I always thought grieving was only for the dead, then I was struck with debilitating grief a few times in the past few years and realised it is for any kind of lost, the lost of the ability to feel joy and unable to find inner peace due to trauma.
The lost of quality of life, the time spent doubting yourself, the time spent feeling lost, alone and afraid, the times you lashed out and regretted pushing someone who loved you away. The time spent crying, hiding yourself, withdrawing and isolating to not let anyone know just how much in pain you're. The time spent trying to put up a facade of OKness when you were not OK at all, far from it.
The time spent feeling ashamed, unworthy and not good enough even when good things happened, there was fear the other shoe will drop, afraid it was a temporary fixation, not a real one, the inability to trust myself and trust others fully.
The time spent not knowing you even had such severe trauma, survivor guilt when someone compared suffering, getting angry at people who don't have trauma and seeing them take what's difficult for you for granted. When they're so well supported by their family and friends, they have so many free social resources, robust activism culture AND still judge those who have significantly less support than them, it can also be grief triggered by circumstances beyond your control in the chaos of 2020. I know a couple of times it was about seeing the dead tolls add up, over time it got too much, I had to rest.
I started decluttering my home during lockdown, I put all my things in different piles, ended up with a mountain of "sentimental items" as the organising experts call it.
There was this particular box that brought me to tears, the energy from it alone was enough to give me anxiety, it was a box of old photos, I know I neglected them, I didn't put them away like the others I stored neatly in photo albums, they were shoved away inside a random box, I was trying to psyche myself up to pull an out of sight out of mind trade with them, those memories were too painful to revisit.
I left it sitting there for months, guilt ridden, too overwhelmed by the entire organising effort to go there. I worked on the other areas, rather deal with the physically heavy objects or the nitty gritty small things, that box weighed heavy at the back of my mind all this time, unresolved issues always drag us down.
I finally tackled it yesterday and wanted to share how.
I hope survivors don't feel so alone in grieving, I hope they understand grief does get better over time, we manage far better, it might never go away (that's what grief counsellors say) and that's fine. We can grief as it comes to us, the important thing is to be aware you're grieving, you can think you're depressed for no reason, suspect you're going nuts, don't even know you're grieving, blame yourself for feeling what you need to feel, suppressing it all just to spiral later.
Grief captures a part of us inside it I believe, it does affect our connection with others and daily functioning, it's easy to overload our sensory receptors, especially if you had childhood trauma. The sudden outpouring of grief was shattering for me in the beginning of 2017, I was crying non-stop for weeks. It's important to seek professional help if you feel permanently overwhelmed. I did then and it helped me, I'm glad I did. It's OK to ask for help, it is a sign of self determination and self empowerment.
I divided the photos into different piles, you can do it by person, by occasion or year. I took out some that I can bear right now, to be placed on my altar later.
Find a box you treasure, I think it's important to find a box you feel these memories will feel safe and comfortable in. Only then will you be able to rest assured they're doing OK, memories are as precious as the people that come with them, they need to be stored in our heads as safely as people need physical safe spaces.
I used a box I lugged back from Vietnam, the effort of hauling this heavy lacquer box with a rare eggshell art motif was because I loved it so much, I thought it was a good place to place these sentimental items.
Clean the box to get rid of anything that will taint these memories, you're trying to find an energetic home for them, a nest if you will.
Sage the photos and the box using a smudge stick, I used White Sage, my custom in house smudge stick is still drying (eeexxccciiittiiingg) so this was the only option. You can use incense sticks/joss sticks/incense coils/incense cones as well.
Place the items in there.
Sieving through them felt heavy for me, like I had a ton heavy brick heart, it sunk to the bottom of myself, I was on the verge of tears a few times. It's OK not to go through all of them at once, get a rough gauge of what you can handle and pack the rest away.
Pick out a few photos, you can do the rest next time, or never, it's not about should or must, it's about unapologetically getting your needs met when they arise.
Close the box and place it in a safe place, a place you can go back to when needed, a place that makes you feel safe as well, knowing it's there is comforting, sometimes we need to literally compartmentalise to help us psychologically do so.
Just as our thoughts become our actions, our actions can become our thoughts as well, it doesn't always need to be thoughts first, it can be finding an actionable creative solution and the thoughts change to match them in due time.
Gather the chosen photos, place it on your altar, light a candle for them. You can look through them when you pray, let them tell you which memory is bringing you down, breathe and let go.
I don't think we ever stop loving someone, we just think we're incompatible at that point, it was a good decision to let be. Some people can't manage themselves and they hurt us deeply, we don't stop loving them either, we just know cognitively they're bad for us, we keep a distance so they don't continue to harm us. How we feel and how we think don't always match up, it's normal, as we heal we get more insightful.
Sometimes our emotional states need to play catch up to our decisions, we can also decide first under pressing circumstances and then let our emotions follow through later.
I was surprised that I grieved as hard for the worst relationship as the best one. The best past relationship was a guy I dated in my late teens, I knew marrying him would mean an easy life for me, he was generally a kind and good man, frankly he was a prince charming and quite the catch, the problem is I was a closeted lesbian and didn't know it, I thought it was a phase like many others. I thought what was wrong with me? I'm every girl's envy and he was perfect in every way, there wasn't a bone even my teen over achiever perfectionist self can even pick with him.
He was from a good family, similar in social status to mine, we got each other, we had the same exposure, same educational levels, we trained and played the same sport competitively (that's how we met), we travelled together to many places, he was sincere and sweet, he pampered me and adored me. I had many good memories with him, until the end when I felt he didn't operate with integrity and that hurt me, that casted a shadow on all the previous interactions.
He's one of those unforgettable people, his wide cheeky smile that bunched up his cheeks, his down to earth humility that was so attractive, his street smarts made me feel safe, his ability to hold onto grace under fire grounded me.
I remember how he was shite at roller skating and vowed never to do it again after almost falling on his face. I also stopped doing it to accommodate him, like the good subservient woman I once was. I lugged my pair of once used skates across the world back to Singapore because of that solo memory. I was also reluctant to let those skates go as well, I only threw it out a few years ago, this was after about 20 years later.
I know, I'm a hopeless romantic, I suspect I'm a bit of a sucker for real love. My quest to know God was really to figure out what real love meant and what it can do for my life, is there even such a thing? I'm such a good problem solver, people don't understand how sentimental I truly am, I grief that too.
Yes, we can grief a lifetime of misunderstandings, our own misunderstandings of ourselves and other people's misunderstandings towards us, a lifetime of unjust punishment and irrational judgement from people who don't know better.
I was secretly proud I was better than him at skating, also secretly amused how embarrassed he felt, it endeared him to me. I thought about him many times over the years, I think about how my life would have turned out, how we would be married now, how we would probably have a houseful of kids together, like every dutiful patriarchal privileged woman, I would simply be a Tai Tai (rich housewife), my life would be that of a youthful stay at home soccer mom and call it my entire life.
I ponder how sure I knew he would make an excellent dad then and if we would still be in love today? I grief how this certainty was elusive to me until these last few years, until I met someone EVEN more special than him, never would I have imagined it was possible.
I thought often that THAT was it whenever I felt down about romance, I missed my one chance at lifelong happiness, I was cynical.
Then, I desperately wanted to be able to love him enough to marry him, a part of me sense something was wrong, even though I couldn't confirm it then, this nagging doubt that won't go away haunted me. I knew I can't reciprocate like him, I felt I wasn't good enough for him because of that, he would always love me more and that would be unfair to him.
Not that I thought he would mind even if I told him, he knew I loved him enough, he never once complained, it's that I minded not having a part of me being seen, I know that when I knew I was a lesbian during my early twenties, a few years after we broke up.
When I got my first girlfriend, something clicked inside me, I understood what I was missing.
The photos showed me the time I surprised him with a Gorilla sing-a-gram for this birthday and he LOVED it, he was smiling so happily, his light was shining and he was at peace, he had his Buddha game face on and he looked amazing!
I like to think I contributed to his life as well, I made him remember me as much as I remember him. The photos he took of me were so beautiful, I was so young and free, I felt dynamic and strong, I remember the way I was around him, how he uplifted my life, his attitude rubbed off on me for sure. It was also that I did love him dearly, I just didn't want to have sex with him and that was a deal breaker for a romance.
I met a lesbian who was similar to the best parts of him a few years ago and didn't understand why I had so much difficulty accepting all of her, it was my grief for him that impeded me, I was able to rationalise how it wasn't her fault, it was me doing it, I was careful not to project my issues onto her, yet I didn't pinpoint it to this.
Doing this is so I would be able to deepen my relationship with her as well so there's a forward motivation to it all. Even if you're in a loving relationship now, without processing the past, there will be a part of us that's hidden away from ourselves, not to mention puzzle the heck out of our partners when we get emotional about things that shouldn't matter but do.
I also saw how simple and wholesome I was as a teen, I dressed simply, not into make up, simple hair and simple dressing, I wasn't anywhere close to fat but in my head until recent years, I was ugly, I was weird, I was wrong, I wasn't the female ideal, I didn't do girl things, I didn't wait around for a man, I didn't make my life about which men liked me.
I knew I wasn't like other girls, it doesn't make me better or worse than them, it's like making a declaration a chair is a chair, that's how I saw it then and now.
I often secretly felt confused why anyone would want to be in a relationship with me ever, even though I had queues up and down the block, my inner critic didn't allow me to believe I was indeed attractive, I was indeed loveable.
Sometimes the grief can come from the agony of others seeing us through the lens of a rigid social hierarchy that we never bought into and we think completely opposite of ourselves inside our heads, that discrepancy made worse by lay people offering us unsolicited advice that's often wrong and makes us feel worse, the pressure of people unable to care enough to give us space to process is stifling, it brings us down further.
Sometimes I do wonder if I wasted the best years of my life staying stuck in trauma, I didn't actively date, I didn't make romance a priority, I didn't dress up to attract people, I don't even know how to really really use make up until now, I DO NOT LIKE MAKE UP AT ALL! But that is a patriarchal requirement for women!
I don't know how to flirt, how to intentionally land the eligible bachelor so called, when girls my age were goo goo ga ga about boys, I felt alienated, I didn't pegged my worth to that. I tried asking 1 person out my entire life and I was unceremoniously rejected. ROMANCE IS HARD, DATING IS HARD, when your pool is so much smaller, it's even harder, my heart goes out to LGBTQ+ people out there, it's HARD!
Prince Charming fell on my path when Cinderellas were desperately searching for someone like him and I was a non fairytale believer lesbian, what a cosmic plot twist!
I hope he's happy now, I hope he found someone special, I feel sorry I can't be who he wanted me to be, even thought I think it's still the right choice I made.
That's the pesky thing about choice, we can still revisit our choices and ponder on them, trying to pressure ourselves to draw a life lesson out of the past ASAP when the answers reveal themselves to us naturally when we're ready.
We have to do the inner work of sitting with them and filtering them down, add in knowledge to make sense of them, we however cannot rush a process along, it will happen when it does.
When we learn more about who we're, for example knowing I had CPTSD changed the entire lens of how I viewed myself, revamping myself meant I also had to grief how I lost opportunities, people, time, even some memories due to problems of long term memory retention related to trauma.
Things like forgetting someone's name can come with much judgement of moral incorrectness, when I simply was terrible at retaining names because I couldn't store them well, not because I was impolite, careless with other people's wellbeing like many who admonished me assumed I was.
I also have to grief how drastically misunderstood I was and how I always blamed myself due to lack of trauma related knowledge throughout my life. But, no one innately knows how to deal with trauma, this is a popular misconception, a patriarchal one placed especially on women I believe, ALL of my knowledge is learned, being a good caregiver to myself and others is earned merit, it is labour, I wasn't innately good at any of it.
I do think I would have been happy with him if I married him, that shows me how lasting the influence of a good person can be, that glitch at the end was him being as young and as confused as I was, we both couldn't pinpoint way, he just assumed I didn't love him enough and I thought so as well.
I thrive to be that kind of person too, the kind that people will look back and remember fondly, I generally have a good reputation within my inner circle so I'm proud of myself.
I'm not perfect for sure and I openly admitted this many times, I did lash out at different people when they pressured me beyond what my limits can handle, the problem is I had a misdiagnosis so I can't manage something when the first step was already wrong, I just felt lost and ashamed, stupid and useless.
Some people push us to corners, sabotage our efforts to overcome, abandon us and then expect us not to break, that's an impossible ask!
I feel guilt ridden about those times, a few of them replay in my head occasionally, even thought I know full well I'm still far kinder and far more helpful than most people, by itself it isn't enough to make intrusive thoughts stop when grieve comes in.
Sometimes doing much more for others isn't the solution we need, we need to address our guilt and set it down. By giving ourselves space to breathe, space to heal, we become better helpers anyway, so either road leads to Rome, we can also share what works for us, we have unique ways to heal, survivors have a variety of reactions to trauma, our own ways to cope, that is helping too.
Guilt need not come from doing something wrong per say, like my workaholic perfectionist over achieving old self, it's pushing beyond my limits and not tuning into how distressed I really was inside, avoiding my pain and justifying it by my career performance, how I convinced myself I was a strong person that didn't need to self care or be taken care of, I can travel alone, stand alone and live alone.
I just felt lonely instead.
Amongst the photos were also people that were way too complicated for my naive CPTSD self, who only knew how to live within the confines of what their born into social stations taught them, I was always catching up to their street smarts and they ever got how wealth privilege didn't make up for when I was injured, it didn't compensate for it at all. It gave me more accessibility but it was still my effort, time, money and life spent on it, it has value and it has meaning to me, I lost a large part of my life to trauma and I'm still not having it "bad enough" to deserve their empathy?
Career success and inherited wealth cannot make up for my childhood history, any kind of adult life crisis whatsoever, it doesn't work like that. They think wealth is such a great perfect insulator, it's capable of shielding them from all of life's suffering, it isn't and it doesn't! They just refuse to listen though, they just think I'm self indulgent instead so I just shut up now, why incur their projections?
I was way more wounded than them deep inside, even if I was never as dishonest or never had a defeatist mentality like them, them being envious of me just felt wrong, vaguely wrong then, I didn't love myself enough to be angry at them, now I have to deal with what I suppressed anyway.
Knowing it wasn't genuine love on my end that made me enmesh with several people is also filled with guilt, it was a result of trauma that drove me into their arms, our friendships weren't based on authenticity, it was empty and disconnected, it was more about having the same upbringing or the same life experiences, it was never about the ability to connect deeper to each other.
Even though I doubt they ever took ownership of their pain like I did and probably never will, it doesn't automatically make me feel better about myself, what it does is give me another excuse not to give myself permission to grief and I want to process it, I NEED to process it.
2020 hit me hard, like a lot of survivors, I was experiencing survivor guilt on an exponential level, by November, I was burning out.
Decluttering my home is part of letting go, I can control a room, I can't control how the pandemic affected domestic violence survivors or metoo survivors, I did all I could, it will never be enough enough, it will always be too little and sometimes too little too late, I need to forgive myself for feeling I let down people I don't really have a relationship with.
So, if you're reading this, I hope you give yourself permission to grief, to know we all have our own pace, we move on when we're ready.
Even if we're not 100% ready, it doesn't mean we cannot have new relationships either, we can seize the day, gain knowledge how to grief, seek solace with people who go through the same things, live fully in the present moment and deal with it as it comes.
Eshet chayil, God is a She.
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