What Grief & Loss Really Look Like

March 31, 2015

I think, in our minds, we have an idea of what grief, sadness, depression and loss look like. In our minds, that’s not us.  That’s not the people we see on our happy, shiny Facebook feeds.  It’s not on the faces of random people in the street, so what does it look like?  Right now, I’m grieving, and for the first time, I’ve been knocked down and I’m staying down for a time.

I see mental and emotional health like a physical injury- maybe a sprained ankle or a stress fracture.  You can walk on it, but you’ll limp. You walk too much, you won’t heal.  We spend a lot of time trying to hide the fact that we’re grieving or depressed (and I use the word “depressed” as an emotional state as a response to loss change or grief, not a diagnosis that is more long term that may need therapy or medical intervention.).  We don’t want people to see us limp, and often, we don’t want to admit to ourselves that we’re limping.

Many times, especially in an age of social media, we selectively curate what we share with others.  It often gives the wrong impression.  Maybe we want people to think we’re impervious to pain, or perhaps we honestly choose to smile through the pain (which many times, has been my choice).

Regardless of what we post or project to our friends, family and coworkers, what we think we see about other’s grief is not really what may be. Here are some examples:

Kassie's Memorial

Don’t we look happy?  What you don’t see is that we’d all been crying an hour earlier.  We had been brought together to honor a sister who passed away.  It may be easy to assume we had it together that we somehow were stronger than others in attendance, but we were holding each other up, just like everyone else that day.

This is a group of tremendous women, I feel fortunate to call my sisters.  We are all alumni and former presidents of a non-profit service organization for young girls.  We had just given the memorial service for a dear friend, another woman who had also held our office, and the loss came as a shock to everyone.

Kassie was a tremendous light in this world who was taken too soon, and losing her stayed with me for a long, long time.  I was honored to be asked to speak with a few of us at her memorial, and it was an honor that I didn’t take lightly- you have to be strong through your grief to be able to speak about someone you’ve loved in public without crying so hard the words don’t come out.  These women held me up as I saw the stuffed grizzly bear I had given Kassie just a few years ago, being pulled from her casket and given back to her family as they closed the lid and prepared to start the service.

These women taught me that despite an aching heart, we must hold each other up.  Even when our hearts seem to be giant gaping holes in our chest, we cannot be selfish, we cannot be victims- nor can we let the anger that accompanies the lost of a young life taken too soon, spoil our hope for this world and the impact our loved one made.

To me that day, grief looked much like gratitude.  We were all hurting, all mourning, but all of us were standing together, through our sadness, to celebrate such a beautiful life that united us together. To anyone else, it’s just a happy picture looking picture that ended up on Facebook.

 

Nashville Women's Half

This photo is of me smiling after completing a half marathon in Nashville.  What you don’t see is that this photo was taken just a few days after my mom died.  I was numb and confused, but since I had promised to do this race, I was going through the motions & wanted to follow through on my commitment to try and feel normal again.

You can imagine, running a race after several days of living in sweatpants on the couch and eating nothing but canned soup and McDonald’s didn’t do wonders for my performance, but I got through it.  Sometimes, when you’re grieving, even running a bad half marathon is better than being on the damn couch and watching Netflix.

Is this what grief looks like? Sometimes.

 

TARDIS engagement Ring box

Isn’t this a pretty picture?  What a ring!  To me, this photo is grief.  What isn’t shown is that I cried for two days after I got this ring, and didn’t wear it to work the next day.  I posted this picture thinking it was what I “should” do.  Grief can also look completely wrong- telling yourself you should feel one way when in truth, you feel another.  Grief is usually very honest- it can sometimes be the pictures that tell the lie.

The proposal came less than week after my mom died and I put in my notice at my job, with no new job lined up.  The picture looks so pretty, but what you don’t see is that I cried the whole way home from the proposal, and then all night long.  A friend had to console me while I cried in the bathroom on the phone- I couldn’t make sense out of anything and I was raw.  I felt horrible for my boyfriend that I couldn’t just be happy. He meant well, but I was emotionally raw from my mom’s death & a job transition just a few days prior and this pushed me over the edge. I wasn’t expecting the proposal for months, but on a whim, it got moved up, catching me at a vulnerable time and completely off guard.  My head and my heart couldn’t make sense out of all I was feeling.

I didn’t upload this photo to Instagram for a few days, and I didn’t announce the engagement to anyone outside my inner circle for a few days, my heart was in turmoil.  I felt so sad, and so raw, but this photo was supposed to be happy!  My heart was confused.  So was I.

It was one of those times- where you feel like you really need to layer the gloss on…I’m HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY!  So the feelings of loss, grief and closing a chapter of disappointment with my mom went really far down.  I felt like I had to be a happy bride to be, and honestly- the pressure to plan a wedding starts the moment the ring is on your finger.

I thought I could buckle down and get to work. I thought that happiness and grief couldn’t occupy the same person, so I hid my pain from everyone.  Nobody, I told myself, wanted to see a crying bride to be.  Well, that’s what I told myself, and it has been biggest lessons of my life…don’t ignore your gut.  If you need to cry, cry.  If you need time, ask for it.  I didn’t, and a year later- I realized I couldn’t pretend anymore.

There will be times that your grief confuses you.  My mom had been an alcoholic who I hadn’t seen in years. I knew her habits would catch up with her, but when it finally happened, I was still shell shocked.  I wish I could tell you what I felt- but after crying on the phone with my aunt who broke the news, I didn’t cry about my mom’s passing for another year.

No matter how “prepared” you are, you’re never prepared.  Your feelings will come and go, and it will catch you off guard.  If I learned anything from that experience, you cannot rush your grief or your healing.

If you were to see just the photos of my engagement ring on social media, it’d be easy to assume my life was so much different at that time than it actually was.  Was I trying to be deceitful? Nope.  We are all just trying to make sense of complicated emotions as we go along- dealing with private pain in a public way.

 

 

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How about this photo- she looks so confident right?  This photo was taken after I left my ex and was sleeping on the air mattress at a friend’s house.  At times, my grief has looked like my tenacity- little moments of strength that shine through the darkness you can feel.  Sometimes, it’s therapeutic to capture these moments while they’re here- to remember you can still be strong when your world is crumbling.

I had to take photos for the blog, and there were times I propped myself up with a thick application of lipstick, grit and nothing else since sleep and food didn’t appeal to me much during those weeks.  It was the first time I had taken my engagement ring off and I didn’t  know if anyone would notice when I posted these pictures on the blog.

My world had been cracked open, and I didn’t know where I was going to go, what I was going to do, and how I was going to tell everyone the wedding was off.  I was terrified but moving forward, figuring out when I would let people know what had happened- because nobody knew yet..not even my father.

This too, is was what grief has looked like for me- bravery.

I knew I was doing the right thing, I was just attempting to do so without completely imploding my world or letting my disappointment and fear sour me completely.  Often, even when you’re hurting tremendous hurts, you have to do what is right, not what is easy…and you still have to put on your lipstick and put on a smile….it may suck now, but it will get better.

Your grief will demand much of you. It will hit you like waves.  Sometimes, when you least expect it, you’ll hit back. If you’re not strong enough to throw a punch, that’s okay too.  

 

Grief has been different every time for me.  Many times, I get through the knocks in life by working harder, trying to find the silver lining and remembering the good times with the person I’ve loved, putting on a smile through the tears since every person and every situation can teach us something, even if we don’t know it at the time.

A dear friend and mentor was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last year.  She has a huge network of friends and colleagues, and she posted the news on Facebook with the request that nobody panic, and an insistence that we deal with the news with healing prayers, humor and light- no matter what the diagnosis could yield for her, in her usual style, she handled it with an upbeat spirit. She didn’t want people to pity her or worry- she just wanted to tell a few jokes, smile and enjoy time, as positively as possible. She is nothing short of amazing, even when facing down mortality, she has dealt with death as she’s dealt with life- with grace, grit and humor.  For the most part, I followed her lead, as we all did.

 

Last week, I got news that she had been placed on hospice care.  A round of chemo had proven to be tough, and it had become time to keep her comfortable.  I knew that this day would have to come, but the news still hit me like a tsunami wave and knocked me on my butt…unlike how I’ve dealt with it in the past, by throwing myself into work, organizing a fundraiser or taking on a project, this wave of grief knocked me down and I stayed down.  I didn’t want to smile through it, I couldn’t muster the strength to project a strong facade… I needed to just lay on the floor for a bit and succumb to the weight of grief for awhile.

This time though, processing grief was different.  I share my story for anyone else who is going through grief-  whether it’s the end of a relationship, the loss of a job, the loss of a loved one, or a struggle with illness that has changed your life.  All of us deal with grief in one form or another.

If you’re grieving, it may feel different every time, and perhaps that’s why this last week, I was taken off guard that my reaction to some sad news didn’t feel like it has before.

 

Of course though, I hated my grief and wished it could be more like “bury yourself in work until the sadness is gone.”  I had been working out and eating healthy.  I ate nothing but cookies for two days.  I was angry. I was hurt.  I literally felt heavy and couldn’t focus on anything.  I was like the walking dead for a few days- the joy had been emptied out of me and I was exhausted.

 

 

Here’s what grief looks like for me right now- this is the honest snapshot.  Sweatpants, and snuggling my pug.  It looks like tears at random moments. It looks like waiting in uncertainty.  

It looks like frailty and strength in the same person.  It looks like gratitude for happy memories with a loved one, and anger that life isn’t fair and good people are taken too soon.

Dealing with grief

I share my story, as I’m going through it, because in a world of social media- where we only showcase the best of our lives, it often gives people the wrong impression that our lives our glossy, happy and tidy.  

Who really takes pictures of themselves when they’ve been crying? Instead, we post gleeful selfies and gorgeous sunsets from our latest vacation.  Is that wrong? Nope.  Nobody, not even the photographer wants to showcase their hurts- Instagram and Facebook are just highlight reels of our best moments, and that’s okay- but we need to look beyond it and see that there are many experiences wrapped up in this human experience.

 

So, what does grief look like?  

As you can see, it’s looked a variety of ways for me.  For you, it may look like tears.  It may look like holding your children extra close and not wanting to let go of them for hours.  It may even look like a sunny beach, just because you need to get away for awhile and work through it.

Whatever it looks like for you, your grief is not a lie.  It is what it is.  It may, or it may not look Instagram-worthy.  It may not be shiny for Facebook, but it is yours. It will be okay, it will come and go.  It may even teach you something- but you’re not alone and you’re allowed to feel what you feel to get through it.

 

Tonight, I fly back to California to spend time with my loved ones.  If you follow me on social media- you’ll probably see a variety of things. I will be visiting with people I care about, having good moments and tears too.   I will be grieving loss and celebrating life, and it will look how it looks.  I may not publish photos of the hard moments, I may just focus what will get me through it.

 

Grief never looks the same way for everyone, and it looks very different if you look below the surface of what we choose to share on social media.  Your times of grief may look different than mine, and it may look different to yourself every time you go through it, and that’s okay.  Your love, your loss, your pain and your memories are unique, and if I’ve learned anything from this process, is that it’s uniquely ours and we cannot force them to be anything but what they are.

Grief can be a smiling face, sometimes it can be sobs on the floor when you’re wearing sweatpants for the fifth day in a row and eating anything remotely categorized as a cookie in your entire house…often at the same, confusing time.

 

If you’re you’re going through something, your grief may not look like what you expect, but it will be yours. Grief sometimes looks like smiling through the pain, sometimes it looks like strength, and other times, you would rather wish you didn’t have snapshots of it to look back on at all.  Photos only tell part of the story, it’s just important that you tell yours. 

 

22 comments so far.

22 responses to “What Grief & Loss Really Look Like”

  1. Revanche says:

    So sorry for your losses, Shannyn. It’s been a tumultuous few years.

    I’d been thinking about this a lot as the past has once again caught up to us with the arrival of our new one. Grief doesn’t stay behind you once you get through it, it laps up at the edges of your new memories too and that’s also part of mourning. It just doesn’t stay in a nice neat box when you’re “done” with it.

  2. Erin M. says:

    I would never wish grief upon anyone, but I really appreciate you sharing your feelings about it. It can be so easy to ignore your feelings when you practice building a persona every day via social media. It can be a slap in the face, but it’s so important to be reminded of the difference between the real world and the internet.

  3. Beautiful post! And you are so right, a picture definitely does not tell the whole story.

  4. Emmie says:

    I relate to this so much, Shannyn, and I appreciate your honesty and grace in writing about it. I hope you have a safe trip to California and allow yourself all the grieving time you need – no matter what it looks like.

  5. Damn you’ve had a rough few years.

  6. Michelle says:

    My first post, but this spoke volumes to me. Just today I met with my mother’s care team, and she is being put on hospice. She had a stroke in November 2013, has been in a nursing home, and now she has deteriorated to the point that hospice has been brought in. I went into work afterwards, and my boss asked me if I should be there, and I told her yes. Had I gone home, it would have been much worse. I would have wallowed in grief.

    We all function differently through grief. I have photos that should bring me joy that instead make me wince because they remind me of some bad and grievous times.

    Sometimes grief looks like all those things you’ve mentioned above. Thank you.

  7. Theresa M says:

    Beautifully written

  8. Absolutely beautiful post, Shannon —- probably your best one ever. I remember when you called off your wedding and the only word I could think of was courage. So many people go through with it because all the plans are made….but it takes a really, really strong person to do what’s right and to be true to yourself. You are awesome. Keep up the beautiful writing and honesty. <3

  9. Janine says:

    Shannon , this is an unbelievably beautiful and raw post, and I think it’s absolutely amazing that you were able to share it. You are such a brave woman and someone I have looked up to for years. I’m so sorry for all your loss and I hope you get to cherish the time you have in Cali with your family and friends. You are beautiful and brave, sending my love!

  10. Stephanie says:

    I love this post so much. People often see grief as a weakness, but it takes strength to mourn, to feel so many terrible and conflicting emotions and still get up in the morning and carry on. My heart goes out to you for all the pain you’ve gone through, but I applaud how open, honest, and brave you are about it. Grief is different for different people, and the only way out is through. My thoughts and prayers are with you as you continue to fight on!

  11. Dawn says:

    As always you are amazing to me. It takes so much strength to admit that it is not all rainbows and roses. To show others the storms and floods. To admit that we are not invincible. You are and always will be one of the strongest women I have ever had the pleasure to call my sister.

  12. Summer Davis says:

    This is beautiful, Shannyn. My step dad died from pancreatic cancer two and a half years ago. It was very fast for him and he was much like your friend about it. It devastated me, and for the first time, I let it consume me because I needed it. I fully believe in broadcasting sadness and grief, because they are raw, real emotions, and sometimes we just need to know that we’re not alone in this world. Thank you for moving me this morning. -S

  13. Catherine says:

    Thank you for posting this. It takes balls to expose yourself. Anyone can post “just the good stuff” but being honest doesn’t come easy. I value your transparency. I can relate to some of your points and wish you the best. Recognizing your state is sometimes the hardest part. I hope going home helps work through some feelings.

  14. Jill says:

    Beautifully put… My condolences to you. I am also grieving the loss of my fiance’ (we were to be married August 29th of this year) who passed two months ago due to a 71 year old negligent driver in a rush to get to Walmart during rush hour. He was on his motorcycle, she simply cut him off!
    My heart has never felt such an agonizing pain before. I mourned the loss of our beloved beagle Jack, but nothing could have prepared me for this life altering injustice I now must endure without my fiance’. The “why’s” never answered, his beautiful face will never change expression (looking at his pictures). Death in itself brings much pain, in turn you wish the earth would swallow you and take the pain away…. I’ve written many poems about how it feels and felt for me to grieve, thought I’d share one with you.

    Eric my love: How do I live without you 2/15/15

    I think of you weekly, daily, by the second
    My heart keeps pumping, for you it beckons
    There are no words in which I feel
    I’m in a dark place which can’t be revealed
    I pray to whatever may be above
    To take me now to be with my love
    Try as I may, each and every day
    I just can’t go on, now that you’re gone
    My heart has been shattered, my tears do not matter
    I miss you my love, please hold from me above.
    Everyone’s life has gone on and here I sit all alone
    Your death has consumed me, few understand
    Not to their fullest, their hearts are still grand
    They say time heals all pain I cannot explain
    I have no heart inside, from the moment you died
    I wish it were me, I beg and I plead
    I cannot do this alone, I wish you were here in our loving home
    I cannot find comfort, your death I dwell
    Our kitties miss you as well
    I love you my crumb bunz baby, now and forever.

  15. Missy says:

    Thank you. My dad died in October. it’s been 6 months to the world. Feels like only 5 minutes to me some days.

  16. Leana says:

    Thanks for this! I have been putting on a happy face for a long time. It is so easy to share our great moments but when it comes to the difficult stuff, it is much harder. One day I hope it becomes easier, not so that people will feel sorry for me, but so that people will understand that some things in life aren’t as easy for some as they are for others. Again, thank you for a little comfort today.

  17. Thinking of you, friend. I think it’s amazing that you are sharing your experiences to let others know it’s okay to grieve however feels best to them. <3 Sending you love and light!

  18. Jen Lawson says:

    I loved this post. Grief — yeah, I can really relate. Thank you for writing this.

  19. Kay Lynn says:

    People who haven’t lost someone they were close to just can’t understand the grief. I remember telling someone that the year prior, when I had lost my mom, was the worst year of my life. They were surprised that I was still grieving and sad.

    In regards to the picture, I think it’s an odd ritual that we take family photos after funerals. I have one of me and my siblings taken an hour after burying our mother to whom we were all very close. We’re all smiling even though our hearts are breaking inside.

    I am glad you decided to share. I know you’ve been through a lot this past year and it’s a lot but you’ll end up even stronger.

  20. Blair says:

    You are a strong woman. Thank you for sharing your story.

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