Grief and the Courage to Feel It | By Jessica Heaney

It had been over a month. I was feeling more solid and grounded. The tears had stopped coming as frequently which was relieving and I was certain this was a sign the worst of it had passed.

I had just arrived back at Maggie Lake, my family’s gathering place in Upper Michigan. For me, these wooded forests and the pristine lake have been a reliable place to heal my heart. After my worst break up, I fled here. And when life’s struggles hit hard, I long to be here, in the quiet of the north woods.

When I arrive at the lake, I have a ritual of walking out onto the dock. I gaze out over the lake’s glasslike surface to spot the familiar loons swimming as a pair. I take a deep relieving breath and settle in. On this trip, there were a few more of these deep breaths as I allowed my remaining worries, stress and fears to melt away.

On a morning soon after I arrived, I had coaxed my two nieces from bed to join me on an early morning walk through the woods. We came back to whip up banana bread with the quickly turning bananas resting on the counter. The rest of the family had just started filling their coffee cups, mustering good mornings through their lingering sleepiness.

I placed the two pans of banana bread into the oven, anticipating how perfect it will be with my black coffee. Turning around, I nearly bumped into Lily, my bright and curious 6-year-old niece. With her almond brown eyes peering intently up at me, she said, “Auntie, your baby died.”

Her words hit like a wrecking ball into my core. In that moment, time froze. And it reawakened the part of me I hoped had healed and, more so, hoped had gone away. But the pain I felt inside reminded me it was all still there and was absolutely still part of me.

I felt the tears rise up and they surprised me. Somehow, I worked to keep them down, worried my sadness might upset her. But the truth is, I was fighting to keep them from myself. I didn’t want the tears. I didn’t want the pain. I wanted it to be gone. I preferred to find solace in all the logic the doctor said, “This is common. Miscarriages happen to at least 20-30 percent of women.” I wanted to find relief knowing I wasn’t alone. But I felt alone. And emotions, they don’t always align with logic.

With as much compassion and composure I could gather, I whispered a simple, “I know,” while giving her a squeeze to comfort myself. I then turned away. Walking out onto the deck facing the lake, I choose not to unleash the tornado of emotion circling inside. I kept it hidden and contained, a strategy I learned long ago because I was usually seen as too emotional and too sensitive. It became better to try to hide these painful pieces of me.

I immediately regretted turning away. Only because there was so much more I wanted, and perhaps needed, to say. I wanted to break down and tell this little being how hard it’s been. That sometimes I’m at peace with it while other times I feel this incredibly deep loss that’s so hard to make sense of. My niece seemed to care and understand like no adult could. The adults often appeared too afraid to name it like she did: bluntly and directly. “Auntie, your baby died.” Boom. There it was.

Her innocence provided an honest space to the realness and rawness of what happened inside me. It’s what I didn’t know I needed so badly.

I needed her braveness to call it out and name it. To name it with simplicity. I didn’t want the dismissive medical terminology or statistics that told me how “normal this is” or “it’s a healthy thing your body does.” Or the comment, “Now you know you can get pregnant!” as though that should bring some kind of joy. It didn’t. These comments only left me more alone and ashamed, ashamed for feeling such intense grief. Shame for bonding with this being growing inside me for eight weeks, silly and stupid for calling it a baby. My baby.

The days that soon followed the loss of my baby, I quickly observed and learned how my pain caused too much discomfort for others. So, I used that trick I learned a long time ago and attempted to mask myself to present the strong, capable me. That’s what everyone wanted, right? Because when I would dip into the grief and the struggle, I usually saw those closest to me squirm with unease. That only added to what was hurting inside. That’s when I felt really alone.

But Lily shot it straight, right into the heart of all of it. Unexpectedly, with those four words, I felt completely seen and understood. She didn’t try to take any of it away. She didn’t even try to make it better. To me, she saw the pain and in her incredible way honored it, giving it full permission to be there.

In her eyes, I wasn’t frail and fragile. The hurt made sense and had a place. As did my strength for enduring it. And this is all we need when we struggle deeply in life. To been seen in our totality, not just in our weakest or worst moments. To have our pain held and accepted. Not pushed away, dismissed and seen as something to “get over.”

We simply want to be understood and also believed in without needing to change, mold or hide away.

No one is emotionally invincible. We are only human. These emotions we feel inside need to be known. When you choose to feel them fully, something tends to blossom inside. I think that’s growth. And that’s what I’m learning real courage is.

Jessica Heaney, LCSW, is a Certified Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist based in Vail, CO. She is the founder of the Vail Relationship Institute where she and her team of clinicians specialize in healing relationships through counseling, training and events. Jessica is a dog lover and mountain explorer. Learn more about her and her work at www.vailrelationshipinstitute.com
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