“Do you still have bad days?”
The question lingers in the air as I quietly debate how best to answer it. I’ve had to answer this question more frequently of late – it seems to be yet another by-product of the passage of time.
It’s been twenty months since I lost my sweet baby boy; twenty months since I felt his final kick goodbye and wailed over his tiny, breathless body. There are days when these moments feel like a lifetime ago. But there are days too when my heart aches and I miss that little boy more than words can tell.
People are naturally curious as to what the grieving process looks like now – a year and a half after loss. Most individuals have heard that “the first year is the hardest” and wonder what happens after that. Do I still grieve? Is the one year anniversary some magical line drawn in the sand that erases all grief? Do I still have “bad days?”
It can be difficult for those who have not experienced a close, personal loss to grasp the concept of grief. When someone asks me if I still have bad days, my initial reaction is one of bafflement – “Isn’t it obvious??? Of course I do!”
But what is glaringly obvious to me is not necessarily evident to those outside the loss community. The fact that everyone’s grieving process is unique only adds to the complication. We differ in the way we express our pain, the time we take to grieve, the way we cope, the secondary injuries we encounter… the list goes on and on.
So how do we understand grief as a whole?
In many ways, grief can be compared to a physical injury and to the lengthy recovery process that follows.
The initial pain of a broken bone is intense. A fractured ankle, for example, will cause an immediate and visible reaction: it takes your breath away, tears stream down your face and your heart rate increases. Rolling around on the floor you clutch at your foot, shouting out a few choice words or simply crying out for relief.
Swollen and bruised, your leg is wrapped in a plaster cast and a couple crutches are propped under your arm. Friends and family offer to help you out as you learn to navigate new obstacles. It’s clear that you’re in pain; you need people to lean on.
At first, it hurts to put any pressure on the leg. You prop it up on pillows, take pain medication, and simply rest. But over time, your body begins to heal itself and the sharp searing pain begins to give way to a dull ache. Your bone heals enough that you can walk around without the crutches, and eventually, the cast comes off too.
The healing process takes longer than one might think. You may need some physiotherapy to build back muscle strength; you may need to take things a little easier than you did before. Perhaps you still walk with a bit of a limp but it’s less noticeable now. Eventually, people stop asking how your ankle is doing.
But every once in a while, when you least expect it, the old injury flares up. Once again your ankle is swollen and sore. This is different than the initial injury: it doesn’t last as long and it isn’t the same sort of pain, but it hurts nonetheless.
Over time, you begin to better understand what causes these relapses. You learn what triggers your pain and prepare yourself for those situations. You grab an ice pack and settle in for a Netflix marathon. You know that in a day or two the swelling will once again subside and you’ll go back to your day-to-day routines. But with that comes the knowledge that to some extent, you’ll always carry this pain with you. Your ankle will never be what it was before.
Because although no one else can see it, underneath your thin layer of clothes lies a little, white scar. It’s forever a part of you. You carry it with you everywhere you go.
This is grief.
There is no doubt that the first year after a loss is difficult. The wound is fresh, the is pain sharp and piercing. One day at a time, you courageously face each holiday, anniversary, and lost milestone. Before you know it, twelve months have flitted by and the grief you’re left with is not the same as the grief you started out with.
In many ways this second year is easier than the first because I’ve done it before; I have a better idea of what to expect. But “easier” does not mean pain-free. There are still days when it hurts, when the grief is triggered by a casual remark or sudden flashback. These are the days when the tears flow freely and I think about the empty spot at the dinner table, the missing shoes by the front door, or the best friend missing from my son’s life.
It’s these moments that people refer to when they ask me if I still have “bad” days.
But the truth is, there’s nothing “bad” about them. These moments are a very natural and healthy part of the grieving process – even a year and a half later.
I’m thankful for the increasingly rare but beautiful moments when I miss my son so much my heart physically aches. It feels good to remember him. These are the moments that remind me of the extraordinary gift I was given. These are the moments when I am forced to once again lean into the support of the Heavenly Father and acknowledge that I am not in control.
Not everyone grieves according to the same timeline – some people find the second year more difficult than the first. Where I am at, twenty months in, will not necessarily match the place that others find themselves. And that’s okay. Because just like broken ankles, we all heal differently.