And I felt like my heart had been so thoroughly and irreparably broken that there could be no real joy again, that at best there might eventually be a little contentment. Everyone wanted me to get help and rejoin life, pick up the pieces and move on, and I tried to, I wanted to, but I just had to lie in the mud with my arms wrapped around myself, eyes closed, grieving, until I didn’t have to anymore.
~Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year
I’ve been in this place before, and I know exactly what Anne Lamott means when she says “I just had to lie in the mud…grieving, until I didn’t have to anymore.” There were people who wanted me to “get help”—which was code for drugs to dull the pain—and I stood and listened while people tried to tell me that I shouldn’t still be feeling what I was feeling. But I believed then, and I believe now, something that I once heard Oprah express beautifully on one of her shows, “When someone says something to you about how long you’re taking to get over a loss, just remember, it’s different for everybody—tell them it takes as long as it takes.”
I don’t discount the benefits of antidepressants in certain situations, and yes, there are people who wallow in their grief to the point that it takes over their lives and becomes who they are. However, I think we as a society have become increasingly uncomfortable with uncomfortable feelings. We want to “fix” them and make them go away, in spite of the fact that those feelings are often the very means by which we grow and deepen as human beings and by which we become more truly ourselves.
I believe pain has a purpose, that it’s there to tell us that something needs our attention. Just as physical pain alerts us that we’ve touched a hot stove or that we’ve pushed our body beyond its limits, emotional pain tells us that we need to change something—shift our outlook, leave a bad marriage, quit a horrible job—or that we need to allow ourselves the time to absorb and adjust to something that has changed—the death of a spouse, a miscarriage, a serious illness.
The world seems to move faster every day, and we’ve become used to nearly instant gratification on many levels. We can order something from Amazon, and it will arrive the next day. We can download an e-book and start reading in minutes. We’ve come to expect that we can have anything now, and that there’s a magic bullet for anything that might ail us. If we’re hurting, we just need to take a pill, and if there’s not a pill for what ails us, we find other ways—we drink more or eat more or do anything that might dull the pain or help us avoid dealing with it.
Yes, we have to go on with our lives at some point. We have to figure out a way to keep putting one foot in front of the other, in spite of our losses and woundings. We may have to choose our moments for grieving so that we can continue to go to work and pay the bills and feed the baby. But we also need to acknowledge that each of us has our own timeline for healing, that we can’t always wrap our feelings up in a tidy package and be done with them in the length of time that rest of the world thinks is appropriate.
Healing a major physical trauma requires rest and time and self-care; why wouldn’t we expect that major emotional trauma would require the same? And why wouldn’t we allow ourselves that? As Anne Lamott says, sometimes we just need to lie in the mud until we don’t have to anymore. And since we’re the only ones who can know when that is, it’s ultimately up to us to give ourselves the time we need to fully heal so that we can, eventually, move on.