve for those relationships now.

  4. Thank you!! You are so talented at expressing your feelings, experiences, and grief. I know you are helping so many others out there feeling the same thing. I’m so honored to call you my best friend ❤

    • Aw omg thank you for this super compassionate comment. Excited to see you in a few days and debrief on so many things. ❤ Queens of reading and writing!

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