Understanding the expression of grief

Do you go through certain moments in your adult life where you flash back to the first time you experienced a similar moment as a child, yet didn’t fully understand it then? How I wish I had a time machine to go back to myself and explain it. Or do I really want to do that? There is a reason, I suppose, that our understanding of emotions doesn’t fully develop until much later in life.

When I was probably the age of 8 or 9, my mom’s best friend’s mother passed away. Someone I only knew in context and didn’t really know the deceased myself.  I am not sure why my mother brought me to that funeral, and I don’t recall the service or what followed at all. The memory that stands out is waiting in line to enter the building. My “aunt” was in the doorway greeting each person as they entered. I watched her intently as we approached for our turn.

Some guests she shook their hands, others she gave a quick hug. And then my mom and I reached the doorway. She grasped my mother into a tight hug and sobbed. After a minute they parted and we moved inside. I remember turning back and watching her resume the greetings with handshakes and quick hugs, the tears suddenly gone.

And I turned to my mom confused, asking why she acted one way with some people but had cried with her. My lesson in expressing various types of grief followed. The basic lesson conveyed how you might feel safe exposing your most vulnerable state to some, but not all. I still didn’t get it. Not really.

I have of course experienced a lot of death since that time. Some more impactful than others. I can compartmentalize with the best of them, perhaps too much on occasion. Having a factual conversation with one set of people about the death and then drifting off to quiet resolve with another. But when I get around the people that support me the most, I finally break down and sob.

And always, every time, I flash back to standing in that line waiting for our turn to enter the service. And learning that you can express grief in different ways to different people, even in the blink of an eye.

I experienced a loss this month that hit me quite hard. I had no one around me who I felt truly safe being vulnerable with. I had to carry that for a few weeks and on the airplane heading towards the first person I could “be real” with, had me teary eyed with anticipation of finally being able to sob and receive physical support during it.  There is something important about being able to let go and expressing the full range of grief. It is the first step in moving forward again.

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