The Slow Work of Grief



This past week was really hard. It’s been over a year since my mom died but, in the rolling wake of her leaving, I still get blindsided by grief.

This time, the grief was physically painful.

It found me on my drive home from the grocery store. I was alone and it was quiet and in the millisecond it took to grasp the rarity of such a moment, I suddenly couldn’t seem to take in enough oxygen. I felt like I was drowning on dry land.

I knew I must look like a wild-eyed animal, panicky and dangerous, hands gripping the steering wheel, tears burning rivulets down my cheeks—but it didn’t matter. My mind had locked in on one thing and I was rabid in my desire: I was desperate to know whether my mom knew how much I missed her.

This is the agonizing side of grief—when the mind fixes itself upon unanswerable questions that demand to be acknowledged by the dead in order to move forward. It often feels like an endless loop of crazy making and it is exhausting.

I sat in my driveway for a long time, roiling and bellowing, longing for some kind of anchor that might ground me and keep my heart from being jettisoned, once again.

I just wanted—I needed—to know that my sweet and precious mother knew how very much she was missed. That she be assured that her death—no, that her life—was not in vain. My brain needed her to somehow feel held by my deep sadness so that it would serve a purpose other than blurring all the fixed lines of my life.

Throughout the rest of the week, the grief manifested itself as stomach pain, then muscle fatigue and lastly, as a literal heart ache. I just wanted it all to go away.

In my more lucid moments, I worried that grief was becoming my new identity. It wasn’t a reach to see my grief as a fiery G tattooed upon my breast, eventually burning through whatever wraps I used to smother it and devouring any newly birthed joy that may be present in the room.

Would I always be the one who lost her mother? Would it ever be possible to see the world around me through a lens not blurred by loss and languish? Would my written words always be strung on frayed threads?

This grief feels like a stone in my shoe, acquired on a walk I never wanted to take and forever gnawing at my most tender spots. Some days, it shifts and I’m not aware of where it has settled. I have walked for long periods in that welcome, yet tentative existence, only to be suddenly sidelined when, finally choosing to put my full weight into a step, that rock emerges from its hiding place and cuts me anew.

I have, at times, looked scornfully at others navigating their lives with a lightness that is, seemingly, immune to the grief that comes from profound loss. I want to grab them by the shoulders and shake them into cognizance. I want to shout into their relaxed and comfortable faces, “Do you understand how lucky you are?! Do you see your life and the lives of those you hold dear as the beloved gifts that they are?!?!”

But then I remember to breathe, again. I come back to center and grab hold of that which tethers me to the holy ground of each day. And I remember that we are all the walking wounded and that no soul pulses in a vacuum.

All of us have some kind of stone in our shoe: anger, the fight to stay sober, feelings of unworthiness, shame, a sordid past … grief. And, at some point, all of us have dared to step forward in faith, only to be felled by that pointed barb that we thought we had shaken loose.

It is inevitable. These stones, they sculpt us.

As I emerged from my week of engulfing grief that felt, over and over, like an ocean threatening to sink me with wave upon wave of sadness, I thought about stones upon the shore. I thought about the relentlessness of water to shape and smooth.

And then I thought about their beauty.

For the first time, I began to consider my grief as less an anathema, hell-bent on undermining my potential for joy but, rather, as an unrealized tool, capable of slowly honing and perfecting my person. Maybe my grief stone and its incessant rubbing and wearing on my heart are what God is using to burnish my soul space.

This rubbing and chafing, it hurts. To my naked eye and aching heart, it looks and feels like life is better, more fulfilling even, without such a burden. But if I lean into it, let it do its work on me, maybe it won’t devour me. Maybe as grief stones tumble and scratch at the very core of me, the slow dawn of glory light will rise in me. Maybe I will begin to shimmer.


Image credit: Namu Lim