02 March 2014

The Gifts of Grief

Grief can be defined as a keen mental suffering or distress, or a sharp sorrow. 

In the past year, I've experienced more grief than I wanted to, more than I was prepared for (after all, who is usually prepared for grief?). I've had a lot of time to reflect (and sometimes agonize) over the last year, but through it all, I've pushed myself to learn through it, to grow through the pain. What I learned was that this grief has been a journey, one that began the moment my father was diagnosed with cancer. I like to call the things that I've learned the "Gifts of Grief".

During the past year, countless people have told me, "Man, your problems are so much bigger than mine. I shouldn't complain over [insert life issue here]." I never really knew what to say to these people. How can life events which cause pain that we don't have any control over be quantified? How can good events in life be quantified? The short answer: they can't. One of the gifts I learned through this was empathy. I wouldn't say I wasn't empathetic before this experience, but my ability to empathize grew. Just because life had thrown me curveballs that happened to really hurt didn't make my problems or issues any more or less than someone else's. And here's why: we all experience life through our own lens. The way we react to events is based on our experiences. So, for example, to say that 25-year-old Sarah's problems are bigger than 13-year-old Sarah's problems is a matter of perspective and experience. What was big to me in middle school is nothing to me now; it's all about perspective.

When my dad was sick, there were countless days where the only thing on my mind was him. The thoughts would race uncontrollably, sometimes putting me in a sort of daze. Is he going to get better? What is he doing now? Is he in pain? How is he handling this? How is my stepmom doing? When can I see him again? Can I handle this? Some days I could only function at a basic level, feeling crushed by the weight of the situation. I'd wake up, go to work, come home, eat dinner, go to sleep. I found myself asking God why, why him, why our family, why now? I still haven't found answers to these questions, only knowing that life happens, and we often can't do a damned thing about it. It was in this that I learned adaptability. I didn't want to adapt to a life where my dad was sick, or worse, where he wasn't here. I still don't want to. But what choice do I have if I want to continue on and not be stuck in a constant "woe is me" state? I had to learn to continue with my life. Adapting meant giving up the control I wanted and allowing myself to live in the here and now, because it's all I had.

Perhaps the greatest gift I was given is perspective. Life is full of choices, each and every day, of what we choose as important. With limited time and resources, we often have to sacrifice one thing for another. For me, this played out in one seemingly simple way: not sweating the small stuff. Yes, it sounds cliché, but hear me out. I am the type that always has a to-do list. They help me focus, help me organize my thoughts, my day and my life. As silly as this might sound, I've learned to deviate from the to-do list. This gives me more time to spend with the people I love and, sometimes, even means that laundry goes unfolded for days on end. In essence, my perspective has changed to reveal a less structured life, giving me more time and attention to focus on the things that really matter, things like snuggling with my husband and pup while we watch TV on a cold February night, having an impromptu dinner with my in-laws or being able to babysit my nephew at a moment's notice. It's these things in life that give me all the perspective I need.

I've written here before about my dad teaching me to accelerate into the curves when he was coaching 15-year-old me to navigate back country roads. But what he didn't know when he taught me how to drive was that he was also teaching me a life lesson. When life twists and turns, slowing down or stopping can paralyze us in our tracks. Learning to accelerate into the curves keeps you moving, growing and, most importantly, living.