My early twenties weren’t exactly a stellar time. Within a short period of time I was raped twice. I found out I was pregnant shortly after I decided to take Jesus’ words that it’s better to enter the kingdom maimed and had broken up with then boyfriend. The people around me didn’t exactly rise to the occasion. One woman I told about one of the sexual assaults told every-freaking-body. A man she told became so belligerent towards me that I had to interrupt his screaming rant to let him know that if he laid a hand on me, I would call the police and have him hauled away. One of my dearest friends died after a life-long struggle with a rare blood disorder.
I had been studying to become a high school English teacher, but would now need help so I could complete my student teaching in order for that to happen. Instead, I was sent out into the world without so much as a chair to sit in or a bed to sleep on. I became homeless and wound up in a homeless shelter/half-way house for single mothers. My roommate was an orphan who stole a ridiculous amount of money from me. The other women there were children of drug addicts, forced out by violent step-fathers, recovering from addictions themselves, etc.
Some of the people around me felt free to demand that I go into hiding and then place my child for adoption so my siblings, relatives and community wouldn’t know of my shame. (The idea that perhaps a person who has already had their right to self-direction grossly violated shouldn’t be told what to do with her own baby didn’t register, of course. And no, this wasn’t the ’50s. It was the mid-90s)
After I had my son and decided to follow God’s leading and raise him myself, family and friends refused to have anything to do with me. Some went so far as to tell me directly that I wasn’t welcome to come around anymore – particularly if my son was with me. I did manage to eventually finish my degree, but what sort of work to pursue with a degree in Literature and Communications still eludes me. I was poor, alone and directionless beyond knowing that I needed to care for my son.
There were a few brighter spots. My then 16 year old sister was supportive and actually happy about her new nephew. A local church held the only baby shower I had until a couple of my husband’s friends’ wives threw a spectacularly under-attended shower for me when I was pregnant with my 5th child. So, at least I had a stroller when my son was born.
The local crisis pregnancy center was a God-send. They gave me a maternity dress and money so I could buy a pair of maternity jeans, as well as a crib for the baby, the occasional $20 for gas and later a $100 a month stipend which my roommate repeatedly stole. And they provided weekly sessions with an amazing counselor which made a world of difference.
In the years that followed, I gained the life-sustaining friendship of an amazing women I had met while doing prison ministry. And after our son was born, my now husband began stepping up to the plate. Some of the people in my life insist that he’s a terrible person and can’t understand my relationship with him, but the reality is that he’s always been the only person who has been there and done whatever he could figure out to help me out when I needed help staying off the streets or getting access to transportation or whatever. Which as my kid’s father and later my husband was only right, but he had scarcely any more support than I did and really needed people who would help him out as much as I did.
As I went through all of this, it hurt, of course. But I refused to give into anger. I forgave profusely even though it would be nearly a decade before any sort of apology at all came. I didn’t throw people’s failures or my suffering in anyone’s face. I didn’t judge the people who hurt me, but chose to recognize that they were limited people who were still beholden to their limitations. I didn’t create additional turmoil by demanding what people were unwilling to give. I rarely allowed myself to wallow in self-pity; it’s pointless and draining and I couldn’t afford it. I let go of the friendships, my reputation, my ministry, any material comforts and a future I had already worked very hard and overcome many obstacles to set-up for myself. What’s been done can’t be undone and the only thing to do is to keep moving forward.
I stumbled through, tried things and failed, took enormous pleasure from being a mom, eventually married my husband and despite some ridiculous challenges and against enormous odds, we made a life together. The people around me continued displaying an often appalling level of callousness towards me, but I just kept forgiving, letting go, returning kindness for evil and seeking God. And in the last decade even the worst offenders have become much more supportive and kind. So, it was a royally sucky way to start life, but it wasn’t the end of my story by any means. And I do get to take pride in the fact that looking back, for whatever mistakes I made, all-in-all, I handled everything like a fucking super-hero.
Part of what allowed me to survive was this amazing thing which our minds will do in the face of trauma and loss. You see, although I faced my challenges head on and never intentionally stuffed anything, going through so many awful things and suffering so many tremendous losses has a way of creating a great amount of pain. Far more pain than I was emotionally or practically able to cope with when these things were happening. So, my amazing mind, in all of its wisdom, dealt with what it could as it went and tucked the rest away.
As I say the memoir portion of my book The Upside Down World ~ A Book of Wisdom in Progress:
Emotions are funny things; like energy they never actually go away – they just move from one form to another. Using the tools I had to combat emotional reactions which were simply too much for me to deal with was like holding a beach ball under water – eventually you lose control and the ball will come shooting out in unexpected and uncontrollable ways.
For most of this year this is exactly what has been happening with all the crap I went through in my twenties. Those emotions which I was unable to process fully as I went through have been coming out to be dealt with and released.
This isn’t the first time I’ve had this experience. It happened in my late teens and again when I finally dealt with the trauma of losing all of my friends after having my son. Almost everything I’ve read about the fairly common experience of delayed grief has spoken of it as a bad thing. What happens when you aren’t willing to face reality, live in denial or avoidance. But I think it’s genius. An amazing sort of grace which allows us to survive and thrive in the face of devastating suffering and loss.
There was no way I could have done as well as I did in life if I had been weighed down with the sort of pain and grief I have been experiencing this year on top of everything else. By tucking this pain away to be dealt with later, when I was safer, stronger and more secure than I was as a young adult, this delaying of grief allowed me to survive and even sometimes thrive. It gave me time to mature, grow stronger and become more settled before having to face it. Dealing with this pain has nearly done me in this year. I can’t imagine what it would have done to me back when I was couch surfing with a toddler or looking for change in the cushions for food for my kid.
The problem with this sort of delayed grief, I think, is that we often don’t recognize it for what it is when it comes up. Often, our brains will wait until things are fairly settled to let these emotions out. Which is good but often confusing. I’m finally in a safe place, so why am I so miserable, we’ll think. We’ll wonder if maybe there’s some other problem – a failure of forgiveness or a need to change direction or an unrecognized problem with how we are currently doing life which is at the root of our suffering. Sometimes we keep trying to use the same coping mechanisms which we used to shove aside the pain the first time – perhaps denial or minimizing or internalizing – only to discover that they are no longer working. Hopefully, either on your own or with the help of a good friend or counselor, you will figure out that it’s old pain demanding to be dealt with and released.
Delayed grief is something which many people experience, but it’s not something which is very widely known or understood, which can make it hard to recognize. Most of what is written about it is, as I said, negative and usually written about those who have lost someone to death. But loss takes many forms. It can be the loss of relationships, reputation, work, security, or anything else we care about. It seems to me that as hard as a loss of a loved one to death can be, unless the death is particularly unexpected or violent, grief from death is usually much easier to process than the grief which comes from the evil we do to each other. Physical death is a normal part of life in this world whereas the things we do to each other comes from the brokenness which mankind has been struggling with since the fall. It is unnatural and beyond what God created us to have to cope with.
Since one of the reasons delayed grief is so difficult to deal with is that we often don’t recognize it when it happens, here are a few signs of delayed grief:
- You find yourself dwelling on past events. You may find yourself repeating the story of what happened to yourself over and over. You may imagine conversations you could have had or even think you might want to have with the people involved.
- Like the grief which is experienced after the death of a loved one, the pain you are experiencing may sideswipe you unexpectedly. You may suddenly start crying, being angry or exhausted or anxious for no particular reason.
- While reading, in conversation, watching TV or movies, etc you may find that hearing or seeing things which are similar to your past events triggers intense emotions.
- The pain you are experiencing tends to be more draining than regular frustration, hurt feelings or anger. Grief tends to be particularly draining – both emotionally and physically. You may find that you just have less energy over all than normal.
- Sometimes you may find that you are re-experiencing past events, almost as if you are right back in that moment. This can be a sign of PTSD. If this is happening, it’s particularly important to find someone to talk things out with.
Of course, no one wants to be in pain. But one of the good things about the pain of grief, is that its a healing pain. Once it passes, you will be whole-er and more peaceful than you were before. So it’s not a bad thing. Of course, there are things you can do along the way which will make working through grief harder than it needs to be and perhaps even complicate it so it poisons your life going forward.
Some of the ways you can avoid this and allow grief to do its work:
- The most important thing is to allow yourself to experience whatever pain you have. Pain that is experienced can be released. If you refuse to allow yourself to feel it, it will never go away.
- The presence of grief doesn’t mean that you’ve done something wrong and need to be making changes. If you need to make changes in your life, by all means do that. But if your pain is coming from the past, changing the present won’t be much help.
- Having forgiven someone doesn’t mean that what they did doesn’t hurt. But you may discover that there is unforgiveness or anger present which needs to be dealt with. Dealing with that can help move the process of grief along.
- Resist the urge to second guess or blame yourself. Even if you screwed things up along the way, we all do the best we can figure out how as we go. If you know better today, be grateful and proud that you know better now rather than you did then. Some people go through their lives never learning anything.
- Be compassionate towards yourself. Don’t tell yourself that your pain is ridiculous or that you should just get over it. Much of our pain is created when others lack compassion towards us. Don’t join in and pile on. Treat and talk to yourself the way you would a good friend who was going through a hard time.
- Find someone to talk to. Just make sure they are safe. If you try to talk with a friend, family member or fellow Christian and they don’t respond in a way that makes you feel better, don’t do it again. The fact that this person should be someone you can lean on doesn’t mean that they are. Don’t hesitate to see a counselor to talk things out, even if you only go a few times. Staying isolated will only make things worse.
- Do things to help others. It does help to have other things to focus on as you work through your grief. As you help others, you will often be exposed to experiences, ideas and insights of others which might be helpful to you as well.
- Give it time. Grief is a process which often follows a two-steps forward, one step back progression. But over time it will lessen, episodes of intense pain will come further apart and eventually be less intense. Eventually, your grief will be more memory than anything and you will have gained healing and peace for your efforts. But it does take time.
One last note. I went to find a picture for this post and put “grief sculpture” into the image search. Almost every single picture which came up was of a woman or female form. Almost every. single. one. Men: you are allowed to grieve. You need to grieve, just like we women do. Please know that and don’t buy into the cultural nonsense that men always have to buck up and take it. It’s not true. Suffering is not a female experience. It’s a human one. And its worth it. There is healing and peace on the other side, which after all the suffering, we all deserve.