Have your feet or hands ever gotten so cold that they basically froze? I remember being up at my grandparent’s cottage one winter and skating for hours. It was one of those anomaly winters where it was cold, but there was no snow…even in northern Ontario. That was one of the best winters for a kid though. That meant the entire lake was frozen, and there was no shovelling to be done to play hockey on the lake. We played hockey and skated for hours that winter. There were only two downsides. The first - if you missed the hockey net, you had to skate, what felt like, kilometres to retrieve the puck. The second - we stayed out there so long my feet got so cold that they went numb.
Actually, it wasn’t the numbness that sucked…it was what happened afterwards. After enough complaining, my parents took us back into the cottage, wrapped us in blankets and placed us in front of the wood stove for us to thaw out. I can remember hearing the kettle in the background as it readied water for us to consume copious amounts of hot chocolate. Then the pain started. It was a little bit at first…just some tingling in the tips of my toes…and gradually increased to include throbbing pain. My feet went from numbness to excruciating pain. I longed for the moments earlier when it was numb to the touch. The pain seemed to last forever before my feet finally returned to “normal.” Only, it has never been normal from that point on. There’s nothing wrong with my feet, but now every time my feet start to edge close to the numbness, I know it’s time to go inside.
I think grief works similarly. When we have an experience that causes us grief or pain, it can leave us numb. We fall into shock, or denial, we get deprived of the power of sensation. And we can stay in that depravation for a long time. We can fill our schedules, we can self-medicate, and we turn into workaholics. We can avoid those feelings and realities, but sooner or later, that experience is going to start thawing. Then...it's going to hurt like hell.
That's where the real work begins. We enter into the pain piece by piece. The difference with the pain of grief is that we can choose to avoid the pain. Once it hurts too much, we can numb it out again, we can avoid it, we can go back to the numbness like we were doing before. But the pain doesn’t go away. If you want your grief to thaw out, you have to travel through the pain before you can begin to thaw. You need to enter the darkness that exists in order to bring light to your experience.
And the journey into pain sucks. It’s the reoccurring nightmare that you dream about every night, taking you inch by inch further through your thoughts when all you want to do is wake up. It’s knowing that moments that you were so greatly anticipating…will never happen. It’s the fear of letting go of that experience because you don’t ever want to forget. It’s feeling the guilt and shame that eats out your soul. It’s the endless battles of “What if I just did…..” It’s coming to terms with the knowledge that your life will never be the same.
And that’s just the first part of the pain…dealing with the experience itself. The second comes from taking off the mask that you’ve lived with for years and really taking an honest look at yourself and how you’ve been living/existing. Experiences that shock you to the very core of your existence alter you, change you, and force you to choose. In one door, you can choose to ignore that painful experience and live the life you were already living and ignore the hurt, the lessons, the crap-storm of feelings, and continue to live a life that requires you to be someone you are not all the time. Or, you can choose door number two. Wade through the pain, continue your search for who you are and choose to come out the other side. You’ll still have been wounded, but those wounds eventually scar, and each scar tells an important story. One of life, experience, pain, learning, and most importantly...love.