The Long and Winding Road

People tell you that there are distinct and progressive stages of grief. That after you have experienced loss, you will cry and mourn and predictably and gracefully move from Denial to Anger to Bargaining to Depression to Acceptance. Yes, it will be painful. Sure, it will be difficult–like overcoming so many hurdles in an epic track meet of emotions and physical endurance–but you will make it, and as surely as the sun rises at the dawn of a new day, you will reach Acceptance–that elusive happy place where people jump and sing and drink the champagne of celebration rather than the Merlot of grief.

From an outside perspective, it may seem logical to view grief as an equation, a well-traveled road down which most of us have trod, some of us many times over. It looks a little like this:

The afflicted goes down, down, down, riding the slide of suffering, cocktail in hand and tissues up their sleeve. A trusted confidante may even stand beside and hold the free hand of the sufferer until they hit the bottom. It is there, in the state of depression, that the supportive friend or counselor promises the afflicted, “Things will get better,” that “I know it seems a long ways away, but you’ll make it through.” They smile, as if that smile will speed the process of reconstruction, and leave the afflicted feeling good for the great advice they have offered.

But grief, in my experience, is not the downward slide to depression that you read about in text books or come across on an online forum. There are not five stages or seven steps or sure-fire ways of making it easier. The most linear of grieving processes looks like this:

Note that this diagram allows for the possibility of tension even before the loss occurred, it also accounts for those brief moments of hope, the upward climb before the final drop that led to the eventual break. Still, it does not allow for the confusing and convoluted process of grief that I have intimately known in the past nine months.

Good friends will understand that grief is a process. Great friends will allow you to spend a week, two weeks, a month, two months–hell, they’ll let you take as long as you need to scale those gargantuan hurdles and drag yourself down the track of grief. They may even sit with you when you completely give up in between Bargaining and Depression, Depression and Acceptance. But the best friends, the truly wise and virtuous friends that you only chance to encounter in a divinely blessed life, will throw out the linearity of grief altogether.

Because as much as we’d like grief to look like this:

It actually looks a lot more like this:

And that, my friends, is how you can spend a weekend camping in the glorious redwoods of California, eating gourmet chili, taking midnight hikes, staying up playing cards and divulging your deepest fears and longings to new and amazing friends on Saturday and Sunday, and still wake up Monday morning calling your mom and crying on the phone.
Because grief is a nasty, twisted road less traveled that may lead to Acceptance, but takes a hell of a lot of detours along the way. It is completely possible to jump from Shock to Depression without ever facing our good friend Denial. It is equally possible to spend long, sleepless days with Guilt, to move through Anger and Depression and even edge your way toward Reconstruction, only to find that you still blame yourself for the loss in the first place. The process of grief is up and down and back and forth and for as long as you are in it, it rarely (if ever) looks like there is a way out. You can spend hours of the day, even full days of the week, wishing that reality as you know it is nothing more than a long, anxious nightmare. I have spent full weeks waiting to wake up, waiting to come home to a life that no longer exists.

What I find most shocking about the whole business of “moving on” and “getting over” loss, is how long it takes and how completely powerless I am to control my own emotions. As recently as Saturday evening I felt I had reached a new level of acceptance while hiking through the forest and having audible conversations with the disembodied Spirit of God in the midst of the redwoods. But then in the darkened pews of a church Sunday night, between the rumpled pink sheets of my bed Monday morning, and within the dirty windows of my car halfway in between the gas station and Trader Joe’s this afternoon, I lost it. Again. And again. And again.

And I wonder (really I do) how many times this is going to happen. How many times I will go from this:

To this:

in a matter of hours.
I am tired of being sad. I am tired of feeling hurt. And I am tired of burdening other people with the weight of my emotions. There is a sort of guilt that comes with grieving that has little to do with the job/opportunity/scholarship/person/pet/relationship you have lost and everything to do with the way that your grief affects the people around you. How long, I wonder, am I allowed to be sad in public? How many times can I tell this story? Make this request? Express this suffering? 
There should probably be a limit as to how many nights one spends drinking wine, eating kettle corn and watching full seasons of the Gilmore Girls. There is a point at which one needs to take a shower, do her laundry, eat regular meals, and put away the photos, letters, CDs, and journals that offer no answers no matter how many times she reads them. But at what point must one stop grieving? Is there a point after which you must either move on or pretend to do so?
That is the second guilt, the second fear in my grieving process–that I and my grief are too much to handle, that I have not only lost my most significant relationship to date, but am coming dangerously close to losing the kindness and understand of my friends as well. Which would lead to more grief, which I do not think I can handle right now.

So I turn to God, and I begin to understand why so many people turn to some version of who they believe God to be when they are grieving–because God does get tired of hearing you beg and plead and question and wonder; God does not judge you for still loving your boyfriend ten months after he broke up with you; God does not mind that you cannot bring yourself to use the term “ex,” because to you it suggests a bitterness and rejection that you have never felt for that person; God does not ask you to dream of the future or put yourself out there; God does not tell you to suck it up and move on; in fact, God does not tell you an awful lot at all, which may be one reason you go to God in the first place, because at least God does not tell you “no” when everyone else seems to be doing so. God does not mind if you need to blame him for everything once in a while, if only because you are tired of blaming yourself. God understands. God is big enough for that. At least that’s what everyone tells me.

I don’t really know if this is what God “meant to have happen” to me. I struggle an awful lot to believe that the God I have come to know and understand ever desires to see relationships break, to see hearts break, to see people break. I do believe that we learn difficult, powerful, life-altering truths in the midst of our pain and sometimes even because of it. But I fail to see all of this as good. Maybe that is because I am still in the middle of it. And maybe that is because it really isn’t.
Grief is disorienting. It can make days last for years, while weeks of birthdays, holidays, and practical chores slip by unnoticed. You live in a present that longs for the past while grieving a future that will never be realized. And all the while you wonder what will be left of you when the grieving is over. If the grieving is ever over, which you sometimes believe will never really happen.
I am used to being disoriented, to being lost and confused and wondering if I will ever find my way home. (I mean that literally, I have a terrible sense of direction and no internal map whatsoever). It is time-consuming and frustrating and sometimes even terrifying. But I have yet to get so lost that I do not make it home eventually. Sometimes I have to give up and take a break. Sometimes I have to ask for directions, rely on someone else to point me in the right direction and tell me the way to go. But I always make it home. And I hope–for as much as I am able to hope for anything today–that one morning I will wake up and turn the corner and feel that lift of relief that comes when you recognize your own neighborhood, when the world begins to reorient itself and you see that you not so far from the place you want to be, a place of acceptance that I can only call home.