A Really Hard Thing

From the base of that mountain I called to you. Questions fade as words dissolve into a fog of dried lavender sky. I have two pearl earrings tucked delicately in a flowering leather coin pouch, like the one your grandfather carried. His voice still distinctly held close to memory. 

I can’t tell which you’ve taken on more, his bedroom eyes or the soothing tone of tenderness and patience. I’d take the bedroom eyes one more time. In the bedroom, at the river, on one end of our sofa, in the bathtub where you draw the curtain of hair from my left shoulder to my right. In the kitchen with Neil Young singing on the bookshelf as your mom dances laundry into folds. At least, that’s what I agreed was my answer when my sister asked during Holiday. I would. I know it would be wrong. But I would. 

I’m doing lots of things that are wrong lately. I’m loving myself. Which, at times, means there isn’t room to love another. I’m intentionally being unintentional. I’m doing intimate things without intimacy. I’m taking risks and building a collection of regrets. It’s a weight to carry — both mine and your regrets. Hopefully one day you can pick yours up. Or, I’d be happy to send them in the mail. 

I keep remembering the afternoon we sat at the lake. I was leaning against a fallen tree and you were sitting. I shared with you how scary things were. My sister’s recent pregnancy. How she lost the baby. The heaviness of it all. The sadness circling. You said nothing more and nothing less than “that is a really hard thing.” Followed by a strangely comforting silence. Something in me shifted. It was a warm pressure forcing an imprint of bark into my backside. Aching and pulling like a curious toddler wanting. 

I keep aching and pulling. To meet you in the woods there. On the east side of the water. Through your neighbor’s yard. I’d tell you in a fearful tongue all the things on my mind. You would listen. You would turn to me. And you’d offer in that genuinely deep kind of way, “that’s a really hard thing.” I wouldn’t need to ask what I should do, what I should say, or how to manage my brokenness; how to mend so many pieces that no longer fit together. Being witnessed by you would be enough. Being known by you would be unspoken. Fifteen years of weaving and watching, casting on, casting off, standing there hoping. The empty spaces of disappointment and emotion. I’d go right back to being your workhorse. Because that is what I know. It’s familiar. Some days I think familiarity feels more manageable than not knowing. The not knowing seems somehow unbearably lonely. Because. This is a really hard thing. But so was that.

Grief is non-formulaic. It is not linear. It is constricting, complex, multilayered, and simultaneous. It births numbness, loneliness, hopelessness, and fear. It is unanswered questions resulting in a constant pressure of ambiguity. Grief surprises you when you think you’ve found your footing. It washes over your entire existence with a longing that pierces your thoughts and compresses your body. It is being surrounded with people who love you, yet having no ability to access them. It is wanting to cry, but only noticing glass dust frolicking in your lungs. It is welling up with tears that you must force down as you drive to meet with clients in order to tend to their brokenness for the next several hours. It is a deep-heavy-to-the-core kind of sadness that stifles your breathing for sometimes several days. It has no time-frame. It is defiant against clear articulation. And it is fiercely loyal. You learn to not move past it, but to live alongside it. 

It had been one year and a week since my divorce was finalized. I had spent the past two years vigorously working through the trauma from an emotionally abusive marriage in which I had been with my partner for 14 years.  I had attended Divorce Care group, seen a therapist through the divorce process, and was currently seeing a different therapist who was using EMDR to help work through my childhood and marital trauma. EMDR is a modality in which imagery and bilateral stimulation are used to process traumatic memories and emotions. It essentially helps desensitize our body and emotions from the traumatic events in our lives, since trauma is often unknowingly stored in the body through our senses. 

I was feeling pretty good. It didn’t take long after moving out of an emotionally hostile home before I started to heal quite rapidly. I was grieving not only a traumatically bonded relationship, but the loss of a future I had anticipated with this person. I had worked for years toward securing myself and our family. I was pursuing my career as an unseasoned therapist to engender a flexible schedule so that when I started having babies, I’d be a hands-on kind of mother during the primary years of my children’s development. But here I was, coming to terms with these losses. Accepting them. Feeling confident getting back to grounding myself to me and the people who were able to show up. I was connected to a support system of friends and family. I felt miles ahead of where I was during my marriage, feeling happy and moving towards personal goals. I was about to embark on something new and challenging – my first 14er. 

The thing about grief is that it has a sneaky way of showing up when I least expect it. When I am alone. On the side of a mountain sitting there staring at mountain goats and flowers wondering how the hell they survived among these rocks and cold. And then it triggers the emptiness and desperation that transfers into my grief being activated for the next several months, and then more intensely over the holidays. While hiking the mountain for several hours, I became hyperaware there was no one around me to offer support, reassurance, or their presence (my group lacked following the safety protocol of staying together, which we have since discussed for future travels). When I feel alone,  I want to reach for the people closest to me in the here and now, but it’s hard to allow myself to be seen. Like many people who struggle with depression, I go completely inward toward the sadness, which only perpetuates the loneliness. 

I had written this piece in late December of 2020, during the pandemic. It helped me to summarize many of the images and feelings I had been mulling over for the three years leading up to my mountain climb. It was cathartic and allowed me to access an inner voice that stood in place as witness. I became my own healing entity finding support in the images and sensations that come up as I wrote. Every now and again the sadness becomes overwhelming, but it often remains a faded memory in the distance. It helps to remind myself that it’s okay. This is hard. Loss is hard. The absence of what I imagined would be is hard. And there is nothing wrong with that. I learn to notice Grief without judgment. I learn to live alongside it rather than trying so desperately to fight against or contain it. I learn to be in relationship with it in a way that allows me to keep moving.

(btm left photo by Bethany Collings and btm right photo by Stephanie Wood)

3 thoughts on “Grief

  1. Thank you for sharing this, Rachel. I loved the line, “This is a really hard thing. But so was that.” I think your language about grief is so spot on. You have a really poetic way of writing about hard things, which is a gift.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Sarah. I’m very pleased my attempts to translate the emotional things seem to be understood by readers. It’s not only healing for me to write about, but exciting to know there is a co-healing perhaps taking place with readers (and friends).


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