“What’s under the anger?”
“And under that?”
“Could it be grief?”
“I’m not sure I want to go there.”
-an actual conversation with my therapist
Grief. That’s a hard one for me to acknowledge. For much of my life, grief seemed like a waste of time. It seemed to get me nowhere helpful. Better to just pull it together and refocus on something productive. Grief is oddly submissive and will play along with this game for a little while. Eventually however, Grief demands attention. I have come to believe that if you do not reckon with Grief, she will reckon with you.
I spent my adolescent and teenage years overseas in an environment that exposed me to violence and desperate poverty. I was naturally extremely empathetic, and I remember the first couple of years being very tear-filled because of the hopelessness of it all and my inability to help in any meaningful way. Pretty soon I decided it was better to shove my grief in the corner of my heart and pretend that we had never met.
As a teenager, nearly every single female friend I had was raped. Sometimes they were beaten or starved by the men that essentially owned them because of the cultural belief that if a woman carried a man’s child, he had the right to do with her as he pleased. As I absorbed each friend’s story, I began constructing walls to keep my grief safely hidden away. Pretty soon the walls became so thick that I forgot Grief was even there.
I forgot how to cry.
A few years later, I received a call from my dad who was still overseas as I was walking to a college class. He wanted to let me know that the youth pastor had been murdered. She had been hacked to death by machete in front of her two-year-old by the gang that she had spoken against. I had loved her. She was a brave and powerful woman. She had a voice, and she was no man’s slave. Yet she too had become violence’s victim. I sat in class that day in shock, staring at the wall. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. I hadn’t in years, and I had no idea how to start. My impulse was to push aside those feelings, whatever they were, and get on with life. There was nothing I could do anyway. But some unrecognizable voice called out from far away, “This matters. You have to feel this. You have to learn to hear me again.”
I had no idea who that voice belonged to or what that message meant, but I knew it was important. I knew that I needed to figure it out. So I found a therapist.
I would love to say that after a couple of years, I got in touch with my grief and everything got better. That isn’t what happened. I spent a decade just learning to be honest about my anger, to accept that my experiences were what they were, and to get comfortable with my own self. It was like going through the boxes stacked inside my heart one by one. There was an important order to them. They had been packed up one at a time, and I had to be patient to sift through the nearest boxes before I could even acknowledge the ones further back.
Over time, I found that who I was with those boxes unpacked was so different than the young woman I had been when I first began the process. I am stronger than I ever knew but also radically more tender. I learned that I have a voice, but it’s taken a long time to learn to use it well. My first efforts were screeching and not terribly pleasant to hear. I learned that my anger is not a source of shame, but a gift that alerts me to my own fear and pain when I experience injustice. I learned that empathy is not lethal to me, but actually has the power to heal others and myself at the same time. I discovered that these boxes once unpacked contained tools of identity, compassion, belonging, hope, and love at the bottom. I was grateful for them all, but they also had a deeper purpose.
Eventually, I found a wall in my heart that seemed out of place. After staring at it for a bit – and dreading what I somehow knew was necessary, I picked up the tools from all those boxes and slowly and deliberately started chipping away at the wall. I found another therapist who guided the process and encouraged me when I was afraid to keep going. And then I saw her. Grief! She was still there. Not cowered in fear like I expected, but bravely standing with a welcoming smile. “There you are! I’ve missed you! Are you ready to walk with me again?”
It was ironic that in the middle of this reconnecting with my old friend Grief, my whole world began falling apart. As my family walked through a horrific experience in our community, Grief probably saved my life. Years before I would have taken it all on the chin, denied my suffering, and carried on as if none of it mattered. But in the aftermath of that trauma, Grief was my companion. She held me and let me rage and cry and feel sorry for myself. For the first time, I experienced suffering with complete freedom to grieve as long and as hard as I needed. And to my complete shock, Joy was birthed in that season of pain.
Brene Brown writes that we cannot selectively numb painful feelings. When we try, we also deaden our ability to feel joy and happiness. That was certainly true for me. I existed emotionally in the safe middle. When I shoved Grief into the corner and built a wall around her, what I gave up was the capacity to feel any measurable amount of joy, peace, or contentment. I had no idea that this was the trade off that I had made.
Last summer, I was riding in the car with a good friend. Our windows were down, the radio was loud, and the hot sun was beating down on us. This overwhelming and completely foreign feeling flooded my body. I felt at total peace, located in the present moment only, and absolutely content to be in that place in that moment in time. I have no memory of ever experiencing that feeling before in my entire life.
“Her name is Joy,” Grief told me. “She is my daughter. Come meet her… I think you will like each other.”
Now that Grief and I are friends, Joy hangs out with us too sometimes. Truthfully, Joy scares me a little. She’s ethereal and, like a sunbeam, so obviously there yet impossible to hold on to. I am afraid she will leave forever, and my life will return to the sepia tones that existed before she was born and her light threw everything in full color. Now that I have experienced Joy, I cannot imagine life without her. When that fear of abandonment comes, Grief always grabs my hand and reminds me, “Never forget: Joy is my daughter. She goes wherever I go. So long as you and I are together, Joy will be with us too.”
And I cry.