Things fall apart: 'How I came through the overwhelming sadness of grief'

In the last year, Liadan Hynes' marriage fell apart. She is now working on adjusting to the new reality. In her weekly column, Things Fall Apart she is exploring the myriad ways a person can find their way back to themselves.

The friend flings open the living room door; takes a step forward, then stops. His nose twitches and lifts, as if sniffing for something. He is in some way taking the temperature of the room. “This is a sad house,” he declares portentously, with immense gravitas.

This friend is given to the overdramatic. As it was the morning of my mother-in-law’s funeral, he was both slightly relishing the drama of the moment, and stating the obvious.

But amateur dramatics aside, he had a point. Sadness can be felt. It is palpable. Tangible. So heavy you can almost touch it; the carrying of it an exhausting weight. Where anger can be an accelerant, sadness is leaden. Heavy. On a sad day, you wake up and you know immediately it will be one of those days.

Related: Grief comes in waves, you never know when the next one will hit

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Already, you are exhausted at the thought of it. And frustrated, knowing the everyday things you love to do will for this day seem almost insurmountable. That you will count the minutes until you can get back to your bed from the moment you get out of it.

I don’t on the whole much care for the offerings of Sheryl Sandberg, she of the 'lean in' theory. Lean in, Sheryl? Like most of my friends, I’m almost horizontal. And please stop lecturing me. But, I defy anyone to listen to her Desert Island Discs and not sob their heart out. In her interview, she talks to Kirsty about the trauma of the sudden, totally unexpected death of her husband, and how she coped with that. You have to take back the joy, she says. So much nicer a motto than lean in, for one thing. And so true.

“You look different,” a friend said to me recently. And she’s right. Through no ostensible effort, I have dropped a dress size. Maybe I’m eating healthier; an unconscious form of self-care (there’s no getting away from that phrase). Maybe, similarly to when breastfeeding, your body retains an extra layer when grieving to help sustain you. A physical manifestation of the weight of grief?

Shedding the coat

A friend and I discuss the clothes we cocooned ourselves in at the height of our respective times of sadness. Mostly black, largely gym gear or huge, comforting coats. Functional. Now we can’t look at those clothes; they have to go.

She is in purple Lululemon. I am wearing a succession of the brightest clothes in my wardrobe. Floral dress after floral dress. I go for dinners, for brunches. I wear my highest heels.

You realise you thought things were pretty good but now they are suddenly so much better. Easier. Every few months it’s as if you take a massive step up. My friend has a saying for new mothers on those days when the tiredness, the overwhelm, the raw hormonal emotion of it all combine in a perfect storm. “Oh yes, you’re in the hole,” she will say. It’s comforting to know this is a temporary state of being.

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Similarly, there is the hole of sadness, and you will step out of, even though at the time you may not have even realised you were in there. You will realise that the difficult time has passed, even though at the time maybe you didn’t realise quite how difficult it was. There is room now for silliness. For messing. You have thrown off the weight of it.

You remember when a kind, older acquaintance who has been through something similar told you to take it one day at a time, and you were surprised because you were fine. But you look back and think maybe the burden you were then carrying was heavier than you thought; you had just become somewhat used to it.

Things you should know about grief.

You are not done with it until it is done with you.

You can not outrun, out yoga, out meditate, out healthy eat, out drink it. These things help to keep you buoyant and may encourage the mist to clear. But they will not vanquish it. Grief will demand its time and its place.

Try to ignore it at your peril. Grief will come out; as barely suppressed anger, constant headaches, backaches, and eczema.

It is possible to be very happy in the circumstances of your life, whilst also simultaneously have occasional days where you are felled by grief.

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But, like a fog, the sadness will lift. You will realise it has become more about the abstract. That you don’t feel sad about the daily, and you don’t feel sad daily. You get bouts of sadness, but now it is about things that are in the ether. Imaginary things; paths you thought your life might take. It will hit you sometimes, a jolt out of nowhere. Oh, that will be different, or that won’t happen like that. But that is a projected future and, really? Are we ever in completely safe hands there?

There will have been things that you thought would make you sad forever; the hurt of which would be a burden you'd always carry. They don’t. You won’t. One day you will realise that a thing you thought would always just slightly be heartbreaking isn’t at all. That is not being 'glass half full'. I really mean that.

Day to day, you will find the joy.

Photo: Eddy Lackmann, Unsplash

More like this:

  • The six best books, plays and podcasts dealing with grief... click here.
  • Why People Shouldn't Judge Other People's Grief... click here.

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