Grief Is a Long Game

The process of grieving doesn’t obey our need to achieve the goal. Consider another view of grieving, one that doesn't apply pressure to finish the task.

I am a goal-oriented person. I think this is because I have a gene for it, although it may be a combination of nature and nurture. My mother, who taught preschool, suspects that she encouraged it by bringing Montessori principles into her parenting – specifically, when as a youngster I was engaged in a task, she tried to always let me finish it before directing me to do something else. Mom, let’s just say you can count this effort among your many parenting successes.

One of those Montessori-inspired moments of task completion, 1991.
One of those Montessori-inspired moments of task completion, 1991.

We live in a goal-oriented era, and some of us reside in particularly goal-oriented countries and cultures, with some areas (like mine) even more exceptionally goal-oriented than others. Suffice it to say that many of us modern humans are focused on results, and because the short game gets us to the results faster, we love the short game. We want to get to the goal and check it off. We want to be able to report that we got the job done.

I make lists upon lists and I measure the success of my day by how many items I check off.  I sometimes put mundane things on the list – “exercise,” “pay bills” – so that I can anticipate crossing off a few items. Sometimes when I take care of a task that I had forgotten to include, I’ll write it on the list and cross it off immediately after. I admit it’s a little pathological, but it gives me the sense of accomplishment I need.

On the days when I cannot reach many – or any – of my goals, I feel supremely unsettled. Like a low-grade headache this feeling nags at me, and I wonder if I’ve left something important off my list, and eventually I realize the issue: It’s just that the current list is full of long game things that cannot be accomplished quickly or easily. 

Grief is one of the long game things.

Based on my experience so far, I don’t think grief follows any goal-achievement rules. In fact I’m not sure we should impose any time-focused goal process on grieving at all. We may have personal goals as we grieve, such as a goal to get through a day moment by moment, step by step. Perhaps a goal to shower, a goal to eat something, a goal to breathe. I hesitate to mention even those goals, as manageable as they may seem, because to me whatever a griever can manage is enough, no matter how minimal it seems. Feeling as though you fail to achieve goals over and over is not likely to give you strength to continue. Feeling as though you are doing what you can, on the other hand, just might.

Grief is like physical fitness. To get what you need from it, you have to work at it indefinitely. What happens if I train for a marathon, run the marathon, and then stop running? In short order I become unable to run another marathon, of course. If I work up to bench press 300 pounds and then stop lifting, I will no longer be able to bench 300 pounds. It’s that simple. You’ve heard the term “fitness is for life?” Well, I think grief is for life.

Grief is for life. You may think this sounds awful, as though there is no end in sight for a grieving person. But I mean something different, actually. I mean that grieving is for life in the sense that when I grieve, I LIVE. As I allow myself to grieve I feel what I need to feel, I am awake, I am present, I am fully myself. I am alive. When I try to escape my grief, however, I shut off a part of myself that is too important to do without. Grief is in my blood now, and my heart does not select only certain elements of my blood to send around. All of it goes everywhere, to every cell, every day, the grief and the sustenance together. I have to grieve in order to live.

If you are grieving, you are in for the long game. It’s as long of a game as your life is. But it doesn’t mean your life must become grief, or that you cannot change, cope, and continue your journey. It means grieving becomes a part of living, perhaps indistinguishable from what sustains you. It also means you have company. I and countless others will be playing the long game alongside you. Let's help one another set the checklists aside and live each moment as it arrives.

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