It’s been three years since my daughter’s death and I think I do a pretty good job of keeping my grief in check. It seems that I keep all my grief in what I call a “heart shaped-box.” It’s that place in my heart where I keep all my Gianna things: my tears, our memories, my trauma, signs of her presence, my sadness. In a word, it’s where I keep my GRIEF. It’s a sacred, messy box, full of things that cause me pain. But it is HER. It is what I have left of my daughter so it is worth the pain. I think the farther one gets from the death of a loved one, that is how grief becomes. It gets tucked away in our secret spot because frankly, we have to survive and keep on going with life. I know I have times and places where I can take out my heart-shaped box and open it. There are safe spaces where I feel comfortable doing so: at therapy, talking with my husband, when I am alone at home, during my time of journaling, writing, or meditating. But in order to keep up with life, it is easier and almost necessary to keep that box tucked away. It is too emotional and draining to pull it out all the time or to have it staring at me in the face all day.
But then there are times when I don’t want to take out the box, yet it has been opened unwittingly and it is staring me down. Its contents are pouring out all over the place and I have no control of what is happening. I find myself swept up in memories and tears again. Ugh. Why is this happening? Why is something that I had under control now blindsiding me?
This is what I call a “grief burst.” I think we’ve all had a similar experience at the ocean.
Anyone who has been to the ocean knows that swimming in it can be chaotic, and it’s waves unbridled. The water near the coast can seem harmless but as you wade out further, you have less traction against the oncoming waves. I’m sure you’ve experienced it. You are happily wading in the ocean; the water is about waist deep. You can touch the bottom and don’t seem too worried. Then out of the blue a wave comes crashing into you, knocking you over and sweeping you off your feet. You are pulled into the wave and spun around and around, unable to do anything except “roll with it.” The wave takes its course and you finally come up for air, albeit with sand in every corner of your swimming suit.
Someone experiencing grief bursts can feel the same. It comes without warning. You don’t have time to prepare. Sometimes it is triggered by something you heard, saw, or read but other times, it comes unexpectedly. You start feeling the wave of grief swell and come crashing into you, knocking you onto the floor and spinning you around and around. Overwhelming surges of emotion come at unexpected and often “untimely” moments. Memories, feelings of sadness, anger, melancholy, and loneliness flood your mind and heart and you have very little control. Grief comes bursting into your mind and heart and didn’t knock or ask permission to enter.
In the first two years after Gianna’s death, grief bursts came often and lasted a long time. I felt like, especially in the first year, that is how I spent most of my days – trying to manage my grief bursts and looking for distractions from them. They would last hours and completely exhaust me. My grief was uncontainable and all encompassing. I had very little control. My mind and heart needed to process my daughter’s death.
As time progressed, they started to get better. And by better, I mean less often and of a shorter duration. But every year around the same time, the closer I get to Gianna’s birthday and death-aversary, the more grief bursts I experience. I think I am doing fine and then one day out of the blue, the wave of grief crashes into me and knocks me over for a bit. It is usually because the memories of her are more present in the months leading up to her birthday. But often times, I find myself sad and grieving not knowing what triggered it.
I know that grief bursts are something that I will be facing for the rest of my life. But however and whenever the grief bursts may come, they are sacred. Although inconvenient and painful, they bring me memories and messages of HER. And although woven in pain and tears, her image appears in a beautiful tapestry that I would not have otherwise. And her image reminds me that there is beauty in loving and losing, because in that, I have gained a moment with her.