One is that if you were to ask someone mid-morning “What’s the weather like where you are?” the answer could be "Terrible”, but at lunch time it could be “Fine,” and by the afternoon it could be “Great”. So if you asked someone later on that night how the weather had been that day, what would they reply? It would probably depend on whether they’d had a conversation about it with someone else, as that would stick in their minds and remind them of that part of the day. Or of significant moments of the day and how the weather affected them, say, at the moment they left the house to pick up their children.
And thats how it is with grief. There can be a point in the morning where I feel frozen in time and despondent, like nothing in my life will ever feel right and that there’s just no point in doing anything, ever. But at lunchtime everything can feel fine and normal and I’m busy doing a task like not much has changed. And in the afternoon I might hear some great news or do something really fun with the kids and life can seem great. Then by the evening I might feel totally overwhelmed all over again and feel anxious and afraid and like life is totally out of my depth.
So the answer to “How are you doing?” is a completely transient one. It changes not just every day, but every few hours, just like the weather. Eventually over the course of a week I might be able to look back and say “Not too bad”, because overall I remember more times of okayness and fun events, and other weeks I’ll look back and say “Terrible”, because although there were many ordinary moments and lots of good things in there, there were also emotional storms that stick in my mind more than the periods of calm.
But there isn’t really any way to sum up what it’s actually like. It’s unsettling, it’s crazy, it makes you feel like you’re out of control, because you can’t predict what’s coming next and so you daren’t rely on how things are today in order to make decisions about tomorrow because you just don’t know.
But neither do you want to stop living life just because it may rain tomorrow. Although there are lots of things I no longer feel confident doing (things that don’t seem like a big deal to most people but I am actively avoiding them because I know they’re a big deal for me), and there are other things that I make non-negotiables in my life - church stuff, for example. Things I don’t leave to chance, so I can’t wake up in the morning and look out of the window or into my soul and make a decision based on that. I make pre-decisions, to just do the things, and inevitably I am built up and moved forward an inch just by doing them. The big question is, of course, are what those things should be, and how many of them to commit to, and which ones really will build me up even if I don’t feel like doing them, and which ones become an unbearable pressure that make everything else worse. That, with the help of the amazing people around me, is what I am still figuring out right now.
The other reason grief is like the weather is this: you don’t expect it to snow in summer and you don’t expect a heatwave in winter. You have to accept the season you’re in.
I have to admit that part of the problem facing me throughout Richard’s illness and death was the frustration of “I’ve just BEEN through all of this!” It sounds stupid to say it, but along with all the other thousands of reasons not to want to lose him, was that toddler in me that said “Hey, this isn’t fair! Enough with the grief stuff, I was ready for that to be over and throw off that cloud and now I have to start all over again!” One of the incredible things about the summer (and part of God’s grace to me) was being able to go away for days at a time to somewhere else and it not matter as much that he wasn’t there. It was hard doing things that he was missing out on, and making memories that he couldn’t be part of, but it also gave me permission to have days where I could be in a different world for a while, a world removed from normal responsibilities, with extra people around to help with the kids, and know that I had everything I needed for that week without worrying about the future or the past. They were moments in time where grief wasn’t everything. And I could have happily stayed there.
But then there is real life - school, meals, paperwork, banking, clothing everyone, maintaining healthy relationships, fulfilling responsibilities - all that stuff needs doing and of course, the roller coaster of grief alongside it. And I wish I could avoid all of it (this is the weary despondency that I’m in at the moment) and for it just to be summer again, where life is not contained in these little boxes we call houses, and routine isn’t dictated by school bells, and it is bright nearly all the time.
But it is not summer. If I’m looking for life to be bright and cheery and warm at the moment, I’m looking for the wrong thing, and this will only lead to more frustration and depression and warring with my circumstances. Right now I’m in the worst winter, so I need to not keep looking outside and wishing I could stride out in shorts and t-shirt and have a barbecue. I need to focus instead on hunkering down and working out what needs to happen in order to keep healthy inside the four walls I currently need to stay in. I need to focus on what needs to happen right now in order to keep time moving and make the best of this season so that when summer rolls round again, as it always does, that I’ve made the best of this dark and oppressive time I’m in and am free to really enjoy moving forward again. I don’t get to be in charge of when that happens, but I do get to be in charge of how I deal with it.
And every season has its benefits. The joy of a log fire is totally lost in the summer - its just more oppressive heat. But in the winter it brings a different kind of joy, even if only because it contrasts the cold so much. So picking over memories right now and finding photos and events that I’d forgotten existed have brought so much joy, even though I’d rather have the reality than the memory. Having the freedom to take whole days out where I can just grieve and think and remember and cry is a privilege that other members of the family don’t have at the moment, and it does mean that when I catch up with people to chat about Richard, I’m often the one not crying, because I already spent the whole day before in tears and so I’ve already let it out. I’m grateful that I’m not supposed to be out there right now taking on the whole world - winter means staying in much more and just dealing with what’s in front of you, without the pressure of covering lots of ground outside.
Seasons change your expectations. When the day is seven degrees and mild in winter, you feel overjoyed. The same conditions in summer would make you feel cheated and disappointed that you weren’t experiencing what you think you ought to be experiencing. And when there are days of ‘nothing’ weather in winter, when it’s just the cold and the wind and nothing else, we get frustrated, don’t we? So then when it snows, we get excited, and we go out and we get deep down into it because we finally have something to show for it and something to build with. Tears of grief can be like that too. Normally we don’t want to cry, but when you go for a long time in grief without crying, it can feel wrong and pointless and unnatural. So when the tears do come, its like a celebration and a release. Emotions are the evidence of the loss and how important that person was to us, and so when we’re in the winter of grief, we’re allowed to be glad that it’s pouring out of us and we’re not trapped in it.
So the line I’m walking right now is to try and embrace the season I’m in. I can’t hide from the grief or pretend it’s not there, except for the little pockets of escapism I give myself in books and movies, I just have to roll with it. But I also need to know that this season is not forever. So I’m not going to make huge decisions at the moment, like throwing out everything I own or giving up on my job or cutting off relationships, even though that crosses my mind sometimes, because eventually things will change. And I’m going to make sure I’m ready for the new season when it comes, and that I’ve fully dealt with this one and am hopefully not still stumbling over the same feelings and regrets and fears in two years time and ten years time as I am now.