Grief follows no timeline. Grief follows nothing. Grief forges its own path.
Once again it’s January 1 — traditionally, a day people use to get a fresh start. We make resolutions to improve our health, our habits, our financial situations, our work status, our relationships. We see New Year’s Day as the beginning of things, a clean slate to write new stories on, an opportunity to take the messy old slates with the messy old stories and toss them in the trash.
What’s on the messy old slates? For so many of us, it’s grief, in every possible form — grief for the loss of loved ones who have died, of relationships we thought we could count on, of beloved pets, of cherished celebrities, of ideals, of innocence, of safety.
We who grieve may have countless intentions for the new year. We may be determined to “feel better,” to cope more effectively, to socialize more, to take more action. We may intend to exercise more, stop eating sugar, drink less, smoke less, cry less. We may want to reach out to certain people we’ve avoided, and avoid certain people whom we’ve leaned on constantly. We may simply want to get out of bed.
New Year’s Day affords an opportunity to motivate ourselves to do whatever we perceive we *should* do to improve our lives. Sometimes it works, and when it works, we feel confident it made a difference.
But often, it doesn’t work. Full disclosure: It’s not working for me today.
January 1 — or any other date — is a boundary constructed by humans, an arbitrary start to a manufactured timeline. And grief follows no timeline. Let me say it again: Grief follows no timeline. Grief follows nothing. Grief forges its own path, a path unique to each bereaved person, a path whose turns, twists, hills, and valleys no one can predict. No one has ever tread your grief path before, and no one will follow along it behind you. You discover it as you go.
When we don’t achieve a goal for improvement we set based on a calendar date, not only do we miss the benefits of reaching the goal, but — perhaps more damaging — we see ourselves as having failed. Instead of feeling encouraged to keep going and to adjust the goal, we are often demoralized, even paralyzed. We take it as proof that we can’t do it, and we might not try again.
This adds to our pain — as if the pain of grief weren’t enough. We add to the pain when we don’t follow a path someone else sets out for us, when we don’t achieve a goal a book tells us about, when we don’t accomplish a task we wrote down for ourselves. We pour the bitterness of disappointment and failure into an already extraordinarily bitter cup. Why? Why suffer for failing to meet an expectation that didn't make sense for us anyway?
I want to rethink how we spin New Year’s Day, or other dates, or any other arbitrary boundary we set for ourselves as we cope with loss and grief. Take away the pressure to grieve on a path that shows improvement, the need to set and reach a goal. Put in its place an opportunity — the opportunity to check in with yourself and see what you need. Just that. Check in on how you feel, where you are, what is available to you, and what you do or do not want to do about it all. This opportunity holds you accountable for nothing. Instead, it just holds you.
You have this opportunity today, January 1. You have it tomorrow. You have it every day, every hour if you choose. Let it guide you away from structures and plans that anyone sets out for you, or that you impose on yourself. Let it be your companion. Together you can set shame and failure aside, and walk the path as it unfolds before you.
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