Leaning Into Grief

By Heather Varner

Heather Varner has written for xojane.com and time.com about grief. 

At the age of 23, I lost my mom to a tragic motorcycle accident.

Losing her was unforeseen, unpredictable, and the pure definition of ‘earth-shattering.’ My life didn’t change because of her death – it stopped. Now, four years later, I look back and see my life not as one continuous narrative, but a two-parted tale, that in many ways is disconnected. There was Life Before, and Life After.

When I lost my mom, my entire world collapsed. I didn’t fully realize it at the time (I can thank the numbness of shock for that), but as the months passed and I began to absorb the loss, I slowly realized the immensity of this loss. Now, four years later, I still lack a fully developed sense of awareness about what this loss means or entails. But as the world continues to turn, so does my understanding of life without a mother. Along with this, my understanding and perspective on grief and loss have grown too.

Before my Mom’s death, I had plenty of ideas about grief and loss. I’d seen it on TV, read about it in books, and watched friends and relatives experience it. But grief is not a spectator sport. I now know: I had no idea.

I believed that grief was a phase – or maybe a process. I had this idea in my head that grief was something that you experienced after a loss, and that when you ‘healed’ from the loss, the grief would be gone.

I know I can’t speak for everyone who’s suffered a loss, but I know for certain that when it comes to my own experience, I was impossibly wrong.

I’d never considered how it would feel to lose the person to whom my identity was infinitely tied.

I’d never considered what it would mean to wake up one day and no longer be a ‘daughter.’

I’d never considered what it would be like to take those cautious first steps into the ‘real world’ of adulthood, without the safety net of my mother to fall back into.

I’d never considered the isolation that would sink in when I realized the one person who I wanted to talk to about this was the person who was gone.

I’d never considered the frustration I would feel with hearing well-meaning platitudes about ‘God’s Plan,’ and then the anger at myself that would follow for being anything less than grateful for the kindness.

I’d never considered the guilt that would come when I fretted over each act of kindness towards me, worrying about becoming a burden.

I’d never considered what it would actually mean to become a griever. Outside of books, and the movies, it is an entirely different world – and it is a world that has taught me a lot.

I’ve learned that grief, while definitely a process, does not have an end. Like the air you breathe, it becomes an element of your mere existence. Just as I wake up every morning and breathe oxygen, I wake up every morning and carry the loss of my mom. I can’t let it go or leave it behind – no more easily than I could choose to breathe something else.

Sometimes, when I explain this to people, I can tell they think this means I’m stunted in my healing process, or that this sounds incredibly unhealthy and infinitely sad.

But here’s the thing. It’s not. It’s actually kind of amazing. By carrying this loss with me, it has become a part of who I am. In many ways, I believe that it has become my greatest strength.

My grief has given me something that I don’t believe any other life experience could.

My grief has made me more intuitive. I can read people in a way that I never could before.

My grief has made me more compassionate. I’m tuned into the truth that we all carry a burden, and this has grown my empathy in knowing that we have all felt pain.

My grief has solidified my faith. I’ve seen the immense comfort that comes in believing in something more than ourselves, and while I know this is not for everyone, I have put my faith on the metaphorical chopping block, and come out the other side with a strengthened belief system surrounding God and life after death.

My grief has pushed me to become more self-aware.

My grief has strengthened my appreciation for family.

Grief is a part of me. It will always be a part of me. On some level, my heart will always be broken by the tragic and sudden way in which I had to part ways from my mom all too soon. And while this may make some people uncomfortable, I like it this way. I want to carry the grief within me because it honours her memory. It is not about being sad or feeling depressed. It is about carrying the loss in my heart, always. It is about noting her absence in the big moments and remembering her presence in the small ones. It’s about laughing at things she would find funny or telling stories about her with ease. I refuse to ignore her absence or eliminate the words ‘my mom’ from conversation. I insist upon carrying her with me every step of the way for the rest of my life.

One of the most healing practices of my grief journey has been to learn to lean into the pain.

I’ve learned to allow myself moments to re-visit the sadness of those early days. I let myself have a cathartic cry and absorb the monumental loss of my mom. This allows me to stay connected to her in a way that ‘hearing her voice in the wind’ or ‘feeling her presence in the sunset’ never could. And while the well-meaning folks who make those suggestions have the best of intentions, I believe that it is crucial to respect the individuality of how we each experience loss. So, while yes, I know that my mom ‘would just want me to be happy,’ as so many people remind me, she would also tell me to process each emotion that came my way. These feelings demand to be felt.

My journey with grief started out as feeling irreparably sad. I was shattered and broken. I’d lost so much of myself when I lost my mom, and I was suddenly forced into a world where I had no idea what to do, where to go, or who I even was.

But that didn’t last forever. Those days of darkness are few and far between now, and it is rare that I feel completely broken. I am happy, content, and proud of the life I have built. I laugh often and easily, and am fulfilled in ways I’d never known was possible. In many ways (but not all), I have healed. But that doesn’t mean the grief is gone. The grief has become a part of me, and I carry the loss of my mom with me every single day. This is how I stay connected.

So, while yes, sometimes this hurts in a way that I could never even begin to put into words, it’s also kind of beautiful.

When I hear people say that my mom is in a ‘better place,’ I think of the moment that she should be here for. When my wedding day – and all these other future days arrive, I can tell you without hesitation that there is no place she would rather be.

There are two things of which I am certain:

First: I believe in Heaven, and I believe that she is there.

And second: in a million lifetimes, my mom would have chosen to be here.

So, whether Heaven is a better place or not is subjective. My mom would have chosen love, life, memories, and laughter. She would have even chosen the darkness and anxiety of our earthly world because it would have meant all of the above.

But, alas, we do not get to choose.

And as more time passes, and my healing continues as my perspective grows, I’m beginning to see that perhaps that lack of choice is the beauty of it all.

5 Comments

  1. Heidi Douthwright

    June 12, 2018 at 2:16 pm

    While I’m no stranger to loss, this has come at a time when I need it most. I just lost my husband June 7…last Thursday. My grief is really just beginning and I’m finding that not only is grief different for everyone, it can certainly be different for every person we’ve lost.

  2. Thankyou so much for sharing such intensely personal thoughts. I cannot tell you how much they mean. ❤️🙏

  3. SHARON FISHER

    June 12, 2018 at 7:24 pm

    Well said Heather. My sympathies on the loss of your mother. As time passes, I find I am recalling so many fond memories of loved ones who have passed, the bad is forgotten and the good rises to the top.

  4. Lovely. Thanks for this. I miss my mom every day and it’s been almost 30 years. I appreciated her but not enough.

  5. Thank you. Really, thank you. I lost my beautiful 26 year old daughter 8 months ago. She was struck and killed instantly by a distracted driver. My like and that of my children – her siblings forever changed. On that tragic night. Your description of grief hit home. I will go back to it often and hope it will be of help to my surviving daughter who not only lost her sister, but her best friend, too. I am truly sorry about the loss of your mom and will keep you in my prayers.

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