I ran across one of the most accurate graphics this week that I've ever seen. This is exactly true for the season immediately following a loss, and interestingly it is still what my grief looks like 10 years later. The only difference now is that the top part of the iceberg is a little smaller. The part under the water is just as big. Even bigger, maybe, as layers of "what I've learned" have built up over time.
Depending on which text you reference, there are either 5, 7, or 10 stages of grief. Navigating the basic 5 just about killed me, ironically. So maybe breaking it down into 7 or 10 sub-stages would have been easier. Regardless, there are true distinctive shifts in the grieving process. And it does help to know that what you are experiencing is normal. It also helps to know what’s coming on the horizon.
The only thing harder than losing someone you love is making it through the grieving process that follows. There's a reason the giant part of the iceberg is the grief nobody talks about. It's ugly and unpleasant. I wish we would talk about it more though, because it's universal, and I think we'd feel less alone if we knew someone else was in the same place too.
Any crisis can set you on the grief track: loss, uncertainty, the end of a relationship, career changes, or any other major life curve ball. I venture to guess that most people we meet out in the world are grieving something. (That's why it's important to just be nice to people. We're all hurting.)
LJ's 10th birthday is approaching. It has pressed me to revisit the 5 stages of grief exactly as I experienced them when he died: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In reality, each of those 5 stages included their own sub-stages like shock, loneliness, crisis of faith, finding community, and peace-making. (These are my own designations, not clinical by any means.)
Looking back on how we navigated death, mourning, faith, and finding joy through the grieving process has been oddly encouraging. We've come a long way and I'm really... proud?... of the hard work we did to learn and grow through it. It's a lifelong process so there's still wisdom to be gained as we go.
My life is more rich and full than I could have ever imagined because I have chosen to wrestle with all these things. I rumble with them certainly in spite of my own stubborn desire to avoid the painful stretch of change and growth. But grieving transforms you, whether you agree to it or not. I like to think we have the choice whether it transforms us for better or for worse. When we take the time to really lean into the process, grief becomes a powerfully effective teacher.
Related: How grief changes us for good
In the days and weeks after we lost our baby boy, I read every book I could get my hands on to help me understand why I hurt so much. Even more, I was looking for the secret for how to feel better. I found short booklets, long narratives, scientific approaches, spiritual perspectives, practical knowledge, and a beautiful grief devotional I still use. Each of these books were helpful in their own ways. Yet what I really needed most was someone to say “this is how it was for me.”
I desperately sought out stories of how grief looked in real life, because I was living it in real life. It was not a hypothetical loss in a theoretical classroom that could be navigated with professional terminology on a prescribed timeline. My pain was ready to pull me under. I needed to know that another real person with real grief over loss just like mine made it through to the other side.
I realize now that there really isn’t an "other side." Rather, real people with real grief simply find a path moving forward and choose to walk it one step at a time. Sometimes you can go quickly, sometimes it’s slow, and sometimes you have to sit down and rest. Pausing and resting, or even going in reverse for awhile, is okay. Quitting is not. As long as you keep going, there is light to be found along the way.
I undoubtedly made things messier in the process. I still get lost in the weeds and have to get myself back on the path. But the further I walk, the better my bearings have become. And the more tools I've added to my pack. Tools like coping skills, compassion, empathy, forgiveness, community, self-expression, awareness of myself and other people, and the humility and willingness to ask for help.
Heart work = HARD WORK but it's work that must be done.
I know this got real dark real fast here on the ol' HP. But matters of the heart are equal parts dark and sweet. And I have found that the darker the water in which you're willing to swim, the sweeter it is on the shore.
So I'm shining my light down the path today for every heart "walking through it." Come out of the weeds when you're ready and stay the course. The world needs you here.
Jessica is a writer, musician, entrepreneur, wife, and mom. Jessica's mission is to write "real" - shining light into the dark places of the tough stuff we all experience. She and her husband Jack live in Houston, Texas and have weathered the storms of grief, infant loss, adoption, and a marriage that almost fell apart. Jessica and Jack have 4 children, LJ in heaven, Grace, Jackson, and brand new baby Elisha.