Conquering the Lion of….Grief and Loss….(it’s not just about Death and Dying)

When we hear the phrase “Grief and Loss”, often images of someone grieving over another who has died comes to mind. Perhaps you think of Kubler and Ross’s Five Stages of Grief, “denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance”. Of course it makes sense to attach “grief and loss” to death, but I’d like to challenge us to expand our thinking to include (more regularly) much more.

Before I went back to school to become a counselor, I was a teacher. I didn’t know much about depression, anxiety, grief, loss, and mindfulness. I didn’t know how important it was to pay attention to my moods, feelings, and behaviors. If I WAS paying attention to these things, I didn’t know what to do with them if they were off. I did have a group of friends and family that loved me, and I’d say I’m a pretty emotionally “tuned in” individual.  BUT, the feelings I was chronically having, I especially didn’t know to pay attention to, and give myself a break from. I only wish someone would have told me that I was dealing with grief and loss most of my 30’s. Because of my lack of knowledge and perhaps some of my pride, I lived with a heavy load on my shoulders I did not know how to ask for help carrying.

So in writing this, I want to encourage us all to extend our thinking of grief and loss to anyTHING someone may have lost. ANYTHING. Period. AND that “thing” could even be something they never really “HAD” in the first place…A lost dream or hope. Here is my experience.

I was raised in Tennessee by my parents who stayed married until my dad died of cancer in 2013. My extended family is large, with aunts, uncles, and cousins that also modeled the “traditional American” family of two parents each having 1-2 children. Because of my upbringing, my Christian roots, and the area of the country where I grew up, my future was focused on getting married and having my own children. My mom and I would talk about my future husband, we would dream about my wedding, and we would talk about how I would raise my family. Sure, I would work…but that was secondary and perhaps even tertiary. I would dream about the house I would decorate and the meals and birthday parties I would prepare and host. I envisioned the dogs we would have, the church we would go to, and the parties we would enjoy. I was excited for my future and had it all planned out.

Over time, after many failed dating relationships and getting older, little by little those dreams started slipping away and I couldn’t wrap my brain around what to do about it. Meanwhile I was living the single life, but I felt I didn’t know how to do that very well since I never had planned or envisioned THAT for myself. I mean, what was I supposed to do with all this time on my hands? Even going to the gym didn’t seem to be enough to fill the time after work every day! And, I DATED. I spent A LOT of time and energy dating. Every time I went through a break up of a serious relationship, I believe I went through grief and loss, but never did anyone label it so, and I FOR SURE wasn’t going to, either. Each break up was more difficult not only because of the depth and uniqueness of it, and the loss of that person in my life, but because I was older, the dreams of my future would fade a bit more each time.

At the time, I was teaching. I would remember dragging myself from bed every morning and having to force myself to smile and interact with my students and co-workers after a breakup. Sometimes “getting back to normal” took months. I felt I was on autopilot, in a fog, and just forcing myself through life in those moments. I remember feeling like I SHOULD BE ok, after all, it was ONLY a breakup.

Meanwhile, I would see how there were other staff members going through tough times such as a death in their family or having an adoption not going through. These staff members would have the full support of the rest of the team, sending cards, flowers, and small gifts to their desk in condolence. I remember feeling badly that I was angry that no one was there to help me through my pain, but I told myself, it made sense, their loss was so much more significant than mine. Afterall, they really were REALLY grieving. I was NOT. At least that’s what I told myself THEN. Now I know better, and can give myself “permission”. My feelings of loss were just as huge. Valid. I was suffering. Period. I had experienced a great deal of loss….loss of hope, loss of a vision for my future, loss of my dreams. And, top it all of, I was alone with my feelings, embarrassed at how deeply I was being impacted by something as “small” as a breakup.

Unfortunately, I now believe that because my grief went unrecognized for many years, I went through a large portion of my 30’s with untreated depression. Because I’m high functioning, and pushed myself through those years and got myself to work day after day and year after year, got to parties, spent time with friends, no one recognized my symptoms. I didn’t recognize my symptoms. But because I’m sitting on the other side of it now, I realize I was NOT OK. I was suffering. I didn’t allow myself to call the “death” of my dream and vision for my future GRIEF. LOSS. I didn’t call it that because I didn’t know any better. But that was exactly what I was going through. Just like grieving the loss of a loved one, I was grieving the loss of my future, as I knew it.

There are more twists and turns to my story. I’ll get to those later. In this moment, however, now with the training I’ve had as a counselor and more life under my belt, I can look back and have compassion and understanding for that woman that struggled for so many years. I am on the other side of my grief, large in part because of a change in career and learning to adjust to my new “normal”: creating a new future for myself without the husband, children, and the “white picket fence”. It took a LONG time to build that new future, but it excites me more and more each day and having that hope has created a new sense of joy and passion in my life.

ONE of my hopes is this: Perhaps MY STORY can be a gentle whisper in the midst of YOURS. If you are struggling with loss of any kind please know you may be going through the stages of grief and that may be why you don’t feel “like yourself”.  If it’s been going on so long that you feel like your sadness is “just who you are”, look again and ask some questions. There may be something going on that can be helped. If you are struggling, and you are able to recognize it, or get help recognizing it, do what you can to address it rather than sweep it under the rug because you are getting to work “fine”, your relationships are “fine”, and everything APPEARS “fine” (on the surface). “Help” could be a wise friend or family member, a book, a podcast, an article online, and it could be a mental health professional. Whoever it is, whatever it is, start talking, asking, and get the help you need. If you feel something is “off” in your life, and it’s been that way for some time, do anything you can to fight to get your life BACK. Fight for joy, peace, and contentment. Fight for your vision, your hope, your future.

In looking back, I believe the journey I took was part of the plan for my life. My struggles have given me a story unlike any other, and it’s that story that has brought me to the joy and thrill I have today to lean and live into. I hope you can, one day, say the same about yours!

Peace, Love, and Go Conquer Some Lions!

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