By Betty Ann Rutledge

There are a few things I know about grief. I know that it occupies every level of my being: physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, social, sexual. And I know that there are times when I am in a “hit of grief” that it seems like I will always feel this way.

Physically: My body rebels. Pains in my back, knots in my stomach and bowels, frequent headaches. I can’t sleep or I can’t sleep enough. I can’t bear to eat or I stuff food down to bury the unbelievable pain. My vision is blurred, I break out in hives and the weight of sorrow in my chest makes it hard to breathe.

Mentally: Where are my keys? I know I left them right here! Where are those damn keys?! What does this notation in my daytimer mean? I’m sure I paid that phone bill. What meeting? I didn’t know we had a meeting! What am I doing in the kitchen? But I thought I just watered the plants. Oh god, we’re out of milk again.

Emotionally: When a wave of grief comes over me, I am knocked over and dragged under the current. Sometimes I am facing the horizon and so I see it coming head on. Sometimes I’m gazing at the beach thinking, “Oh look. It’s just a few feet away, maybe I’ll go lay on the warm sand” and BANG it hits me from behind. The pain explodes in my chest – yes, it really does feel like my heart is going to break. Racking sobs, trembling with fear, seething with rage. Complete and utter exhaustion.

Socially/Sexually: See above. I am not always the most predictable dinner party guest. Sometimes, when my grief is manageable and I can channel all that energy into something positive – I am great fun to be around. The life of the party! Oh, she’s so funny and interesting and passionate and intense. What a great gal. What would they think if they saw me curled up in the fetal position, unable to even get off the couch or with my head stuffed into a bag of Oreo cookies?

Spiritually: I wonder sometimes if I would still be plagued by the existential angst that my grief has thrust upon me had I lived a different life. Why is this happening to me? What does this mean? How can I count on anything? Or anyone? There must be a reason. Searching. Yearning. Sometimes open, sometimes closed down. Reaching out one day – rejecting the next. Crying out, “Oh god/goddess/universe, help me!”

Yes, there are a few things I know about grief. Even though I feel like I’m going crazy, I’m not. This is all normal. For me. My grief and how I manage it is mine uniquely. I’m not doing anything wrong or right. There isn’t a formula or recipe for grieving. Grief is not a disease and there is no cure. All there is is patience and moments of grace and healing. And, thankfully, the gift of being with other bereaved people who understand and accept me in all my complexity and confusion. Thank god for that.

The gift of healing comes in small and often surprising ways: An unexpected telephone call or email – someone reaching out to say, “I am here for you”. A message from a loved one who has passed on – the snippet of a song, a quote, a smell – a gentle reminder that they are still with me, watching over me. The comfort of being able to share my true, authentic, self with someone – someone who really “gets it”, who gets me. The look in someone’s eye who has traveled this road and knows the journey is a lifelong one, but is willing and able to walk with me for a stretch of time.

The gift of insight. Lord knows, I would have chosen to learn these lessons any other way, but there it is and here I am. And amazingly, I feel like a better person. A stronger person. Somehow, grief has transformed me. And in my quietest moments, if I listen really closely, I can hear the sound of my heart slowly and persistently repairing itself around the hole of loss that is now a part of me forever.