What’s It Feel Like?

As I read CS Lewis reflection on grief, he described it as feeling very much like ‘fear’.

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.

A Grief Observed p 1

I paused a moment there because I wasn’t feeling fear or anything similar (and I tend to agree with Lewis on a lot of stuff). That said, I found it difficult to articulate exactly what I was feeling. Intense grief is like?… I dunno – it’s like nothing I have experienced before…

Three months on and after immersing myself in both the experience of grief and the subject (via many books) I feel like I have a sense of how I would describe it – at this stage anyway…

Back in 2021 Danelle and I did our second ‘lap’ of Australia and this time managed to include Tasmania. While in Hobart we took a drive up the infamously, icy Mt Wellington and it lived up to expectations. It was insanely cold at the top.

My weather app said the temperature at the summit was 3 degrees but because of the ferocity of the wind it felt more like -17. I have no prior experience of -17 degree days, but I remember this day as ferocious – frightening even.

As we left the car, fully rugged up and walked to the lookout we were stunned at how crippling the wind was. It seemed to cut thru every part of our being and even with snow jackets on we could only bear its brunt for a few minutes.

Had we been unable to retreat to the visitor’s centre we would have been frozen within minutes. As I was describing my personal experience of grief to a friend recently this was the image that came to mind – being exposed to a force so terrifying it could tear you apart – but also having a space to retreat to, where you could get your bearings and recover while being present to the experience itself.

The sheer force of grief in the early days of Sam’s death was like the assault we felt on the top of the mountain – raging and destructive, an assault we simply had to experience and endure. I feel like I have moved unconsciously between the ‘outside’ and the ‘visitor’s centre’ – between the full force of grief and from a place of being sheltered from its power. I don’t think I’ve tried to hide or run from it – rather to simply acknowledge that it is there – but also realise I can’t endure its attack indefinitely.

The ‘shelter’ or ‘visitor’s centre’ in my experience have been friends, both from church and community who have come around and genuinely offered support. I have not felt alone in this at all – in fact at times I have felt somewhat overwhelmed with love and kindness. I could probably count 15-20 men who I have varying degrees of contact with who all have made the effort to connect and care. That has been a source of much strength and balm. No toxic masculinity here. And there have been wonderfully good women too – but less in my sphere than Danelle’s.

There are days when I have intentionally chosen to ‘step outside’ into the torment and to reflect purposefully and deeply on what has been lost in Sam’s death. There is so much – father/son friendship, future marriage and grandkids, his thinking and reflections of the world that challenged my own and so much more. In those times the emotion is fierce and while my capacity to stand in that space is limited, it feels important to step into that space from time to time and simply let it ‘assault’ me.

This weekend we are speaking at the Margaret River Baptist Church, a community we had hoped to be working amongst as pastors at this time – but Sam’s death meant we changed plans. We have postponed any pastoral work until such time as we are feeling more up to it. But as we went to book a campsite for the weekend, we spoke briefly of staying at the one we were at on our last visit – where we got the news – and the feeling in the pit of our stomach was definitely not yet. A whole flood of memories and emotions were unleashed just with that one thought. For a moment we were outside in the blasting wind.

As I have lived in this space there have been days at a time where I have felt quite ok – normal even. Plenty of work and exercise has kept me occupied so I haven’t been in ‘mope mode’, but I have also wanted to purposefully sit in the space and allow the experience to form and shape me in some way. I’m sure it will do that whether I like it or not – but I’m hopeful of it having some good outcomes rather than simply being destructive.

So if you don’t like the great man, CS Lewis’ description of immense grief then try mine on for size and see if it fits you better.

4 thoughts on “What’s It Feel Like?

  1. I agree that grief isn’t quite like fear, but – particularly early on – it’s much more like a physical assault. At a certain point after losing my daughter, perhaps after some months, I remember saying to someone that I wasn’t sure how I would physically endure it because it felt like someone was slowly ripping my skin off and tearing my body apart. I quite literally thought the heartbreak would physically kill me.

    Early on, another bereaved parent talked to me about post-traumatic growth, and how this is a possibility over time. 16 months on I’m not sure I’m quite there yet, but I know I am not the same person I used to be.

    A doctor listened to my story early on and said that grief like this moves you on to “a different plane of existence” and to not expect to feel the same as I used to because I simply couldn’t be the same person as I once was. A counsellor later told me that losing a child gives you a sort of ancient wisdom that not many people – aside from other bereaved parents – can really grasp. You simply don’t see your existence in the same way.

    In the past, I too struggled to be there for people after loss. I was empathic but I didn’t know what to do or say. I don’t blame myself for this now, because I think western societies are by and large grief illiterate. The emphasis is on moving on, moving past, even forgetting. Every bereaved parent I have spoken to over the last 16 months has said you never move on, you move with.

    You don’t learn to overcome grief, you learn how to live with and carry the grief. Some have described it as a storm, but then, in time, as a companion. On my better days, I want to invite it in and sit with it as it’s an opportunity to remember my daughter. On the hard days, it feels like I’m bruised and grazed, and all my nerve endings are raw. On the worst days, it feels like the storm is inside my body, and I can’t really describe it as anything else but just immense, all-encompassing pain.

    One of my husband’s coworkers lost her young son a couple of years ago. When she learned we had lost our daughter, she reached out to us and sent us a copy of a book that had helped her in the early months. It is called ‘Bearing the Unbearable’ by Joanna Cacciatore. I have since read a lot of literature about grief and the loss of a child, but this is still one of the most powerful for me. Her words were really cathartic to read. It’s on Amazon, but I think it’s on Audible now too.

    I hope at least some of this helps, in some way. Even just to know that your experience resonates with another person. Sam sounded like a great kid. He was lucky to have you as his dad.

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