The Hidden, Chronic Pain of Grief

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I have a couple of close friends who have struggled for years with undiagnosed chronic illnesses, and they’ve both shared with me on several occasions how isolating their conditions became because their pain wasn’t visible to others.

In the absence of outward, identifiable symptoms, people either questioned the reality or severity of their injuries, or they were simply unaware of them. If in another’s presence my friends smiled and refused to mention it, then their suffering (though real and debilitating) remained hidden. They appeared quite healthy and normal and even happy—all the while their insides were being ripped to shreds.

This is how it is to be a survivor of a loved one.
This is life in the Grief Valley.
Your pain is chronic and deep and most often, internal.
To show the suffering when it comes, just simply won’t work most of the time.
So you hurt and you hide.

My father died three years ago and as it is with loss, lots of calendar milestones are tough. Yet as difficult as birthdays and anniversaries and holidays are, those are predictable trials. You sort of see those breakdowns coming and you prepare for them. In fact, people are usually much more sensitive to your grief during those times; much more mindful of what might be going on beneath the surface. Your discomfort then seems expected, called for, natural in their eyes.

The really horrible moments are those other ones; the random, unexpected, unspectacular times when the pain comes out of nowhere and sucker punches your heart. It might be a song or a word or a time of day or the smell of something on the stove or a place you drive past that rips you open again, that brings the flood of tears, that ushers in the heaves and sobs.

And during many such times it just isn’t convenient or socially acceptable to flat-out lose it; at a bus stop with your son or in a staff meeting or paying at the drive-thru or in the middle of a board game with a group of friends. On so many of those occasions, to save yourself the embarrassment or to prevent an awkward moment for those you are with; you grit your teeth, ball up your fist, force a smile and force the tears back down from where they came.

You fall apart in places no one can see—and all the while you look perfectly fine.

I’ve grown to accept that so much of grief is destined to be a solitary road. Even when well-meaning people care deeply and truly desire to share the journey with you, they will never be privy to the frequency and severity of your suffering. This is partly because your loss is so very individual, and partly because you simply never reveal it all to them. You couldn’t possibly.

I would have preferred to never have had to walk this road at all. Traveling through the Grief Valley has largely been a big slice of Hell, but it certainly hasn’t been without its hard-earned treasures too. One of those has been the realization of just how much hidden, chronic pain there is in my midst; of how many of people I cross paths with on any given day might be smiling and silently falling apart.

That kind of awareness doesn’t come until you too have many moments of deeply buried hurt, but once you receive it your eyes see people differently. They look more intently. Empathy becomes easier. Compassion is involuntary.

To all those who will willingly suffer in secret today, as memories and sadness surprise you in the most inconvenient of moments: I see you.

I know your pain doesn’t have to be visible to be real.

Be encouraged.

55 thoughts on “The Hidden, Chronic Pain of Grief

  1. I came across this while looking for a dog to adopt from a shelter to be a companion to my dog. Tears running down my face now as I read the comments and your piece on grief. Its almost 5 am and it all comes rushing back, like a wave washing over me. It’s been a year and a half and feels like a lifetime ago, and yet, it feels like just yesterday. My heart broke that day. I have never felt anything like it in my life. I have been through some loss, experienced grief, but this took my breath away and has rooted itself in my very being since. It is very difficult to navigate. To walk through each day without thinking too much or reliving the moments of receiving the news, it stops you right in your tracks. An overwhelming feeling grips your heart and next thing you know, your knees get weak and your mind replays the memories good and bad. I never knew how deep it could go, who wants to know anyway right? Who thinks it will actually happen this way? But it does, and you do go through it, or else you will end up in the loony bin with a nice white jacket. I wanted to thank you, for your words and letting me know I’m not too crazy. This is ….well, it is just what it is….something I have to learn to live with, to deal with, and carry with me for the rest of my days. Finding out how I will do this….is another story. But life doesn’t stop, and really, I thank God for that. For the people who carry this with me, for the love around me, and once in a while coming across beautiful writing, with truth and real meaning to help us through.

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  3. I am just sharing this article on my wordpress blog because it helped me as I work through this day. Thank you for writing the words of our hearts and heads. I am writing of my daughters last 40 days in ICU and reading this helps me to focus on being her voice.

  4. John, “I see you”, too. I see you ripped open, I feel your invisible heaves and sobs. I see you.
    Thank you for seeing me.
    Again and again I am truly astounded to realize how many people appear fine, but must be walking through life with the searing pain of loss. All around us, so many are trudging through the Valley of Grief right along with us, scorched and charred by the pain. I sometimes feel like there is a collective “deep knowing”. But though we are so many, side by side, our grief is still so private, so alone, so secret.
    Thank you John, for not keeping ALL of your suffering secret. You lay your wounds out with your words, spread them on the page for anyone to see. In doing that, countless people have gained insight and strength, felt comforted, felt less alone. And countless people have been allowed to glimpse, from the outside, what someone they care about must be feeling in the midst of their grief. We all thank you for that.
    I see you John. Thank you for seeing me, for seeing all of us.

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  9. John, thank you for this article! It means a lot to me and makes me feel that what I am feeling is normal and “allowed”.
    I always thought with time things would get easier, but it never really does, unfortunately. I lost my father unexpectedly in an accident 12 years ago. He was 58 and I was 29. He was the best dad and role model ever! I was 28 weeks pregnant with my 3rd and went into preterm labor and was hospitalized the day after his funeral. I also had a 2 and 4 yr old. I had to always be the strong one for everyone else and never probably grieved in a healthy way. I was trying to be there for my mom who was devastated and also stay healthy for my unborn child. I was on bed rest , after getting out of the hospital, for 5 more weeks. I had people helping me with my other kids. I was in shock/survival mode and never allowed myself to grieve because my life was too crazy and hectic at the time.
    It’s a funny thing how grief will come back to haunt you. The past 2 years have been some of the hardest. I find myself tearful, very angry and depressed at times. Now that my kids are much more self sufficient and all 4 are in school all day, the grief is back. I never expected this but I guess if you don’t move through the stages of grief you will be faced with them later, even 12 years later.
    To all your readers, I would say don’t worry about being the strong one in the family and putting on your “I’m fine” mask. This is your grief and it is real. It can’t and shouldn’t be ignored. If so it will come back in the future.
    Thank you for your articles on grief– they really help a lot!

  10. Thanks John for this article and for everybody who’s shared of themselves. I tend to think I’m defined today, in great part, what I’ve loved and lost… that which is so precious to me. All those imprints fashioning the likeness of Christ, one love and one loss at a time. For a long time I walked away from anything or anybody that could hurt me. Then almost 4 yrs ago Jesus knelt by me and breathed love and life into my heart. How utterly grateful I am. But it is so very hard to have a heart. This year has been difficult. I’ve lost a sister-in-law and three very close friends. And now I’m grieving letting go of someone that was never meant to be for me. Someone said once… not to hold on so
    tightly so that God dosesn’t have to rip them from your grasp. I don’t think I agree with that. I hold on tightly because Jesus did… He had me so tightly that I had
    to strain to see His face… because I finally wanted to. I’m going to hold on because these folks… these precious, precious people mean something to the heart Jesus gave me.

  11. I think it is because people don’t know how to respond to our pain and so they avoid the need to respond by avoiding us. Hence adding isolation to our pain.
    I try to keep my mask firmly in place when out in public so as to not push people away by letting them see my pain.

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  13. I am having one of those moments and I am happy that I saw this. Thank you for describing so well what grief is.

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