Grief. It’s been nearly 14 years since Emma died, long enough that I have to mentally do the math every time anyone asks me. It doesn’t feel completely true to say I’m still grieving the loss of my daughter, but there are definitely still times of grief. Times of sadness, times of confusion, times of anxiety. A few years ago, I had one therapist talk to me for five minutes and tell me that I still had some grieving to do, which was an idea that I rejected in the moment because I was sure I had reached acceptance. I’m realizing now that she may have known more than I gave her credit for.
In my EMDR session last week, my therapist illustrated grief for me with this diagram:
That little double-ended arrow next to acceptance is the most empowering part of this image for me. Grief is a journey. You can reach acceptance and still have times of slipping back into the cycle of anger, sadness and anxiety. And that’s considered normal. This was freeing for me to know, because my EMDR session was on Emma. And it was rough.
There’s a piece of her story that I have never shared publicly, a part that still holds a lot of questions for me and is linked to some self-blaming and shame. Most of the time that piece is safely tucked away beneath my consciousness, but in times of turmoil, when I slip back into the grief cycle, I sometimes get stuck in the anxiety stage (Anxiety is the stage that has sometimes been labelled bargaining. I find that the word anxiety resonates with me more, and still gets across the idea of our tendency to ask “what if”). I get pulled right back to the part of the story that I’ve never been able to completely accept. It is one small moment of one day where I made a choice, the consequences of which I worry may have negatively affected my daughter’s health. It’s a memory that will never have complete answers for me because there is no way to know exactly how this one event affected things, so to accept this part of the story means to accept the unknown. And instead of accepting it, I continue to ask, “What if? What if I had done something different on that day? Would the story have still ended up the same way?”
In my session on Monday, my therapist uttered the most powerful statement I’ve ever heard in relation to that one piece. She said, “The truth is that even though you’ll never have the answers to that question, there is most likely nothing you could have done that would have saved your daughter’s life.” As soon as she said it, something clicked. By focusing on the one moment where I failed her, I have avoided grieving the deep harsh truth that there is no way I could have saved my daughter’s life. I held no such power. In almost every other moment of her life I gave her everything I possibly could. And it wasn’t enough, and that really sucks.
I find myself now, bumping around in that grief cycle once again. But it’s different now as I try to name and acknowledge the grief of powerlessness. Grief is such a tricky thing. It’s not just sadness, but the need to be sad. It’s not just circumstantial, but comes and goes from your core. Grief means looking at the world around you and seeing how dark it actually is. Grieving Emma’s death yet again isn’t just grieving one event or one life or one loss. It connects to all sorts of other losses, and speaks to me in echoes of a broken world.
When I returned to EMDR this week, I was hesitant to delve into this. Christmas is coming. I want to focus on happy things, gift giving, plans for the break, work that I want to get done before the kids are off school. I thought that this was a bad time for my grief. But my therapist encouraged me to be intentional this week at facing the grief and feeling it. I can’t magically skip ahead to the acceptance stage, I have to be in the dark for awhile. She told me that it won’t be easy, but to face it now, when my body and mind are telling me they are ready, will result in a quicker, smoother process overall. I left the appointment with greater intention to do what needs to be done this week, rather than avoid it. And, as I reflected on this, I realized that the darkness of Advent is the perfect time to process grief. In Advent we get the chance to acknowledge the brokenness of both ourselves and the world around us. This is the time to “sit in the shit,” as my therapist says, so that we remember what hope is for. After all, resilience and health are built by descending into the pit of despair, disappointment, heartbreak and hopelessness and then climbing back out over and over again.
If that doesn’t sound like Advent as you know it, perhaps it is time to reclaim it. Some find their hope in the declaration that Jesus is coming! Christmas, for these people, is a time to reaffirm their faith in the hope of an external Savior who came once to save us and will come yet again. For these people, Advent is basically waiting, waiting for someone else to do something.
I personally think a hope in an external Savior is misplaced. What if true salvation cannot come from outside our world, but only from within? If this is the way we view salvation, then Christmas is a celebration not of the coming of God, but the realization that he was here all along. Emmanuel–God with us! What if every single one of us, no matter who we are, has the potential to be both a giver and receiver of salvation? Our ability to do either of those things will be increased by our willingness to spend time in the darkness of Advent. Because if we are the ones who are called to do something about the brokenness, we need to know it intimately.
I encourage you this Advent to take time to name the brokenness in yourself and in the world around you. Let’s acknowledge the darkness of this world, so that when Christmas comes we will each light the candle that we hold, see once again the saviors that live among us, and work together to build the steps of hope to bring us out of the darkness and into the light.