Navigating Loss in the Arms of Grief

Music, like certain scents can instantly bring me back to a moment, or moments in time. I guess the senses of smelling and hearing have that type of power over me. Perhaps you can relate? A couple of weeks ago I was out running and my music was set to play randomly. I have a ton of music on my iPod so love setting it on random because the next song is always a surprise. It was about 38 degrees and I was dressed in typical winter running gear – long running tights, a jacket, gloves, and a headband to cover my ears. The cold breeze was hitting my face and I could see my breath. The song Raised by Wolves, by U2 started to play through my headphones. The first few notes rang out and suddenly it was no longer cold outside. It felt like August weather – hot, steamy, humid air that is thick – typical Virginia summer air. I was suddenly in running shorts and a t-shirt.

When that song began to play in my ears, I was transported back to August 2014; U2’s new album had just been released and I listened to it on every run for most of that month. Those songs drowned out my chattering brain trying to comprehend the fact that my Dad had little time left on this earth and my dog was in the midst of battling his own cancer. I ran and ran to get away from the sorrow but I could never quite escape it. The U2 songs and the running helped but nothing could eliminate the sound of my breaking heart. And last week, in those few seconds of the beginning of that song, Raised by Wolves, I felt the hand of grief reach out, grab me, and instantly pull me back to August 2014. I felt the rawness of my pain and sorrow. I saw images of my Dad, so sick and failing, flashing before my eyes. I saw images of my dog in pain, trying to recover from a surgery that ended up not saving his life. I felt the hot humid air all around me as I gasped for breath only to stop running because I couldn’t breathe anymore. In my mind, it was August 2014 and I was on my knees in the middle of the gravel road begging God to help my sick Dad and my sick dog.

And then I saw my gloved hand on the gravel road in front of me and realized I’d been running backwards in time for the past three minutes of that song. It wasn’t August 2014. It was February 2016. Time had passed and I had begun to heal. Yet, in those moments of that song I found myself reeling in the arms of grief. I was swept back in time to the moments when I first ran to that song and to all the feelings and sensations of that time. It took me a moment to gather myself and then I spent the rest of my run thinking about what just happened and how grief, to me, is an obscure confusing emotion.

Grief is one of those emotions that knows no place and time, has no rules and boundaries and shows up most unexpectedly. I suppose you can say that about all emotions but the grief I’ve experienced since my Dad passed is new to me. I learn more about it with each passing day. I find that it hits me unexpectedly. Oh yes, there are the expected times – birthdays, holidays, special moments and milestones. But it’s the unexpected grief that is disconcerting and throws me off balance. So how do you deal with the abruptness of it? There are a few things I’ve done and still do as I continue to navigate the grieving process. Perhaps some of you can relate or these things can help you navigate your own loss.

Expect it.
The more time that passes in my grieving process, the more I’ve come to expect it to hit me unexpectedly so now I just expect it to show up without warning. I know it’s going to hit me at unpredicted times so I try not to be so surprised by it.

Sometimes it’s not as off-putting as that day on my run so I can say “yep, there it is again…” and remind myself that it really isn’t that unexpected since it’s happened so many times like this before. And even during the times it shows up and knocks me down I do the same thing – remind myself that this is not abnormal and we’ve been here before.

Ride it out.
Not only does grief hit at unexpected times and in unanticipated ways but it also comes in waves (I wrote a blog post about the waves of grief last year, on the one year anniversary of my Dad’s passing). Grieving is about learning to ride those unpredicted waves because as violently as they come and knock you to your knees, they eventually pass. Not long after as I was pulled back in time and knocked over by the wave of grief that hit me on my run I was back up running through the emotion of it. Yes, it knocked me down but the wave didn’t keep me down. A year ago it would have. I wouldn’t have been able to get up and continue running. I likely would have dissolved into a puddle on the road. (I say that both literally and figuratively.) I also thought through that as I continued my run. Is this bad…the fact that the grief doesn’t keep me down as it would have a year ago? Does it mean I’m forgetting about Dad or that I don’t miss him as much as I did a year ago? And then there I was again, hyperventilating and stopping mid-run to ride the wave and gather myself so I could regulate my breathing enough to continue running. Which brings me to the third way I continue to navigate the grieving process…

Allow the thoughts and feelings to just be.
As I ruminated over whether the fact that I don’t get sidelined by a wave of grief for a day or two now means I don’t miss my dad anymore I naturally realized: Of course it doesn’t mean I don’t miss him as much as I did a year ago. In fact, I think I actually miss him more because it’s been longer since I’ve seen him; however, I’m moving into a different phase of grieving – a new normal of life without my dad. It means time is allowing me to process his death and move forward. It’s important to allow ourselves the time and space to feel the sadness that accompanies the waves of grief. Emotions are energy in motion. They need to move so they don’t get stuck. As long as we allow space to let the emotion move, it does. The more we feel them, the easier and faster they move through us.

Know it does not end.
This is the fourth way that I continue to navigate the grieving process and it still stops me in my tracks. I don’t know this one personally yet, but others who have experienced the loss of loved ones have shared this. The grief lessens but missing the person or being hit with a wave of sadness does not end. My grandmother (Mom’s mom) has been gone for 20 years and my Mom still has tearful moments of missing her. She still wishes she can call her and hear her voice. The longing for them to be in our presence never ends. The raw emotions associated with grief lessen because our hearts are amazing structures capable of great healing. And because they are so amazing, they hold love for our deceased loved ones forever.

This last one also helps me as I continue to question why, still, after 18 months of my Dad being gone, I’m continue to be knocked to my knees from grief while out on a run. I know it represents how deeply I adored my Dad and how much he meant to me. I also know that each time I allow myself to accept the grief and rest in the arms of it, I’m continuing to slowly allow my heart to heal.

I hope these thoughts around navigating a loss are helpful. As you ride the waves of emotions that accompany dealing with a loss, allow yourself to rest in the arms of grief knowing that it is the best way to continue to heal.

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