Grief and Fear

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear”. – C.S. Lewis

I spent the first few weeks after Jackson died in what can only be described as fear. 

From the moment that this nightmare became our reality, it was pure fear. Utter horror and wild, sheer panic. Our visceral animal screams from that morning still haunt me. The moment I turned over his body still haunts me. The fear was not contained to the worst day of my life, it continued to show up, days and weeks later. Snapshots from that morning intruded on my mind, showing up often and unpredictably without invitation, filling my entire body with the same horror as if it was happening again in that moment.

Over time, the memories from that morning decreased in frequency and intensity, and memories of Jackson, alive and well, started to take their place. Which introduced just a different chapter of fear. Reminders like his smiling face in a photo (and knowing he will never smile again), seeing his favorite toys (and knowing he will never ride his horsey again), seeing his favorite books (and knowing he will never make that silly face during Llama Llama Red Pajama again), and eating his favorite foods (and feeling nauseous realizing we will never share a bowl of yogurt and granola and raspberries again) all contributed to a growing sense of fear that I could not survive this new life I didn’t ask for. The fear was everywhere, intense, and growing each day. 

Fear that we couldn’t survive
Fear that we had to survive
Fear of shattering the lives of each family member and friend
Fear of the loneliness from being shattered harder and differently than anyone else
Fear of imploding with grief if I heard his voice
Fear that I’d forget the sound of his voice  
Fear of the consequences on our mental health
Fear of the repercussions on our marriage
Fear of having another child and it happening again
Fear of fearing so much that we’d never try again

I became fixated on “getting over” my grief, shedding the fear, moving on with my life. Getting (quickly) to some place where remembering Jackson brings happiness and joy alone. Having never truly grieved before, I thought this was the goal. I so naively thought this was even possible. 

But grief is not something to “get over”, nor is it something I want to get over. I have learned that grief and love are one and the same – and feelings of loss and joy are two sides of the same grief-as-love coin. Although we can certainly learn to cope with our grief, and therefore experience less suffering as we grieve, grief and love themselves are forever. 

Fear of grief

I learned that my fear of grief was at the root of so much of my suffering. My fear of remembering him – seeing his face, hearing his voice, smelling his scent – was compounding my already unimaginable loss. Jackson was gone and I was refusing to let myself remember when he was alive. 

It was time to face my grief, allow my grief, give in to my grief and trust (with all fingers crossed) that I’d make it out alive. 

I started out slow. I sat in silence and attended to my physical sensations. Stomach churning, tight chest, stingy throat, wet face. I noticed massive urges to escape – both my grief and my life. At first this sent me into some deep, dark (yet clear and illuminating?) places. I lost my son. He was not coming back. Life is fragile. Life is pain. Control is an illusion. Love is risky. Love is worth it. This could happen again. Anyone I love could die today. 

I watched the emotion waves rise and fall, watching the age-old platitude that “what goes up must come down” come true before my eyes. And sure enough, my distress did not last forever in a constant, steady state. In fact, allowing my grief freed me up to experience other things in other moments. Over time, I came to experience joy, amusement, or even just contentment, and even thoughts like “This is going to be ok.” 

And it was in those “This is going to be ok” moments that I noticed yet another, different chapter of fear. Fear that I could no longer access my grief, or that it was somehow diminishing. 

“Change is the only constant”

What I’ve learned is that so much of my misery these past few weeks has been tied up in fretting over where I wasn’t. When I was in the throes of pain, I feared I’d never get out. When I was in a moment of joy or contentment, I feared I’d lost contact with my sadness. I’ve since learned to trust my grief; stop worrying so much about where I’m not and just be where I am. I now lean on my intuition that grief will inevitably and reliably ebb and flow, and that I can count on being back in my sadness or joy again, in time. 

My advisor told me, “It makes sense that it’s hard to focus on Wednesday mornings because it reminds you of the morning Jackson died. And one day there will come a Wednesday morning when you don’t think of Jackson, and that will make you sad, too”. Exactly; this is at the heart of the struggle. Wanting to know there will be better days, while simultaneously feeling afraid of them. Wanting to feel relief of pain, while holding on to the love that’s tied up with the pain. As my friend Pete said, there is nothing more dialectical than grief. He said, “To feel the black hole inside of you, as if you’re going to collapse into yourself, while at the same time your heart is about to explode with love and sorrow; the smiles and laughs through wretches and tears; the mind that knows Jackson is gone but the body that insists otherwise”. These are the contradictions, and truths, about grief. 

I’ve learned to let myself open Jackson’s bedroom door on some days, so I can see his horsey and bookcase and toys. And to let myself close the door other days, when it’s too stinging to walk by and I need to give myself a break. And that I can trust my intuition about what I need on any given day, or in a particular moment. And that the range of complex emotions are still out there, or better said inside me, waiting to be expressed at another time. And that feeling any one way is not negating the validity and possibility of other feelings. 

I’ve basically learned the very thing everyone tried so hard to tell me those first few weeks – that I won’t feel this way – or any one way – forever. Now I can finally believe what I struggled to believe for so long: that emotions aren’t permanent, and that change is the only constant. 

I’ve learned that attending to my grief has settled my stomach, softened the tightness in my chest, and giving me confidence to visit with my sweet Jackson. It still hurts like hell, but fear has certainly dissipated. And my confidence has slowly built back up as I’ve allowed my fierce mama love to warm my body and fill the emptiness in my chest. Now, I can and do smile when I think of Jackson, but I’ve let go of insisting on the joy alone. Letting in the pain has freed me up to feel the joy, as long as I let them coexist.