This year, my 25th one, was the year I always told myself I’d have ‘caught up’ by… whatever that means.
It’s like I thought life was a game of monopoly, with houses to gather with each year. The dating one, the driving one, the job one, moved out one, home-owner one, car, relationship, child…
And when you haven’t collected any of them yet, that means you’re still sat on the start line, waiting to pass go… But I’m not on the start line.
Life isn’t measured by any of those things; I know that, deep down.
I’ve grown and broken and bloomed in many different ways, throughout every year I thought I’d not moved from that start line.
My heart hasn’t been broken by people but by the shattered dreams that had to be rebuilt and the disease that demolished them. The joy and freedom people get from their first car was instead felt for my new wheelchair, which cost the same as a car anyway! Instead of visiting new places or countries, I’ve watched the magic of thousands of uniquely dazzling sunsets unfold from the same window. The job people define themselves by has been learning how to build a life within these cards.
And it’s a happy one. A loved one. A messy one. A full one. And one that isn’t part of any monopoly game of life; it’s making its own up.
With any major life change, comes grief. It’s something we’re not forewarned about.
We think grief only relates to actually losing someone, but it can also be triggered by losing parts of yourself, the life you had, or the future you once imagined. Many will have felt grief for life as they knew it over the last year, even if they may be unaware grief is the word for it.
Grief is messy and unpredictable.
We’ve all heard of the 5 stages, as if there’s some kind of stairway to permanent peace. But the truth is, everyone experiences grief differently. And it’s more of a spiral than a straight line, with stages being revisited and lessons being relearnt.
Something I found out after developing a chronic illness is that grief is a given. You can’t avoid it, run from it, or distract your way out of it. You have to feel it. Your life has changed, your plans have been reshaped, and it’s completely normal to grieve for that.
I tried to avoid it. It took me 3 years to begin to grieve for my former, illness-free self and the future I thought I’d have. It took a virtual stranger reaching out in an act of kindness, to say they knew this was incredibly hard, for me to finally let it in. For years, I’d shoved down all the pain, I felt like if I cried I’d never stop. But eventually, I let myself, and it did stop. I learnt if you let yourself feel all the uncomfortable, hard stuff, they actually move through you a lot quicker than if you lock them into a box and plaster on a smile.
After 9 years, I mostly sit on the acceptance step, carrying the grief that comes with chronic illness and disability like a note tucked in my pocket. But all the other stages still come flooding back at different times too.
I’ll probably always be reminded of that other life at times, the one that wasn’t mine to live. Each time the grief grows up like the bindweed that tries to strangle the hedge surrounding our garden, I relearn how to sit with it. Watch it grow and twist, and then die back, as if autumn has come around and locked it back into the ground.
Words help. And remembering that we all long for something we don’t have at times, it’s human. Just like grief is part of being human.