April 12, 2022

The Truth about Grief & Pain that we Try so Hard to Ignore.

*Warning: well-deserved strong language ahead!

Back in 2007, I fell in love with a book—a book that (weirdly) I wish I had written.

It was Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rob Sheffield, who was then and is still now one of my favorite pop culture critics and music journalists.

The book is a memoir that combines Sheffield’s love of music with the love he shared with Renee, the woman he fell hard for, married, and was then left to grieve after she died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism in 1997. What I love about this book is that he tells their love story through music, through the mixtapes he made for Renee and the songs that defined their life together.

As someone who thinks in song lyrics and grew up with album covers and music posters on my wall and who still has boxes of mixtapes taking up space in my parents’ garage, I was a little jealous that I hadn’t thought of the idea first.

But what I wasn’t jealous of was the level of loss and grief Sheffield waded through in each chapter.

At that point in my life, I had stumbled through the heartbreak that comes with losing your first real love—but to a breakup, not to death. At that point in my life, my experience with death was limited and peripheral.

I remember sitting on an Amtrak train headed home from New York one night, the tiny overhead light illuminating the words on the page as the rain fell hard outside and I tried to imagine what it would be like to lose someone you love so permanently. To face the kind of heartache that death inevitably brings with it. But at that moment, I couldn’t fathom that reality—all I had to go on were Sheffield’s words.

Since that night on the train, I’ve dealt with more grief and loss than I can fit on a page. Death has overstayed its welcome on more than one occasion, and while I’ve tried to find meaning in my moments of grief, sometimes I come up empty-handed.

I recently ran across a portion of a quote from Love is a Mix Tape and quickly went to my bookshelf to search for the full thing. It perfectly describes how grief and pain feel on the bad days, the sad days, the days when it hits you that you’re still here and they’re still not:

“Ralph Waldo Emerson knew the score: ‘I grieve that grief can teach me nothing.’ That’s from ‘Experience,’ his late essay about human loss and his son’s death. There’s a lot of cold-blooded shit in that essay, and the winter after Renee died, I read it over and over. I always had to stop to butt my head against that sentence: ‘I grieve that grief can teach me nothing.’ I was hoping that was a lie. But it wasn’t.

Whatever I learn from this grief, none of it will take me any closer to what I want, which is Renee, who is gone forever. None of my tears will bring her closer to me. I can fit other things into the space she used to occupy, but whether I choose to do that, her absence from that space is permanent. No matter how good I get at being Renee’s widower, I won’t get promoted to being her husband again. The loss doesn’t go away—it just gets bigger the longer you look at it.

It’s the same with people who say, ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Even people who say this must realize that the exact opposite is true. What doesn’t kill you maims you, cripples you, leaves you weak, makes you whiny and full of yourself at times. The more pain, the more pompous you get. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you incredibly annoying.”

We have hundreds of articles about grief and pain and loss on Elephant. I’ve edited many of them, and probably even wrote a few, but what I’ve learned about grief and pain is that some days there’s nothing left to learn. Some days, you’re just grieving. Some days, you’re just in pain. Some days, it all just fucking hurts.

I think that too often we avoid this truth because it’s ugly and inconvenient. We try to overlook or ignore the fact that sometimes pain is just meant to be painful. Pain is meant to be felt—not examined or rationalized or painted over with toxic positivity.

And some days, our pain and loss and grief leave us feeling weak and broken, and, as Sheffield said, incredibly annoying, because we’re not trying to hide them or gloss over them or make it all better for our sake or anyone else’s. We’re just in it, and that shit can get messy.

So, this isn’t me telling you that your pain will one day be healed. Or that your loss won’t always feel like an unexpected punch in the gut. Or that there’s a profound lesson waiting for you in your grief. This is me telling you that if you’re having a bad day, a sad day, a day where grief and pain and loss feel like they’re gnawing at your skin, let them. Accept that you’re in the mess.

Then remind yourself that, like with every other emotion, this too shall pass.

And if that doesn’t help, just put on your favorite mixtape and take life one song at a time.


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