I have a new friend. Actually, she is my sister that I simply hadn’t met before. She is a little younger than me in human years, but she is a newborn in grief years, which is a whole different way to measure time.
We are born into grief, screaming, kicking, crying. We left the safe womb of a life without grief into a world with lights too bright, sensations assaulting us we never experienced and everything we knew, everything familiar, everything we took for granted is suddenly ripped away.
There are loving arms to catch us, but even those that were most familiar are now foreign because we experience them from the outside. Because we are now outside our previous existence. We have to figure out how to maintain our own body temperature, how to receive comfort and sustenance in ways we never did before. Sure, we’re built for this. We have instincts that make us turn our faces seeking that sustenance, but it takes a little while to get used to this new way.
We experience hunger for the first time, and it is terrible and frightening. Before, everything we needed to fill us was simply there. Now, we’re afraid each time we feel empty that we will never be full. We’re not even sure what full feels like because the hunger, the emptiness keeps coming back. So, we cry, kick and scream. Even when we have received what we need to exist, it’s not the same and the process was exhausting, so we sleep.
Sometimes, we cry, kick and scream not because we’re hungry. We’re crying because we need to be held, to be comforted, to feel connected. We’re seeking that all-encompassing security that was our existence before we were born. As much as it helps to be held, cradled and cuddled, it’s a substitute, an imitation of the comfort that is no longer accessible. In time, we learn to accept that this new connectedness is good, is sufficient. Still, because we remember what was, it is not the same and can never be enough.
As the calendar marches on, we learn how to be separate from and disconnect from that memory of perfect, peaceful existence. In time, we forget what that even felt like, but enough of the memory exists, causing us to yearn for something we can’t quite recall.
Then, we start to explore this new world. We learn to stand, and to walk, and to communicate our needs. We see the places we want to go, the things we want to grab on to, but they are frustratingly just out of reach, over our heads. We’re stymied, seeing things ahead we want but our paths are blocked by things heavier than we can move.
After a long day of trying, of being frustrated with the needing we don’t yet know how to express, we breakdown. Often, it is over the thing someone else has or we perceive they have. Sometimes, it is something trivial, like the wrong color of napkin, or the peas are too close to the carrots on our plate. When others attempt to comfort us with something we normally love, something that soothes us when we aren’t in a meltdown, we’re not satisfied which makes us feel even worse. So we are sent to bed, to sleep, to rest.
As time passes, based on which of those needs were met and how, we develop our likes and dislikes, our tolerances and intolerances, our coping skills or lack thereof. Those things we didn’t learn in that early part of our development may never exist. Everything will forever be unfamiliar and unsatisfying, and frightening, and so daunting we become paralyzed and stagnant.
An infant that is not held doesn’t develop the ability to bond. They may fail to thrive, and they may die. A child that is never spoken to, never hears language will never learn to speak as those pathways in the brain were never connected. That child who never learned to communicate will forever exist locked within themselves. A child who never learns to walk will not develop the muscles, the balance and coordination to run.
At each stage there are certain tasks, both internal and external, that must be experienced and mastered, no matter how painful or frightening the process. More importantly, each must be met and addressed in it’s time. We cannot run before we learn to walk, and we cannot walk until we discover those things attached to the ends of our legs are ours and under our control.
Those things had no use, were just there in our previous existence. Now, they are what will carry us forward in life. In our previous existence, communication happened naturally and without thought or effort our most basic needs were met. Now, we have to learn what these new, sometimes painful sensations mean, and how to get them addressed and satiated. We have to learn these new feelings constantly return and remember they will be answered, and accept it will never be it was before we were born into this new existence. It will always be an incomplete substitute, but there is no going back. We can never return to the womb.
This is the journey of grief.
To my newborn sister, your older siblings are here for you. We’ll boost you up to reach those things above your head, even those above your line of sight. We’ll help you navigate around, over or lend our practiced muscles to move those too heavy things blocking your path. We’ll hold you as you discover your feet. When you take your first faltering steps and fall down hard, we’ll comfort you and encourage you to take your time as you try again. We will celebrate with you the exuberance of learning to run. And we’ll understand your meltdown is just that you’re worn out from a day of being frustrated by trying and trying and trying for every little thing, and just need to rest.
Little sister, it’s a scary and unfamiliar world you’ve been born into. Take our hands and walk with us. Don’t judge yourself by what your older siblings do, how they handle the tasks you didn't know existed before you were born into this world. Remember they too had to learn, step by step. They too fell down, had meltdowns and were horribly, horribly frightened at the prospect of navigating this path. Sometimes, they still fall. Sometimes, they still cry and can’t get up right away. But they do, because experience has taught them. Until your experience teaches you, trust that it will come.