Reading: Climbing Out of Grief

Mind Health

Climbing Out of Grief

When my brother died, I felt like I'd died, too. Eventually I asked myself, what will happen if I begin to live again?

by Laura Whitfield

My memoir, Untethered: Faith, Failure, and Finding Solid Ground, begins with the sudden death of my older brother, Lawrence. As I worked on my manuscript, I realized there’s no way to talk about death without talking about grief. When you lose a loved one, it implodes your world. 

There were times after Lawrence died that I felt like I’d died myself. That’s because a part of us does die when we lose someone close to us. Or when we experience a collective grief, like we did as a nation during the pandemic and following 9/11. That sense of “things as they should be” is gone and there’s no turning back. 

Grief also forced me to ask these crucial questions: Will I begin to live, or die? What will I do with the time I have left?

I also came to learn that moving through grief is like climbing a cliff. When you lose someone you feel helpless, lost, even numb. Then weeks, months, and years pass and you begin to heal, though you never forget. You start the climb out of your experience of loss and make choices based on the emotional shift that’s occurred. 

As you move through grief, you may make the brave decision to be vulnerable — to risk uncertainty — once more. For some, that may mean starting a new life with new dreams. It may mean opening yourself to the possibility of loving (and getting hurt) again. 

You consider keeping your heart and emotions closed off for fear that the terrible thing that happened to you will happen again. What if you reach the summit just to discover more heartache and despair on the other side? Isn’t it safer just to stay put?

Then something happens: You long for a glimpse of what’s on the other side. You know that the climb to the top is going to be difficult, even treacherous at times. You know you might slip and fall. But suddenly you have a newfound strength and resolve. You’re determined to make a go of it, no matter what. 

So you pick yourself up, and you begin. You take fellow climbers with you, because it’s not wise to attempt this alone. Sometimes another perspective or a hand to grab is lifesaving.

Yes, the climb is steep. But finally, after putting one foot in front of another, you make it. You reach the top. And you learn something invaluable: The view is always worth the climb.

I once had a friend named Vicki, an elementary school teacher in her mid-twenties. She was a cheerful, vibrant person who worked with the youth in our church. One day Vicki was out on a shopping trip with her mother and aunt. Her mother lost control of their car, swerved into oncoming traffic, and ran head-on into an 18-wheeler. Her father happened to drive by a few minutes later, stopped, and found his daughter pinned in the front seat and his wife dead behind the wheel. Vicki woke up days later to the news that she was paralyzed from the waist down and that her mother was dead. 

I helped care for Vicki for two years. I went to her apartment every Thursday night, spoon-fed her dinner, brushed her teeth and hair, then helped her get into her nightgown and into bed. I tell you this, not so that you will think I am some kind of saint. I assure you, I’m not. What I did was hard and I didn’t always feel like doing it. But I went whether I felt like it or not. 

Why? Because she needed me (and the rest of her community), and I’d committed. I also went because I believed I had something to learn from caring for Vicki. And I did. 

I will never forget a night when Vicki was moodier than usual. As I brushed her hair she said, “I’m so damn mad. It’s been a year and a well-meaning person told me that I need to let go of my grief and move on.”

I was shocked. I’d lost my brother and knew my own grief well, but I couldn’t imagine losing my mother and my legs all in one day. I told Vicki she had every right to be angry. The one thing I’d learned about grief is that everyone grieves in their own way, in their own time. 

Vicki finally moved through her grief and began living a new life. She gained strength in her upper body. Though she never walked, she began to engage fully in life. She started a wellness business. She learned to feed herself and drive a car. Her joy returned, not because of her circumstances, but because she had learned something valuable: Life is a gift, every moment is precious, don’t waste it. 

Vicki passed away a few years ago due to the long-term effects of her accident that day. I’m glad she found joy after grief. So have I. 

 

Laura Whitfield’s memoir, Untethered: Faith, Failure, and Finding Solid Ground, debuted on April 5, 2022. She has a storied career as an advertising copywriter, newspaper columnist, staff writer for an international relief agency, travel writer, blogger, teacher, and communications director for several nonprofits. Laura is passionate about her faith, books, travel, nature (especially the beach), social justice, and her family.

 

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