Ten Life Events That Can Trigger Unexpected Grief
On Friday we said goodbye to a dear friend of my husband’s. The grief was thick in the air as we shared stories and perused old photos. (An aside – I think listening to the eulogy my husband delivered is the proudest I’ve ever been of him!) None of us were surprised by the heartache, this man’s life impacted many and his his death leaves a void.
Later that day, I did some maintenance work on my school website. I found myself caught off guard by a sense of loss when I encountered the roster from last year’s eighth graders, who have now moved on to the high school. There is no tragedy in this situation; children are expected to move on. Yet even though my rational mind understand this, my heart still grieves a little for these individuals that will no longer fill my classroom.
We expect to mourn the major losses in life: death, divorce and estrangement. Yet grief isn’t limited to the obvious. In fact, any time there is loss (or simply the feeling of loss), there is grief. Here are ten common life situations that can lead to unexpected grief:
Having a Child
From the moment a child is born, the parents begin the process of letting go. Some experience a yearning for the freedoms that life offered prior to children, grieving the loss of the life they had even as they feel overwhelmed with love for their offspring. Others struggle with accepting the child they have and grieve for the child they dreamed would be theirs. For all parents, the completion of one stage and the advancement to another is bittersweet, both a time of letting go and a time of celebration. And of course, at some point, the child is no longer a child. “Empty nest syndrome” is simply a culturally-approved way of describing the grief that accompanies the launching of children.
Look at the faces at any graduation and you’ll observe a mixture of excitement for the attainment of a goal, fear of the next step and grieving for the completion of an era. Graduation signals the end of the identify as “student.” There may be other, related, losses if a move soon follows graduation. Finally, for many, graduation serves as a benchmark for the end of childhood, prompting a grieving process for the end of a life stage.
Much like with the birth of a child, marriage may signal the end of a certain lifestyle. Even when the change is welcomed, there may be some sadness for the life that was traded in. In addition, some find that by choosing one person, they grieve the loss of the potential of choosing others.
The most obvious loss that accompanies moving is the lack of access to friends and/or family. Other casualties are not so apparent. You may find that you grieve for the way the light used to shine into your former kitchen or that you’re still aching for your old neighborhood coffeeshop. This sadness over the change often leads to a feeling that the move was a mistake.
Bodies break down. And as they lose efficiency and display more wear and tear, it’s easy to grieve for the younger – and more resilient – self. It’s funny, most of us are self-critical about our bodies, especially when we are young. And then we look back at old photographs and wonder how we could have ever disparaged that youthful and healthy body. Aging-related grief may be over form or function as both looks and health tend to decline.
I am happy to see the attention that this is now receiving. Couples that struggle with fertility are in an endless cycle of hope and despair, grieving for the pregnancies that don’t occur or the ones that end in miscarriage or stillbirth. Additionally, there is mourning for the lack of “normal” fertility as they observe others bear children without any obvious issues.
I had to go gluten free over eleven years ago. And I grieved over bread, tears and everything. Health problems often dictate lifestyle changes, whether it be giving up a type of food or staying away from certain activities. These changes can be more difficult than anticipated. When you’re told you can no longer do something, you mourn for the time when you faced no such restrictions.
Like graduation, retirement also signals a shift in your identity. Additionally, it is often closing out one life stage (adulthood) and entering another (AARP mailer recipient). This is a common time for people to grieve the life choices they made (or didn’t make) because they begin to realize that time is limited.
Eliminating Material Items
Even for the non-hoarders, material items often carry emotional weight. As such, when we take a load to Goodwill or hold a garage sale, there is often an ache that accompanies the release of the items. These things have been allowed to symbolize a person or a particular moment in time. And so by relinquishing the items, we are allowing ourselves to let go.
If you opt for Choice A, you have eliminated the possibility of selecting Option B. And that’s how life often works – we make a series of decisions, each one eliminating the possibility of deciding to take a different path. And sometimes, we become overwhelmed with all of the roads not taken and we grieve for the imagined possibilities that are left unexplored.
Loss and therefore, grief, are a normal part of life. It’s okay to mourn what you no longer have. Just keep in mind that grieving is not meant to be a full-time job. Learn how to live while you weep, find gratitude while you grieve and move forward even as you honor what was.