Finding Words for Grief

This essay was originally published on Thrive Global. Photo credit – Sandy Millar, Unsplash.

Grief is a universal ache, but many people struggle with finding the right words to express it. This personal perspective, intercepted with other people’s experiences, shows there are no easy answers.

I struggled with finding words to express grief. It overwhelmed me, triggered panic attacks, caused physical pain. As much as I grieved my father’s death, I also mourned our plans, hopes, dreams, and shared past: all the “wishes that can’t come true.”

“Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted. It comes and goes on its own schedule. Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes. Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to. In that regard, Grief has a lot in common with Love.” – Elizabeth Gilbert

I also struggled to find words to express condolences. Should I offer consolation to a grieving person or share something humorous that their loved ones used to do? Is it too early for levity? Do we hear the comforting words in the moment of darkness, or simply say them to comfort ourselves? Verbal affirmations of sympathy are the crossroads of life and eternity: a memory of the dead and a hope for the living. I wanted them to be succinct and sincere, yet the right words have never arrived.

“This is not a hard letter to write as you will know something of what I feel and words are unnecessary. For you I feel a really overwhelming sorrow, and for myself a loss which can never diminish.” – From a condolence letter of Vita Sackville-West after the death of Virginia Woolf

My father’s death was a turning point, and continues to haunt me in its untimeliness and the sorrow it has caused my mother. He was the core of our family, the crystal mountain of integrity and generosity, the North Star; his passing left a hole in my otherwise perfect world. 

“For myself and others it is the end of a world. I merely feel quite numb at the moment, and can’t think about this or anything else, but I want you to know that you are as constantly in my mind as in anyone’s.” – From a condolence letter of T. S. Eliot after the death of Virginia Woolf

His death also complicated my uneasy relations with religion, as I couldn’t find any consolation in spirituality. I wanted concrete answers, reasons, justifications: why suffering, why now, why him. Both my father and I were convinced atheists. He was never baptized by the Orthodox church, and it further rubbed salt into a wound when I was not allowed to lit a candle or mention his name in a prayer. I could not lean on any faith to carry me forward.

“… [I]n this world there is no stay but the hope of a better, and no reliance but on the mercy and goodness of God. Through those two harbours of a shipwrecked heart, I fully believe that you will, in time, find a peaceful resting-place even on this careworn earth.” – Charles Dickens

Four months after the passing of my father, I lost my unborn baby due to pregnancy complications. Too weak physically and too numb psychologically to grieve properly, I shook it off. My perspectives shifted: I wanted to focus on what I had. I was pierced, but did not want pity.

“Whether or not they believe in God, death has a way of making us look at the deep, the beyond and the transcendent.” – Caleb Wilde in “Confessions of a Funeral Director”

Should I embrace mortality? Can there be a relationship with death, let alone a healthy one? Can I rise above my fears of dying, control my tears of sorrow, and overcome my resentment towards unanswered prayers? I have a lot of growing up to do, with the help of my loved ones, even if they are not with me.

“You raise me up so I can stand on mountains” – Brendan Graham.

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