Let me tell you about one of the worst things I’ve ever done. I was a freshman in college when my first grandparent died. It was my grandfather on my father’s side. I was going to school in Worcester, Massachusetts at the time, and my grandparents had lived in Maine. My parents were flying out from Michigan to attend the funeral, and they flew into Worcester so they could pick me up there and we could all drive up to Maine together.
When they arrived, I told them I couldn’t go to the funeral. I had too much homework, I told them. This was a lie. I’m sure I had some homework, but there was probably just as much homework that I was blowing off. I was going through my first major episode of depression, or at least it was the first one that I consciously identified as depression. In retrospect, I was probably depressed for much of my childhood. But that’s beside the point. The point is that in my depression, I was only thinking about myself and how miserable I was. Other people’s feelings didn’t factor into the equation. So I lied to my parents and I didn’t go to the funeral.
They knew it was a lie, of course. It was a very flimsy one. But they didn’t call me out on it. They allowed me to grieve in my own way. Unfortunately, my way at the time was by totally ignoring it and pretended it didn’t exist. When you’re that far into the darkness, it’s difficult to notice when things get darker. No one else called me out on it, either, but I’m sure it hurt my relationships with some of my extended family. I don’t know if they thought less of me, but I certainly thought less of myself.
Today I took my daughter to a funeral for her sixth grade teacher. She has very fond memories of him; he was the sort of teacher who seemed prickly when you first met him but turned out to be about as warm-hearted as they come. She was, and is, genuinely sad about his death and is going through a period of grief about it. She is 14 years old, and at 14 is handling it more maturely than I did at 19.
She didn’t want to stay long, and when we were there she did not want to watch a video that was playing of him. It made her too sad. She felt guilty about it, and I told her the truth, which is that it was totally OK. By going to the funeral, she did more than she had to do. She could have done nothing, and no one would have given it a second thought but her. Everyone grieves in their own way, I told her, and I was proud that she was at least confronting her grief.
In giving her permission to grieve in her own way, though, I realized I had to give myself permission to grieve in my own way, too. Not just in the present but also in the past. I had to forgive myself for how I handled my grandfather dying, because grieving is hard, and there’s no blueprint for how to do it. I learned from my guilt about not going to his funeral, and I grew from it. The guilt had done its job and now it was time to let it go.
I’d be lying if I said I’ve been completely successful at letting go of that guilt, but maybe having just a little bit of it left is OK, too. Grief can destroy you, but it can also help you grow. The grief I felt over the past year and a half after the end of my marriage was the most intense grief I’ve ever felt. No one’s life had ended, but I felt like mine had ended. I was grieving for myself, a person whom I had thought I knew but had lost all definition. I had an idea of myself and that idea was a shattered.
So, I spiraled. I listened to sad music and drank alone in my living room until I passed out on the floor. I would wake up to one of my cats licking my face or biting my hair. Having those cats around helped me get through it, as did having my daughter around during the time that I was able to see her. Every time I thought of killing myself, which I did often, I would think of my cats having no one to feed them. I would think of my daughter not having a father. I would think of my parents not having a son, my sister not having a brother, my ex-wife not having a best friend (which is how she graciously redefined our relationship).
Those thoughts got me through my grief, as did therapy and medication. Now, after finding the right combination of medications and a new therapist covered by my insurance, I finally feel like I’m through the worst of it. Was everything I did along that journey healthy? No, but it was what I needed to do. I grieved the way I needed to grieve, and while grief never really goes away, it gets better over time. I’m now at the point where I can think about my future with a clear head, rather than seeing no future because I was so focused on the past.
At some point I’ll need to grieve again. That’s life. There isn’t a single thing in the universe that will not one day come to an end. Maybe next time, though, I’ll be able to use what I’ve learned from my past grief. Maybe I’ll be able to handle my grief with just a bit more poise and dignity. If I don’t, though—if I fall apart—then that’s OK.
And it’s OK if you do, too.