Eli's Story, Part 3: Grief

SHARED BY JEN G.
FOUNDER OF STORIES FROM THE TRENCHES

A Cloak of Anger

I was not prepared for grief. I don’t think anyone ever is, but I certainly was not prepared for the depths of darkness that descended upon me the moment Eli took his last breath. I had seen death and felt loss after losing both of my grandmothers, but this darkness was a completely different monster. It was all-consuming. The entire first year, especially those first few months, were a blanket of fog. Reality didn’t seem like reality, and I felt like I had entered a dream—a dream that was more like a nightmare, a dream that could not be my life. I could not really be that woman – the one who buried her only son, whose son was somewhere in the ground and not in her arms. I begged God to not be that woman. Yet, that was precisely who I was.

Those first two years, it was virtually all about anger. Forget the other emotions in the Inside Out movie. They might as well have not been there at all. I was 100% that short, stocky, red guy ready to blow his top. I grabbed my cloak of anger and let it cling to me like a second skin just to survive. Anger was my bodyguard as I navigated a world that I did not even recognize. I needed anger to wake up in the morning, to function as a mother to my living children, and to face the day.

We buried Eli the day before Halloween. Our girls had planned their costumes and were looking forward to candy. They just wanted Mommy and Daddy to have fun with them. How do you say no to those cute faces begging for their mommy to show up and hold their hands? Anger masked my pain, my wanting to climb back in bed, my desire to close my eyes and to never wake again. The darkness called me by name and offered to soothe my pain if I wanted to join Eli in the dirt. Anger told the darkness to piss off and step back. I did not know in those early years that I could survive darkness without anger as my bodyguard, and I certainly couldn’t survive Halloween without it, either.

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With anger as my bodyguard, I could also face people. I could take the hits of their ignorant words that they didn’t know could stab and which could cause so much damage. I learned that all grievers have "those people": the caring ones who truly know what to say and to do (more on these special people in a moment). But, there will always be those who simply pour out superficial, hurtful words. Find any child loss blog, and you will find at least one post on "what NOT to say" after loss. Anger shielded me enough that I could wait for counseling to unload just how much their words and actions hurt. In some cases, the words hurt beyond repair. On many occasions, however, anger lashed back at those people. In return, I caused hurt and damage that was unrepairable, as well.

My bodyguard was not kind. He was not forgiving and was not understanding of ignorance. Paired with this, the grieving momma underneath did not have the energy to fight the darkness and to fight people. Anger was not a friend, yet in a strange way, he was not an enemy for the trembling, unsure woman I had become.

A Walking Hot Mess

As time passed and I learned to get more comfortable with grief, I slowly began to put anger down. Oh, and I do mean ssslllooowly. I started with what Glennon Doyle Melton in Carry On, Warrior calls "killing her public self." The public self that said "I’m fine" when asked how she was, that chatted at the playground about what new recipes she was trying or how soccer practice was going or any other trivial bullshit.

She said that she killed her public self because there was no real hiding it, after all.

She was rarely fine.

"I am usually so far behind 'fine' that I couldn’t find 'fine' with binoculars." After Eli, I was never fine. I was, and still am, to a degree, a walking hot mess of emotions, triggers, and damaged nerve endings. Answers of "I’m fine," "I’m good," or "We are okay," are complete and utter lies. Most of my energy was spent just trying to grapple with his death, and those lies were heavy rocks tied to my feet. It was hard to remember to breathe, let alone walk, with heavy rocks weighing you down. Something had to give because I was so very exhausted with all of the breathing, the weighted-down walking, and the heart-wrenching pain.

I decided that in order to walk this grief road well, I needed to be honest with myself. I needed to shed the lies, to cut off the weights, and to begin to live as the hot mess of emotions I really was. Of course, a walking hot mess is not popular. Vulnerability, brutal truth, and authenticity are just as unpopular. Somewhere, someone told us as little girls to hide our feelings. In order to succeed in life, we were told, we need to pretend that all is well. As women, when we do the opposite among our peers, the earth seems to shake a little. It’s as if there is a great fear that this honest, authentic living may be contagious.

What a load of horse crap.

In those early days of hot mess living, I fumbled a lot. I felt suddenly exiled for sharing my truths. As a result, I sometimes swung my sword of honesty and authenticity just to see what would happen, just to shock whichever masked women I bumped into that day. Clearly, I had a long road ahead of me to figure this new living out. But I knew I was onto something when my remaining friendships started to deepen and when my soul started to feel lighter. And boy, oh boy, could I walk easier.

The Unicorn Posse and Other Trench Sisters

Those deeper friendships helped to form my Unicorn Posse. That’s right, I said unicorns. My devotion to unicorns began while Eli was in the hospital. I had been watching a television program in which a character yelled, "I want to see you shitting rainbows!" I could not contain my laughter. As I shared said laughter with several friends, the response in return was, "Did you know unicorns shit rainbows and pee glitter?" Why, no—no I didn’t. But there is a handy rainbow icon on my phone! Maybe it should be used more. While I sat in the NICU, if someone asked how Eli was doing and it was a bad day, they got a rainbow icon in response. If I was in the mood to be funny, they got a rainbow icon. If my life felt like it was going to explode, I used that rainbow icon.

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Unicorns and shitting rainbows became the symbols of my life and of Eli’s life. Those who rallied around me during and after Eli became my Unicorn Posse. They are the ones who know me—not my anger—the deepest. They fill up the holes in my heart, and they care for my broken soul. They were the ones who made sure I got out bed every day and that I didn’t tumble off into the abyss.  They showed up with coffee, and they didn’t care if my house was a mess or I barely got a bra on answering the door. They didn’t always know what to say or do, but they jumped in my trench with me, stuck their boots, in the mud and stayed.

They are my posse, my friends, my trench sisters.

What else, and who else, got me through the darkness? A very wise counselor helped a ton. My husband, Tim, and I also joined a grief support group that was all about "ripping the bandages off." Hands down, these were the best decisions I made on this road. Being brave enough to realize I could not do this without experts—and finding the right experts to be my guides—got me through.

I can honestly say that, without those guides, the darkness would have swallowed me whole. After year one, I attempted to take a break from my guides, only to slip further and further into the abyss. Around year two, I crawled my way back to them for the help I desperately needed.

Recall that I opened earlier by stating that year one was a blanket of fog. Yes, it was. However, year two was more painful. Year two was the most gut-wrenching pain I had known with grief, for in year two, my guides convinced me to say goodbye to anger, to my bodyguard. I could not imagine what it would look like to fully throw anger aside. How could I be real, authentic, and honest at every moment? How could I allow others, whether in the safe or unsafe category, to see me—the real me. That was, and still is, pretty terrifying.

Two years later, and I still hesitate. I still have to gut check because my bodyguard was like a second skin for so long. But life without anger, while terrifying, has opened a world of living after grief that I did not think possible. It has opened my heart to more compassion, more grace, and more forgiveness. I may not always know what to do with the raw emotions and the tingling nerve endings, but it feels good to live life where you meet the real me and not the public self—the trying-to-be-perfect version of me.

The Start of Stories from the Trenches

A year after saying goodbye to my bodyguard, an idea began to form: What if I could create a place for women? It would be a safe place to talk about the awfulness that gets thrown at us. We would rally around each other the way my Unicorn Posse and guides did for me. We would welcome all heartache—not just child loss. What would that look like? Would anyone else come?

Stories from the Trenches began to take shape in my head, and with it, my heart began to feel purpose. Maybe, just maybe, this horrible tragedy could have some good come out of it. Maybe, just maybe, God was directing my pain towards something more than myself, something real. I began to share this idea with my Unicorn Posse to see if I had lost my mind, or if this could, perhaps, really happen.

It did not surprise me that they liked it. What surprised me was that, when I shared the idea with acquaintances, they liked it, as well. So I took a lot of leaps of faith, called in favors, and sought advice to get Stories going. Then one August afternoon, women gathered in my home for our first Stories from the Trenches "brain trust" to see if I could form a team to actually take this idea from dream to reality.

That was fourteen months ago. Today, you are visiting my dream and my purpose.

I hope you stay awhile. I hope you find encouragement, support, and love from others who have been where you are from those who are going where you have been.

I hope you, too, begin to find your posse and your guides wherever the winds are taking you.

But most of all, I hope you know that no matter how dark the darkness feels, no matter the abyss that could be closing in—you, beautiful brave soul, are not alone.

Grief is not something to be fixed. It’s something to be borne, together. And when the time is right, there is always something that is born from it. After real grief, we are reborn as people with wider and deeper vision and greater compassion for the pain of others. We know that. So through our friend’s grief, we maintain in our hearts the hope that in the end, good will come of it. But we don’t say that to our friend. We let our friend discover that on her own. Hope is a door each one must open for herself.
Carry On Warrior, by Glennon Doyle Melton
 
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