Pain, Loss, and Grief: What to Tell Yourself When It Feels Like Your World is Falling Apart
Is your life extraordinary?
I have a confession to make. My tagline for this blog, “An extraordinary ordinary life”, is more of an aspiration than a reality for me. This is a fact that is made abundantly clear to me whenever I peek into the lives of my peers on blogs and social media.
Our rental home is far from Instagram-worthy, my career has backtracked, and most days feel like a mad sprint to the finish line, but moreover, my personal life is in disarray. In the last year and a half, I moved 2,600 miles, birthed a child, cared for my newborn through colic, muddled through postpartum depression, grieved the loss of my mother, and started what has become my most difficult teaching position to date.
I cannot tell you how many times I wondered why these things were happening to me. It seemed like just as soon as I worked up the courage to swallow the rancid meal life handed me to eat, one more side of sadness got piled onto my plate.
Needless to say, these are all things I have never posted on Facebook or Instagram. When I was honest about my difficulty in adjusting to motherhood, the response I received was cool and somewhat judgmental. In American culture, it’s not okay to not be okay. No one wants to hear the hard stuff, so I went back to only posting happy anecdotes and adorable pictures of my baby.
This is the landscape I see when I view my friends’ feeds and other bloggers’ sites. If it’s not the highlight reel, it’s the #realtalk that isn’t real at all. It’s the superficial acknowledgment that things can be shitty, with the solution to such problems being to drown the pain in a cocktail of positivity, gratitude, and determination. Many people feel that the cracked and damaged parts of themselves must never be made public, and I don’t blame them. Unstyled pictures and long rambling posts about how hard life is doesn’t exactly garner a lot of likes or followers.
It is well-known that social media has a negative effect on mental health, to which anyone will concur if they’ve experienced the feeling of one’s world not only crumbling around one’s feet but also disintegrating into tiny specks and blowing away in one mighty gust.
So what is the answer when you find yourself asking, “Why me? Why is this happening to me?” I looked in every dusty corner of my life, but I never found one. What I did find were a lot of people like me who have experienced or are experiencing pain and loss: friends who have lost parents at a young age, friends who’ve had miscarriage after miscarriage, friends who’ve lost children, friends in troubled relationships, friends who are experiencing anxiety, depression, and addiction.
I realized that my heartache is not special. I will not be the first, nor will I be the last, to experience the trauma of unexpectedly losing one’s mother. Suffering and setbacks are a part of life. We are here to learn from them. If nothing ever goes wrong, then how can we ever fulfill our purpose on this planet?
Once I finally opened my eyes to the troubles my friends were hiding behind their highlight reels, I awakened to a concept that at first pass does not sound very comforting, but I have found to be quite reassuring. I stumbled upon it on my own, but in her book Option B, Sheryl Sandberg writes that her counselor advised her to use it after the loss of her husband. When you find yourself taken aback in disbelief at the course of your life’s events, tell yourself this phrase: “It could be worse.” Because it always can be worse. Always.
Take, for example, my daughter’s screaming when she was colicky. While stressful and draining, her screaming was evidence of her existence. As a friend who visited pointed out, a crying baby is a live baby. It could’ve been worse in so many ways: a miscarriage, a debilitating deformity, SIDS…The list of horrors can go on and on.
Or let’s look at my mother’s death. She could have passed away before my daughter was born and would never have experienced the delight of being a grandmother. She also could have died when I was a child, and she would never have had the opportunity to lay the foundation on which I currently build my version of motherhood.
That is not to say that telling yourself how things could have been worse will magically make you feel better. When dealing with pain, there is no quick fix, no life hack, and no shortcut. You cannot bury your feelings, because like heat on an August afternoon, they have a way of rising up no matter how hard you try to control them.
You have to accept the pain and make room for it in your life. Feel the emotions. Process what they mean and how what is happening or what happened affects your life, and then put it into perspective. How could it be worse? Because it can always be worse.
What have you found to be helpful when you’ve faced major setbacks and loss in your life?