How I'm Embracing the Shape-shifting Nature of Grief
By Emily Suzuki
This story is part of our Real Women, Real Stories series, documenting the lived experiences of women along their health journeys. Please always consult your health care professional with personal concerns or questions.
This time last year, I was in the midst of a separation. I was single-parenting my 6-year-old during the week, finishing graduate school, and working back-to-back double shifts at a psychiatric hospital on weekends.
Overwhelmed, I kept returning to Mary Oliver's poem: "No, I'd never been to this country before. No, I didn't know where the roads would lead me. No, I didn't intend to turn back."
I felt like I was in uncharted territory. That spring season brought with it a set of circumstances and challenges that were unlike any I'd ever encountered.
Recently I've heard the same words echoed in the news: "These are unprecedented times."
Not since WWII have we — as individuals, communities, or nations — been here. We feel the crumbling of structures and routines around us. We are learning to work, educate, and connect online, as we reckon with the strange reality of sheltering in place indefinitely.
Suddenly it feels like we're lost in the wilderness with no clear path forward, unable to turn back. I recognize this feeling. It's part of the natural process of grief.
A year ago, I needed frequent validation that what I was experiencing was a form of grieving. My friends and therapist gave me permission (and helped me give myself permission) to move through my messy emotions. I learned to accept what felt alternately like a falling apart and the tedious rebuilding of a new foundation.
I processed my grief through long walks down dirt roads, making art and creating rituals for goodbyes. Slowly I found closure for that chapter of my life. I have since moved to a new state and started working as a therapist and coach, supporting my clients through life transitions and changes.
As I weathered the end of my marriage, I discovered that grief is not a linear process. It's hard to predict and difficult to name. It has a shape-shifting quality to it, expressing itself in complex ways. But no matter what form it takes, grief needs to be acknowledged so it can be released. Otherwise it can be relentless.
Once, in the early days of the pandemic, I woke up in the middle of the night panicked and sick to my stomach. I desperately wanted to get out of the house and even started to pack a bag. My stress response was activated, sending me signals that I needed to flee — a natural response to imminent danger. A hot shower brought me back to my breath and eventually I fell asleep again. In the morning I reflected in awe at the intensity of the night, but it took me time to recognize what it was.
In scanning my experience for something familiar, my body remembered having moved through loss before. In a culture that doesn't like to name grief, and teaches us to feel shame for any lingering sense of loss, mourning can be hard to acknowledge.
While studying to become a therapist, I learned about the five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance, as presented by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler in their seminal book On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss. I became attuned to these stages as I endured my own grief last spring. Just recently, with the virus spreading and the world shutting down, I grasped for understanding. Again, I felt the stages as a thread, an anchor of sorts for my experience.
On day three of homeschooling, my seven-year-old son and I sat alone at the dining room table. We had been staring for hours at the small screen on my laptop. I tried to summon a positive attitude but in truth, I was exasperated. I found myself getting irrationally frustrated with the tablecloth.
Next to me, my son was groaning, bored and untethered without routine, and absorbing my own irritation. As he melted down, the tablecloth and everything on it kept shifting under his weight. I repeatedly asked him to sit up, then I straightened the cloth and tried to focus. This struggle went on for hours. I was trying to override my feelings, smooth them out like the tablecloth. But with each readjustment, the effort was grinding me down.
It was a minor moment, but its absurdity helped me look clearly at my grief. I was in denial. I wasn't ready to accept our new reality, on any front. I was also angry. Why were we so unprepared for this pandemic? Why wasn't there more PPE? Who was at fault for the death, fear and suffering? And I was bargaining. If only I could leave the tablecloth on, maybe we could return to normal. I was trying to negotiate my way out of discomfort, prove that this was a table for eating, not a desk in a classroom.
Slowly I realized that underneath my shifting emotions lay a deep sadness. I was experiencing what is referred to as anticipatory grief. My mind and body sensed what I felt but could not yet see: that looming around me was great uncertainty and change. It had nothing to do with the tablecloth.
Now, every day, I practice sitting and listening, making moments when I can give myself permission to feel what I'm feeling.
I've learned that grief has a shadow side, and when I let myself lean into it, I can find joy in sorrow. Jack Kornfield says: "Your grief is as big as it is, because that's how big your love is." Grief illuminates the things we hold most dear. It shines light on what we're most grateful for.
I return again and again to the fullness of my gratitude for my son, the sun, our community of family and friends, our safety and well-being. Slowly, painstakingly, we make our way through.
Emily Suzuki is a freelance writer, therapist and Life Doula + Coach. She has her Masters from Antioch University, and has worked as a birth doula. Emily holds space and compassionate support for clients moving through all stages of change and transition. Find her at www.emilysuzuki.com