Grief Comes Before Growth

Many years ago, while running what would be my first full 10K loop around Central Park, I complained of a side stitch to my mentor. He coached me to slow down my pace and try to breathe through it instead of taking it as a cue to stop and rest. Then, as we got through the hills coming down from Harlem on the West Side, my knee started to hurt. "Don't worry. The more you run, you'll be able to figure out what's normal pain and what's a real injury." He was talking about running, but I immediately connected his comment to the real injury I needed to attend to.

Turns out, knowing what we need to heal is not that straightforward, especially when our minds can be so adept at finding ways to numb our pain or distract us from it. While human societies have worked out rituals to guide us through one of our most common injuries -- death of a loved one -- for many others, we have no rituals that allow the community to come in for a collective embrace so to speak, no guides. Many women never get a chance to grieve miscarriages or the loss of their old life, identity and body when they do enter motherhood; they do get baby showers though. For trauma survivors, there's the loss of core, stabilizing beliefs. For those who endure institutional abuse, there's the additional loss of an entire community.

I finally got around to watching Unorthodox on Netflix last night (I was missing Berlin, both the city my friends), and was inspired by the main character Esty's strength. Esty grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg, NY, but one year into that marriage, she gets on a plane to Berlin alone. [Spoilers after the trailer]

Esty was raised to be a good Orthodox Jewish woman (get married and have lots of kids) by her paternal grandmother and aunt. She has been told that her mother left her when she was 3, and she does not want to be like her mother, the source of her suffering. But while the stories we're told as children are often black and white, a large part of growing up is learning to adjust our eyes to see greyscale, and then make the leap into Technicolor and advance to all the Pantone shades. But with each leap in understanding, there is a loss.

Watching my nieces navigate from newborn to toddlerhood to childhood is a case in point. There is always a resistance to the loss of being the center of the parents' attention and having one's every whim catered to even as they seek to gain the skills that will give them the sense of agency and independence that they so desire.

As we grow older, growth requires grappling with different kinds of losses. Just this morning, I was reading a family member's post about experiencing long-term loss of taste and smell even 6 months after recovering from Covid and how she is struggling with the feelings of emptiness and sadness that has taken over what was once so central to her identity -- the joy of cooking for, feeding, and sharing a meal with the people she loves.

In these disruptive times, we are all feeling the loss of a sense of security and predictability from being able to make plans and have faith in being able to execute them. Some of us may experience a loss of identity from realizing we are not the people others have told us we are/we thought we were, or the loss of community from the resistance we encounter when we try to grow beyond the roles and expectations our communities have prescribed for us, or the loss of our chance to grow into our full self if we do choose to conform.

In Unorthodox Esty is given a gun by the man tasked to bring her back to the community. He tells her that he isn't going to shoot her, but if she leaves she will end up shooting herself because she will realize that she won't be able to survive without the community. This, of course, is not true. And this is a true story based on the memoir written by Deborah Feldman, Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hassidic Roots.

In her portrayal of Esty, actress Shira Haas conveys the strength and courage required to let go of what needs to be let go beautifully. The story reveals the gains: that feeling of freedom, that inner space for joy, that blossoming of self and the clarity that comes with it.

Less easy to portray is the messy process of grieving beyond tears and expressions of anger. Grief saps energy even though we feel like we have nothing to show for this massive expenditure of energy. In the early days, I used to feel ashamed of my seeming lack of productivity, which only slowed my progress, because I was wasting energy resisting what I needed to do.

Most people intuitively know how to grieve. Some take up gardening, some go on long hikes, some write, some make furniture, some paint, some spend time in museums (here's a beautiful meditation on grief through The Met's paintings by Andrea Bayer, Curator of European Art, who had recently lost both her parents), some sing, some listen to music or learn to play a new instrument, some play a team sport, some join a church or a support group. And some simply do nothing. Where many stumble is in giving themselves permission to grieve.

Ultimately, grieving is an exercise in listening to our heart's needs and desires. It's in honoring and meeting those needs that we gain the confidence to blossom, branch out, and grow in our desired direction.

Photo Credit: Banksy's There is Always Hope in South Bank (2002) by Dominic Robinson from Bristol, UK / CC BY-SA

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