As a psychologist, I frequently hear stories that touch me. I frequently hear about things that make me pause and consider the privilege I have had in my life. I hear stories of courage and resilience that are beautiful and profound. Frequently, I hear stories that weigh heavy on my heart and body. Frequently, I hear and witness change and growth and burdens and joy.
Sometimes, I hear things that are difficult to hear. Sometimes, I bring my work home with me. Sometimes, I can’t quite shake the heaviness from my heart at the end of the day.
Rarely – and I mean only a very few times – I hear stories that devastate me. I do not use that word lightly or flippantly. Rarely, I hear stories that just seem to fundamentally wound my soul, and that alter my view of people and the world. Rarely, I hear stories so deeply painful, I know I have been changed.
Recently, I heard one of those stories. I sat with a small person with a story that – unless you work in the field – you can’t even imagine. You just can’t.
And when I was finished, I did what I was supposed to do: I processed briefly with a colleague. I will write the report. I set it aside and I moved on to the next meeting, the next child, the next person coming through the door.
We are taught — we as psychologists and we as people — to hold the difficult things at a distance. We are taught to feel them – to an extent – and then to let them go and move on. This is what I did. Or tried to do. I held it — I held this story, and then I put it down and I moved on.
But when I got home that night, something was wrong. Everything was wrong. My head and my heart and my body and everything was wrong and I couldn’t make it right. I walked, and I distracted myself and I cleaned and breathed and listened to music, and I still couldn’t make it settle. That story. I had put it down as much as I was able, but it wasn’t right. Something wasn’t right.
I got in the shower and as the hot water hit my face, I began to cry. No — no I began to weep, to sob, really. From this place deep in my center, I wept and named this feeling of profound, deep, utter grief. For my small client. For their future. For my helplessness. For the fact that we live in a world where such suffering can happen. For the fact that we live in a world of such broken systems. For the fact that we live in a world where such pain can occur. It was an opening to the profound reality of injustice I had sat face-to-face with hours before: a cracking open that allowed that injustice to rage and rain in and around me.
And, after a few moments of deep grief, I felt I could breathe again. Almost as if it were spoken to me, I felt this clarity: some things aren’t meant to be held, or processed, or heard and set aside. Some things are meant to be grieved.
For me, grieving meant allowing this deep, aching pain to fill me. I stopped trying to hide it, to hold it, to put it into words and explain it, and I just allowed it. I ached for that child, and when I was done, I had a path forward. I was able to reach a place of clarity and compassion and stillness I needed in order to do the rest of my work with them. Grieving allowed me to access a better version of myself when I needed her.
March is my least favorite month. Some times just hold ghosts that linger, and for me, March is that time. As I sit with this — this least favorite month, and the lingering ghosts that cloud the air, I keep trying to fight it. To push it away like it isn’t the now, when it is, really. This phrase — it keeps coming to me and clearing my lungs: some things are meant to be grieved.
I had an acupuncture appointment the other day, and I had all the feelings. Mostly, I handled all the feelings by not handling all the feelings, but my acupuncturist…well…she’s no fool. “Breathe into it,” she said. “Just stay with it and it will change. If you stay with it, it will change.”
There’s a certain courage in grief when one is truly present with it. There’s bravery in the experiencing, in the witnessing, in the not pushing away. There is so much strength in the making it to the other side. When one truly experiences any emotion (positive or negative), it doesn’t stay. To witness the changing from the beginning to the end, like the arc of a bitter rainbow, is an act of love. It is sitting face-to- face with something almost unknowable and allowing it to crack you open.
And with this muddy clarity of mind and heart that comes from allowing the grieving, I have wondered: in these times of political turmoil and struggle, what if we (white, cisgender people we), truly grieved the violence being perpetrated and perpetuated in our world? What if we allowed ourselves to truly feel the depth of the ache? Not to get stuck in it. Not to feel guilt about it. Not to get mired down in intellectualization or depression or white-person tears. What would happen if we found a way to truly be with that pain because that is how we open ourselves to the compassion and possibility of being our best selves? Our best collective selves, even.
What would happen if we learned to stay with the feelings of fear and guilt and inadequacy and not run away from them? What might happen if we opened ourselves to grief because there was hope that, if we breathe into it, it will change? We need not fear it because it is already here. What we don’t feel will kill us, but it is already killing some of us faster than others. Can we sit with the reality of injustice and allow it to crack us open to our active, loving, angry, acting selves?
This world is not going to change unless we (white, cisgender people we) allow ourselves to truly feel the depth of injustice happening around us and do not let ourselves forget. There must be something that will stir us to action — permanent, sustained action of allyship and solidarity. We must find the ways we will witness one another. We must be bold and unrelenting. We must not hold ourselves separate and at a distance. We must be willing to come face to face with the world we live in. It is our world, and some things are meant to be grieved. It is the only hope we have of accessing a new future and uncovering our better selves.