Grief: noun 1. A keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss; sharp sorrow; painful regret.

As I sat across the table from a large group of people who were all there for the grim purpose of working through grief, I wasn’t as much surprised by the fact that I was the youngest one there as I was disappointed in myself. Here was this group of grieving older people around me and I never knew! People who’d lived a lot more life than me and were struggling through the loss of spouses, parents and even children. People who smiled at me at church on Sunday, all the while carrying an inner sorrow I couldn’t comprehend.

Like only the young can, I’ve ignored the concept of grief as often as possible. I’ve lost a few loved ones throughout my life and walked away from those losses with relatively little pain. It’s not that I didn’t love the ones I lost, it’s just that life went on and they were several degrees separated from the daily world in which I lived. I cried, I missed them and then I got over it.

As cold as that appears typed in black and white, I think it’s true of the young. We expect to lose a grandparent or some other distant relative; we kind of know how to cope with that, how to compartmentalize that loss so that we can move forward at our society’s fast and furious pace. Grieving an even somewhat expected loss is so often thrown in with the daily grind of our lives that it becomes something we multi-task.

Oh, yeah. It’s the anniversary of Grandma’s death. We should go place some flowers on the grave after Tommy’s soccer game.

And so, for those of us who deftly ignore grief in its various forms, it can blindside us when the gavel drops and it’s finally our turn to suffer a loss that can’t be compartmentalized or multi-tasked away.

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Until grief entered my world, like a slow-rolling cloud of smoke working its way under the door jamb of my life, it’s sinister, smoky tendrils creeping through the cracks and crevices until it filled the room, I didn’t know much about it. Now that I’ve been choked by it for a while, and forced to find the windows that lead to fresh air, I’ve learned a thing or two.

The thing about grief is…

~ A person’s grief is theirs alone. Though it’s a common human experience, it’s also completely unique. In other words, no two people share the exact same grief experience, even if their losses are similar. This is important to remember because folks like to compare and contrast and it can be taxing – or even downright devastating – to the bereaved.

~ It will come for you. Being young, in good health, with a relatively successful life does not protect you or exempt you from grief. All of those qualities may (or may not) help you endure and overcome grief, but loss will come knocking at your door. The young would be wise to sit across the table from those older and more experienced before their own loss comes, before they are in the trench of grief, and when they can learn some things that will make their own path easier.

~ It hurts like hell. It hurts at unexpected moments, at inopportune times. The pain may be constant or it may ebb and flow. You’ll find yourself living paradoxically, experiencing joy and sorrow deeply and simultaneously. The pain can make a person feel abnormal as if the disfigurement of their heart is an aberration that can be seen from outside. There’s nothing to be done about this; it must be waited out and worked out in patience. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “There is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it.”

~ The problem with people.  People will try to help with the pain. Sometimes they’ll succeed and sometimes they’ll make it worse. Platitudes seem to be a curse the bereaved must endure. People just don’t know what to say or do and this may translate into callousness or shallowness. At times, it may require confrontation; but, most of the time, it’s best just to extend grace. Usually, folks just want to make it better for you and they don’t realize how impossible that is to do.

~ It won’t be rushed. No, not even for you. It doesn’t matter how much you have going on or what others’ expectations are of you. Grief will not be dictated to by your schedule. It will linger, and linger, and linger until you have worked through it. And if you choose not to work through it, to roll over and pretend the smoke isn’t filling the room? Then, in a million ways, you’ll be poisoned.

I wish I could tell you more and, especially, that it gets better. But I haven’t gotten that part yet. Right now, every day is filled with the usual things – some joy, some contentment, some sin, some forgiveness, some grace, some tedium. But every day also contains the rancor of grief. I’m still thrusting my head out of the window, gulping in fresh air any chance I get; but I haven’t climbed out of the smoke-filled room and in to the bright sun just yet.

I guess there is one more thing I’ve learned about grief, after all. And it’s that the fresh air I’m gulping is all the sweeter for the smoke that threatened me. The taste of coffee in the morning, the softness of my pillow at night; the laugh of my friend and the wind against my face when I walk; even the memories of my sister, though they stab me like a knife, are more precious to me than ever as I hold onto them with an utterly grateful heart.