Learning to recognize grief

StoryCorp posted this prompt today on Facebook. Brief and to the point, it simply said: “Tell us about someone you miss.”

Over the last few days, I’ve been forced to deal with levels of grief that have nothing to do with death, and everything to do with changes outside of my control. And it’s forced me to face some hard truths about how I handle loss.

I’m an expert at burying things. Not dead bodies (though wouldn’t that be useful?) but emotions and pain. If any uncomfortable emotion inside of me rears its ugly head, I can swiftly and easily shove it back down again. I grew up as a Department of Defense brat, hopping between military bases and being forced to make friends quickly or be alone. The good news about having to discern this at a young age is I can sniff out insecurity and crazy in potential friends from a mile away. I’ve learned from painful experience the kinds of people I want close and the ones I want to stay as far away from me as possible.

I always prided myself on my ability to let go, to adapt to change. Most military brats and other Third Culture Kids do. It’s the invisible medal that connects us, the idea that at any time, we can permanently snip a relational thread at a moment’s notice as we smile and tell ourselves how easy it is to let go.

But this week I’ve been forced to face the fact that grief wears many masks. The callousness I call strength is, in many ways, simply denial. Growing up on base, when a friend would whisper through tears that her dad was PCSing (moving, for all you civilians), being able to shut down my emotions became the only way to process pain. An eleven year-old who knows they are about to lose someone forever also understands they have no control. But they do have control over how they can handle it. For me, shutting down became an excellent way to process pain.

It’s only now that I’m in my 40s, with as many years behind me as in front, that I realize grief comes in many flavors. I had never associated moving with grieving. It was just a fact of life for a child growing up in a DOD or military family. My indifference had always been a source of pride, but now I know it’s just unprocessed pain. And one can only live with pain for so long before it either consumes you or hurts others.

“Tell us about someone you miss…”

I miss the child I was before the age of ten, before having to live the awesome, crazy, and painful life that accompanies those who serve their country became my reality. I miss all of the friends I will never see again, some who are happily living out their lives and some whose lives are marked only with a tombstone I will never know about or even see. I miss the luxury of staying put and having the ability to choose my own path. I also miss the amazing countries I got the privilege to live in, the incredible honor of learning new languages and incorporating new customs. Above all, I miss the past. The things I cannot go back and change, the things I desperately want to relive, even if only for the chance to do it differently, and the moments I’m grateful are far behind me.

It has taken over three decades to peel away the layers and recognize this grief for what it is. As I’ve buried my pain, all I’ve done is give it fertile soil in which to grow.

I think it’s finally time to dig up my garden and plant something better, something beautiful I can give my family and friends. Something that will one day bear good fruit in their lives.

Many thanks to StoryCorp for the thoughtful prompt and the truths it uncovered.

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