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on grief … when it doesn’t work like you expect it to

Most likely, we’ve all seen this:

And it looks like a progression, one step after another, one foot in front of the other, until we get to the end of the cycle.

The reality couldn’t be more different.

It’s not even that we take one step forward and two steps back in this neat little circle. And that we keep moving forward so that the end eventually comes.

So maybe it’s more like this, all twisty and turny and grays mixed in with the red:

This resonates more truly, right? We are familiar with the ups and downs, the forwards and backs, and if you’ve lived very long at all you have experienced it yourself. It is probably the most familiar and accepted depiction of the grief process. Most of us know by now that grieving is not as simple as a neat little circle. But oftentimes, it’s not even as pretty and progressive as this one.

Perhaps, in these kinds of imaginable circumstances our grief does look like that: Grieving a divorce, the end of a friendship, the loss of a job, painful memories that have haunted us forever, an ongoing and lasting change of physical strength, or a chronic illness. Loss, all of it. But eventually, we make our way to acceptance. Eventually. It might take longer than we think it should, or other people think it should, but in the end we do arrive at that destination.

But unimaginable loss, like the untimely death of a parent a sibling a friend a child – really, this it what it looks like: 

It’s not linear, it doesn’t fit on any graph or chart, and it seems that it will never end. And honestly, in some cases it might not ever. Just when we think we are out of the chaos of impossible grief, suddenly we are plunged right back into that messy, disorganized, unmanageable pain.

It doesn’t take much.

A picture. A random thought. A song. A familiar gesture. Holidays, birth days, death dates. Some expected and dreaded, but many come unexpectedly and out of the blue. And we fall apart. Again. Wondering if we will ever stop falling apart. 

Probably, as time goes on, the falling apart won’t be quite so drastic or last so long. But go to pieces we will. Again. Still. Even after we’ve visited acceptance, pain remains.

I know. This is a sad post. But sometimes, our days are simply framed by sadness.

I guess I just want to affirm the ones that are living in the chaos and wondering why nothing you feel fits on a graph or a chart, that regardless of noise you hear that tells you it should be better, over with, moved on from by now – I want to tell you this: You’re doing it just right. As right as it can possibly be done.

You move forward, but when there is incomprehensible, unimaginable loss, you really never move on. You carry it with you always.

So rest in the chaos as best as you can. Don’t listen to the inner (or outer) critic. Be ok with the messiness. 

And for those of us that are journeying with the one living the lament, let’s accept their chaos and love them just where they are.



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  1. georgia b. georgia b.

    This is so good. My grief has been so much more like a tangled mess than a straight… or even curvy… line. This helps to know it's pretty how much how it normally goes. Thank you for telling others the mess and chaos is okay, and encouraging others to accept it and love them where they are. This is probably the most important thing people need to hear… and what I think could keep so many from feeling abandoned in their grief.

    • Angie Clayton Angie Clayton

      I'm so sorry, Georgia, for your grief journey. I pray that you have not been abandoned in it, and that you can find rest even in the tangle.

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