Today we're welcoming WYG mental health intern Patricia Cole with a guest article about her personal story of growth through grief.
A personal story of growing up through major loss and coming out the other side.
The transition from adolescence to young adulthood can be a season of trials and tribulations. Aside from the many biological changes that occur during this time, it is a period of major transition and identity formation. Needless to say puberty is uncomfortable and figuring out what you want to do with your life is a daunting task for everyone. At twenty-two, I’m no stranger to these experiences. But like many, I’ve also had to develop into who I am today alongside major loss and more than a truckload of grief.
I often half-heartedly joke that the theme song to my existence would be “Hard Knock Life” from the musical Annie, but there is a sprinkle of honesty there. At the age of eleven I found myself attending my first funeral. My father passed away unexpectedly at the age of fifty-five leaving my mother, brother and I to brave the world without him. I continued on through my preteen years confused but surprisingly unphased by the loss of my father. The ground I had to grow on was cracked but still remained stable.
But then, just four days into 2015, my mother unexpectedly passed away at age fifty-seven. I was fourteen years old and my world crumbled. The foundation I had to grow upon disappeared and my brother and I were now orphaned. Cue “Hard Knock Life”.
Growing Through It
With the support of friends, family and the dozens of frozen lasagnas delivered by loved ones I managed to make it through high school and achieved many academic successes. Again I appeared to seamlessly make my way through the world unphased by what some may find to be the loss of a lifetime. Rather than looking back and reflecting on all that I’d lost, I immediately began the process of rebuilding. I tried to outrun my grief (literally - I joined the track team).
I arrived at college confident in my abilities, “healed” from my losses and with an unwavering sense of self. I'd attended therapy and even an inpatient recovery program for my eating disorder shortly after my mother’s passing. At nineteen, I was now under the impression I had all the tools and resources I needed to take on the world and whatever hardships may come my way. Oh how wrong I was…
The truth is, my journey had just begun. For so long I had been under the impression that I was better off avoiding my grief. I taught myself I had to be ok, regardless of whether I truly was or not. Shortly after my twentieth birthday, I began breaking into crying spells followed by flash memories of my past life, the one where my parents were alive. I ignored them and blamed it all on stress and continued on for a few weeks this way. Eventually, they began to get in the way of my work and made for some awkward encounters at the local grocery store. Crying in the produce aisle wasn't a great look for me. Shortly after turning twenty, I sought therapy once more to find out what was going on with me. Although now it seems obvious, at the time I was clueless.
Revisiting The Past
Over the next year and a half I would focus solely on the repressed memories of my parents' deaths. I was healing something I did not know was broken. I learned that my blindness to my pain and grief was a defense mechanism and one that once served a purpose. Without it I may not have achieved the many academic and career successes I had during my high school and college careers.
That success didn’t stop me from finding a great deal of shame in my inability to recognize my habits and parts of me that I had been neglecting for so long. At twenty, however, I was now a functioning adult who had the time and space to begin this challenging work and let go of those defenses against grief that once served me. It took me a great deal of time to accept and even appreciate my body's natural ability to protect me during my teenage years so I could continue on with my life.
I have now gained acceptance for what I had to do in survival mode and am grateful that I have the tools to rebuild in a way that is conducive to my healing. I took on journaling, engaging in a daily self-care routine and finding ways to show up for myself in ways I wish my parents could. The process of revisiting a past I believed I had mended was painful, humbling and incredibly necessary.
I am aware that my ability to do this healing work on myself and attend therapy is a privilege and one that I am incredibly grateful for. I am still attending therapy and working to walk alongside my grief rather than run from it. My hope in sharing this story is to encourage others to explore their grief and minimize the shame in doing so. Whether it be journaling, looking at old photos and noticing what emotions come up or attending therapy/grief counseling, everyone deserves a chance to feel their grief and heal.
Grief can be an isolating process in the midst of major life changes and transitional times, and I want you to know you are not alone. Finding space and time to rest and heal is incredibly important for all and especially so for those who have experienced major loss at a young age. We all do as we must to survive, grow and process what we have lost and endured. Whatever time you choose to do the work is the right time and I wish you all the best as you embark on that journey.
We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.
We wrote a book!
After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.
You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books: