WHEN GRIEF GOES GOOD: The Complexity of Loss in our Most Exciting Moments
By Hailey Hechtman
Twitter: @HaileyHechtman IG: @hailey.hechtman
Hailey Hechtman is a social impact leader, mental health advocate and Executive Director of Causeway Work Centre. She is passionate about inspiring positive change through community collaboration, constant learning and self-reflection. Watch her interview on 'Life Outside the Box' here.
"Our culture tends to fixate on the future – on the brightness of what may unfold in our next phase without giving us the space to grieve what is left behind. For every step towards tomorrow, there are comforts, routines, predictabilities, and sometimes people waving to us in the wake of the shift."
The summer before heading off to university is one that I look to both fondly and bittersweetly as a point of immense transition. A moment stamped into my memory as the trading off of a life that was full of close friends, consistent praise for my academic performance, and predictability that felt comforting when it was full of potential and unknowns.
I think back to an instant, my friends and I had rented a hotel room at a local inn for the weekend ahead of our send-offs across the province to various schools, and various lives. After a day of screaming on the way down an undersized rollercoaster and splashing in the pool, we gathered outside to engage in a ceremony that convened the past with the future. We each wrote our dreams, hopes and appreciations for what we have had together and put them into a balloon. Simultaneously and in a gentle cloud of vibrant colours, we released them into the air--- watching as our aspirations floated off. I felt a sense of pleasure at the closeness we had forged, a sense of excitement for the adventure that lay ahead of me and yet a deep-seated panic set in, knowing that it would never be like this again.
Grief comes in many forms yet we have pre-approved the scenarios for sadness—a death, a divorce, a layoff. These are the times when we give ourselves the grace to feel our feelings, to let the hurt flush through us. But what of those life-altering turning points that we are socialized to see as gleeful? What about times when we go to sleep as a teen and wake up as an adult? Or the step from student to working person? Or from a casual date to a defined relationship? Or when the goal that we have been working towards goes from a flicker to checked off the to-do list?
These are all times in our lives that we are socialized to cherish. We celebrate and are celebrated with cake, cards of congratulations, with little mementos to snapshot our achievement. Yet there is a complexity to these safe points in our lives that many of us feel yet are not often encouraged to explore. At the turn of the page from chapter one to chapter two there may be longing, there may be questioning, a sense of missing what once was and a realization that we cannot go back.
Our culture tends to fixate on the future-–on the brightness of what may unfold in our next phase without giving us the space to grieve what is left behind. For every step towards tomorrow, there are comforts, routines, predictabilities, and sometimes people waving to us in the wake of the shift. These flashes of awareness may come to us briefly— as we lay the key to our old apartment on the counter heading out the door, as we sign a yearbook, or hug someone goodbye. They may come to us more vividly in feelings of anxiety, a desire to hold tight to what we know and what has served us. They can appear years later in the form of nostalgia, those little shivers that we feel when we are transported back to that time.
"What if we normalized talking about the mixture of sensations that come with pivots, if we shared “X can mean a lot of excitement and also some loss, its okay to be processing the shift in many ways at the same time”
While we may be exuberant and overjoyed about what’s to come, we can equally be overwhelmed by the unknown. Sometimes it can even be tough to decipher the difference between excitement and anxiety as they have a lot of the same sensations: the pulsing heart rate, the quickened breath, the rush of thoughts.
We may be completely taken off guard by these unexpected emotions because we are only taught to anticipate the pleasurable ones. We may have been working towards this change for weeks or months or years. Perhaps we have been counting down the days to graduation or meticulously scheduling every second of that wedding day, or documenting using fruit sizes of a growing pregnancy. We prepared ourselves for the floodgates of thrill, of expansive bliss and then the moment arrives and these intruders pop into our minds. A sadness for losing the autonomy that we had to set our schedules and sleep in till noon before heading to that 6 pm lecture. A crash that now that the big day is over, we are embarking on a whole new set of expectations. A recognition that our life now revolves around another being, that the freedom is a bit less and the responsibility a whole lot more. These hyphenates ---- joy and fear, curiosity and cautiousness, pulsating ambition and crippling overstimulation are natural and adaptive. This melange of emotion is meant to protect us, to encourage us forward while carrying the lessons of our history.
There are of course other crossroads that bear a greater conflict, ones where the outside world celebrates our success while on the inside a tumultuous storm collects in panic. By these I mean the times where the big step forward is not what we want, yet those around us anticipate that it should be. A promotion that you have taken out of obligation not desire, a pregnancy that was not planned, a marriage born out of a growing pressure to be someone by a certain age. People have a multitude of reasons for pursuing their new realities, and yet for the milestones that we are taught to showcase with balloons and praise, we often jump into congratulations mode without first asking how the person themselves processed this new path.
What if instead of launching into our cheerful freak-out, we took a moment to pose the question “how do you feel about this big change?” From there we can guide our dialogue, we can squeal excitedly or show empathy or ask what they need. What if we normalized talking about the mixture of sensations that come with pivots, if we shared “X can mean a lot of excitement and also some loss, it's okay to be processing the shift in many ways at the same time” Framing it from the standpoint that the cross-section of feelings is valid, leads to richer, more honest conversation. We can cultivate space for those we care about to revel in what’s happening while giving permission for the questioning to seep in.
What if we honoured our own experiences from the lens of how they have created gaps: naming the grief that came from moving to a new city despite the many hours we spent happily navigating through google maps identifying all of our future hotspots? What if we gave ourselves some time after every major or minor life event to document the array of emotions that washed over us? The more opportunities to embrace the confusing, delightful and terrifying nature of change, the clearer that it becomes that this is an ingrained part of our human experience. We will always feel more than one thing. We will forever be altered by our grief and blossom from it.
When I went home after that day in the inn with my high school soulmates, I made room for the pain of what was left behind. I scrolled through hundreds of our photos, and pulled out my box full of notes sent back and forth out of classroom boredom, I called several of them on the phone, speaking for hours about the beauty of what we shared. And then, wiping my tears of love and fear from my eyes, I looked up my future place, dipped a toe into where was next to me, never losing sight of how what was will always be inherently apart of what’s next because I am the sum of all my experiences and I take me everywhere I go.