Voices of Experience: Delayed Grief

Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too was a gift.
~ Mary Oliver

In the compelling account of grief delayed that appears below, a man describes what happened to him when his reaction to a significant loss was postponed for many years, rather than experienced, expressed, and fully felt at the time. Reprinted here with the author's permission, this story serves as a powerful reminder that, no matter when a death occurred or how long ago it happened, it is never too late to do the work of mourning. 

In October 1979, I lost my girlfriend Jan in a car accident. I was 18 and had just started college. She was 17 and a senior in high school. I came home for midterm break to the news – it had happened the night before.

"Girlfriend" seems like such a trivial word. She was a miracle in my life. I had lost my mother 4 years earlier, and in my first couple years of high school I felt so alone and depressed, though I didn't know it at the time. My world was very dark and I was negative and bitter. Jan didn't see any of that – she looked at me and saw a pretty wonderful guy. She walked through it all, past all the walls that a brooding loner had put up, as if they weren't even there. She loved me and gave me her heart. She just knew me, and I knew her. We were like brother and sister. We were meant to find each other in this world. She brought light to my darkness, and showed me that there's such a thing as love, when I didn't believe in it. She gave me her heart, and gave me my heart. She showed me that I can love. She was the deepest and truest friend I've ever had – in that sense, she was the only friend I've ever had. She loved me, she saw the best in me, she wanted the best for me, and she wanted to be there for me always. She gave me so much just by being who she was and loving me. In spite of everything, I don't know who or what I'd be today if it weren't for her.

Losing her was so awful, so unthinkable, and I was so young, that I just couldn't face it. It was the cruelest joke imaginable, to be given something so beautiful, so profound – the greatest possible gift, when I needed it most – only to have it ripped away after such a short time, when I hadn't even learned how to accept it yet. It almost felt like a punishment for not appreciating what I had been given.

I returned to school because there was nowhere else for me to go. And once again I was alone. I tried to bury myself in my work, and there was a lot of it, but eventually I couldn't continue and I left. I spent the next 15 years, which seemed then like a lifetime – several lifetimes – drifting from one thing to the next, one place to the next. Working, traveling, back in school, leaving again, moving, lots of different jobs.. No direction, no sense of the future. And the whole time, I was running away from her death (and from her), trying to keep it pushed far far away, never letting myself think about it. I felt like it would destroy me if I did.

Eventually I went back to school and got a degree in computer science, finally had a career and some "direction" in life. I've spent the last almost 20 years doing that, and still running away, acting almost like she never existed, because I couldn't bear to think about her. The fact was there, but the reality and the feelings were locked away. Until last August, when a high school friend sent me a picture he found of Jan and me, leaning against a car, my arm around her, her leaning against me and reaching over to touch me gently, smiling so sweetly, me looking like that brooding loner with a bad haircut. I had never seen it before, I didn't remember it being taken, and it was the first new picture I'd seen of her in 32 years. Such a sweet picture.

I looked at her face, and I didn't see a picture of Jan. I saw Jan. I felt her. She wasn't in the picture, she was in front of me. I could see her face, her smile, the way she moved. I could hear her voice. I could feel her spirit, her personality, who she was to me, so close, so familiar, as if I had just seen her yesterday. After all that time, all that running away, my memory of her was still fresh; it hadn't faded at all.

I sat down with that picture and just looked at it, feeling her again for the first time. And it all started coming. At first I told myself not to do this, to just put it in the box with the rest, the box of pictures and letters that I've carried with me my whole life, that sat in the back of a cabinet, or the bottom of a storage box. Just put it away, I said, this is not a good idea.

But then I realized that this was different. In the beginning, I would sometimes try to read her letters or look at her pictures, and a knot would just form in my stomach. I would feel numb and dead inside. So I stopped doing that a long time ago. But now, I felt my grief. I felt it flowing through me, not getting stuck inside me. And I said, Maybe I'm finally ready for this. Maybe I can do this now. And I didn't have to do anything. I just had to let it happen, and let it flow through me. I sat down with the picture and did nothing else for the next 2 months, other than going to work. I just sat on my screen porch with the sounds of the forest around me, with a candle in front of her picture, and let it come. I looked at all her pictures, and read all her letters over and over, crying and remembering. There was so much to remember, so much I hadn't let myself remember for my whole life. So many beautiful memories, some that I had forgotten completely. I pieced back together the story of us, that I had let myself forget over the years. I talked to her, and told her everything I was feeling, everything I wanted to say to her.

I hadn't locked my grief away, and I hadn't pushed her away at all. When I finally stopped running and turned around, I saw that it was all right there the whole time, waiting for me. She was there the whole time, right next to me. I just didn't want to see her.

The last eight months have been the most profound journey of my life. I've felt my grief and loss and sadness and confusion and emptiness fully for the first time. I've talked to Jan and yelled at her, asked her for help, told her how much I still miss her. How much I've needed her for my whole life when she wasn't there, and how alone I feel, still, without her. I've wondered over and over how such a thing could happen. So many unanswerable questions.

I've gained so many new insights and perspectives, with the help of a very good therapist. I've looked back at my life as a whole for the first time, connecting all the fragments and putting it all in perspective, seeing what was driving me for so long. I've seen how much her death defined my life. I don't know what it would have been otherwise, but it would have been nothing like what it was. I look back at that time now and feel so sad for myself, for how lost I was for so long.

But the most important insight I've had is that although the sorrow will never really go away, I don't have to be afraid of it, and it can't really hurt me. And I've seen that it comes together with all the happy memories. They can't be separated. I've been trying to run from the pain my whole life, but in doing that I lost my happy memories of Jan. So now I welcome them both, though I don't dwell on the sorrow, only the happiness. And the sorrow comes and goes, but the happy memories, and all that she gave me, are always with me.

And Jan is with me always too. Through this, I've gotten her back in some way. I feel her always now. She's a part of me, in a very real way. I don't know what that is or what it means, and I don't call it anything. I just know that she's with me always, because I feel her. I've never been religious or spiritual, but sometimes I wonder..

 Thank you for letting me share this . . . I've been feeling so alone with it. Nobody who hasn't experienced this can even begin to understand or relate to it. I've been feeling like I'm in the Phantom Zone. It helps so much to be able to share this with people who understand.

Copyright © 2012 by Craig Moberg, wyfis@craigmoberg.com

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2 comments:

  1. This was very wonderful to read, and helpful to me to understand a previous partner who lost his mother in his late teens, but never it seemed came to terms with his loss, after talking to his grandparents. Then, after 5years together he lost his grandfather, then his grandmother in a 6month concession in on year. I used to think he must be so strong to keep his emotions in check, and became even more hardworking at home or at work. Sadly after Nearly 8 years together, our relationship did not survive, and I fully grieved my loss of him, for which I only fully recovered from this year, almost 4years ago. He had already startd a new relationship before I'd even moved out of our home, and seemed happy and almost relieved. Two years into our separation, he had been diagnosed with clinical depression, and called me in tears. He was on strong anti-depressants, and wanted to talk about us, and the good times. I realised a lot of things. Simply that. Thankyou for sharing your story x

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    1. Blessings to you, my friend ~ It's so good to learn that this post helped you to better understand your own situation. That is the very purpose of sharing stories such as this one. Thank you so much for your comment, and know that I wish you nothing but the best. ♥

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