Like a photograph, the day I decided to leave my husband is etched permanently in my mind.
We stood on some nondescript path in Spain and hugged each other goodbye. I held him like I could somehow contain all our 12 years together and lock that time away as though it was some tangible, consumable object.
We made one last silent vow as our eyes locked, our hands parted and we walked away from each other.
I didn’t look back.
I couldn’t because I felt like I was leaving limbs behind and I didn’t want to know if that was the reality. I felt myself shrink and explode simultaneously. I floated while my feet pounded the ground, reminding myself that my physical body was still present and required movement in one direction only—forward.
He later told me that he’d turned around and hollered my name, to tell me not to go but to join him instead on his journey. That we could stick with our original plan, made when we left our home to travel two years before.
I might have stayed if I had heard him.
I might have relented and given up the fight against myself to search for that elusive thing my soul craved—the journey towards myself. The fight that insisted I walk away from the man who’d been my life for so long.
This was the start of our grief, his sudden change of mind, his desperate plea, my inability to look back.
And grieving is a long process.
I think we most often associate grief with death, but conceptually death happens in many forms.
Anything coming to an end is death, and paradoxically, an ending can happen over and over again in wild gusts. Just when we think the storm is over, the wind knocks us to our knees, leaving us a shattered mess at the side of an abandoned road. And the very thing that held us together for so long is the reason we are where we are in that moment.
Grief ensures that the end will start all over again every day we wake for a very long time.
Thankfully, I’m a rookie in the world of grief.
I’m sure there are terrible kinds of grief for which I’m fortunate I’ll never have to experience. But I am painfully intimate with the kind of grief I felt when I intentionally walked away from the person that knows me better than I know myself, that gathered up and loved all my bits and pieces during the time I fell apart, that celebrated me every single day.
I wonder if grief is more intense when the loss is intentional, when we’ve made a conscious, struggled decision to end something because we know it needs to end, against all the desires of our heart, mind and body.
Intuition stakes claim where it hasn’t been invited and it manifests, grows like stinkweed when it’s ignored until we’ve no choice but to notice it and do something about it. But it’s hard because we desire the very thing we know we have to let go of.
And we wish things were different.
This may be the core of grief’s restlessness—wanting to want something because it appears perfect in every way, but knowing nothing in the world will ever make it feel right.
This is suffering, allowing a desire for the impossible rape the quiet corners of our life while we watch like a helpless victim hoping it might somehow all be okay in the end.
How long do we permit grief to stay? Does it pack its things and leave quietly in the middle of the night? Or do we throw its things over the railing and watch remorsefully as they fall, knowing that pushing it to leave will only intensify it?
Because here’s the thing about grief or any uncomfortable emotion—the more we resist it, the stronger it becomes.
Fighting against it does not make us stronger, it chips away at us little by little. Fighting it makes us judge and resent ourselves. Sometimes we have to give into it and let it swallow us whole.
When we’re that shattered, abandoned mess, we need to be swallowed because it’s the only way for renewal. Only darkness can show us the stars after all.
I acquiesced grief. I allowed it to stay a long time. And then one day it went quietly away and a lightness settled in my life. But it revisits me on occasion and I realise that just like the stinkweed in a garden, grief likes to make surprise appearances and disrupt my healing heart.
When I hear a certain song, read a poignant phrase or see an expression that burns right through to my gut, I feel grief’s heavy bag drop down beside me. But I realise, like that stinkweed, it has a purpose and that is to heal me. To preserve my softness and vulnerability and remind me that I experienced something beautiful in my life, worthy of such emotion.
So what if I think about it like this?
I earned this sorrow that comes with grief. It taught me that my strength is limitless. It connected me to other people as I reached out to ease my suffering.
Perhaps now I can stop resisting and dismissing grief. I can acknowledge it, quietly accept it, let it weave itself into the tapestry of my daily life, allow it to stay.
I wonder if that’s how grief eventually ends, by letting it be.
Author: Colleen Thornton
Apprentice Editor: Brandie Smith/Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Courtesy of the Author