By Kayce Stevens Hughlett, MA, LMHC

grieving woman on swing

Grief. It’s a big topic and one most of us prefer to avoid, but grief is sneaky and you never know when or how it’s going to show up to offer a life lesson. One thing I’ve learned about trying to hide unwelcome emotions is that they do show up and not usually when or how we want them to. So, it’s not a bad idea to consider them in advance. In this regard, let’s  take a peek into my experience around grief.

In the early 2000’s, I enrolled in a small training session with a focus on sharing story and public speaking. On the first morning, our facilitator pulled a card from her pile of topics and read it aloud: Grief. A single face flashed through my mind. While I don’t recall the precise details of my impromptu talk, the opening line and the look on the faces around me was memorable. I took my place at the front of the room, inhaled, exhaled, and asked: How do you grieve for someone who hasn’t died?

I grew up in Oklahoma City, the third child of a conservative middleclass family. When my beloved father died in a trucking accident the day after my nineteenth birthday, I drove the ninety miles home from college in the darkness of that Thursday night, attended his funeral over the weekend, and was back in class the following week. My family didn’t do grief.

Consequently, I was ill-equipped when my eldest child embarked on the road of addiction and inducted me into a world where heartbreak was the norm rather than exception. He would show me how unprepared I was to deal with disruption and the chaos that comes with loving an addict. There was no pasting a smile on this scenario and calling it good, even though I tried.

When someone physically dies in our culture, the platitudes flow from well-intentioned people. He’s gone to a better place. Her suffering is over. Keep busy and you’ll feel better. The sentiments rarely ease our pain. They remind me of my goodhearted friends who offered their own form of comfort when our family was struggling. It’s not your fault. Things will get better with time. Hang in there. It’s only a phase. In my mind, I was pretty sure the pain would never end. My life was a complete mess with no clear way out. I denied my emotions, raged at them, bargained with God, and sunk into depression. Then, a moment of clarity would pop up and I’d be able to offer acceptance to the chaos that my family was experiencing. But just as quickly, I grabbed back the rage and futility and started the cycle all over again. I was grieving and had no idea, so when I asked that question in front of the small group: How do you grieve for someone who hasn’t died? I was as surprised as my audience.

I needed to grieve and didn’t know it, but something deep inside had willed those words out of my mouth. I’d been wrestling with my son’s addiction for nearly ten years. At the time of the workshop, we’d reached another low and he was serving a three-plus year drug-related prison sentence. I’d been in therapy, but this was new territory. Heck, I am a  therapist! Self-care is my specialty and I’d become quite skilled at setting aside time for myself and finding ways to quiet the chaos inside me. I thought my life was back in the manageable realm. It was good even … and I was sad.

Like grief, other strong emotions  such as anger and sadness weren’t acceptable in my family of origin. Through therapy and group work, I’d wrestled with many of these emotions but grief held an unspoken grip on my heart. Standing in the workshop room that day, I was able to name this piece of my journey as grief-filled. In the naming, something cracked wide open inside me. I had experienced this before when naming anger, sadness, and even joy. When we can name  and share what we’re honestly feeling and have it witnessed with compassion, we begin to heal. The grip of the forbidden emotion loosens its grasp. The power over us dissipates and as  the negative feelings flow out, space for something more nurturing opens up.

In my case, the space that opened up made room for gratitude. As I grieved the loss of my dreams—the family I was raised in, the family I was raising, and how neither looked like what I’d expected—I discovered more power and strength within myself. I moved from victim to victor. I found a voice that had been silenced for decades. I became grateful for this new awareness. I grieved for my silent childhood and the death of my father. I grieved  for my son and his losses too. I became grateful for the lessons I was learning— power, strength, authentic voice, compassion. It didn’t happen in one fell swoop. In fact, it’s still happening. It’s a practice in gratitude.

I’ve learned to honor the anniversaries of big and small deaths and light candles for the losses. Remembering to grieve has become a ritual of sorts, alongside celebrating the wins. Like putting our clothes through a wash cycle—rinse, agitate, spin, repeat—a clearer life emerges when we welcome in all of our emotions and fully live the cycles of life. Birth. Growth. Death. Love. Fear. Living can be messy work, but each ending is the beginning of something new.

Grief. I bring it up not to depress, but rather to liberate. For when we approach our deep  emotions with respect, curiosity, and intention, new pathways open up to us. Yes, it can be a bit like walking into a deep fog where small steps are preferable to blind leaps. We’re not exactly sure what may lie ahead, but if the sense of forward motion feels preferable to staying inert, then I invite you to take the step. Name what you’re feeling. Allow a trusted  person to witness it. Liberate your soul. Open up room for gratitude and allow love to replace fear and hidden emotions such as grief.

Kayce Stevens Hughlett is a tender, a healer, and an artist of being alive who believes in everyday magic and that complex issues often call for simple practices. Kayce is the author of “SoulStroller.” She holds a Masters in Counseling Psychology from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology and is a Certified Martha Beck Life Coach. Her novel, “Blue,” won the Chanti Award for best women’s fiction in 2015. Kayce began her working life as an accountant for a multi-national firm and transitioned to the healing arts when life’s harsh circumstances sent her searching for answers on a lesslinear path. She is the co-creator of SoulStrolling® ~ a movement for mindfulness in motion. Raised in the heartland of Oklahoma, she now resides in Seattle, Washington with her family and muse, Aslan the Cat. Learn more at http://www.liveittogiveit.me