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 soul. 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. Thank you John for sharing truth! Breaking down in the middle of a Wal-Mart aisle was NOT my plan for lunch that day. Yet the sight of my precious Nick’s EL Fudge Cookies on that shelf did me in….SERIOUSLY?
    Keep sharing from the heart dear friend…..those of us that walk this valley daily appreciate your efforts to educate/explain to those not yet in this dreadful club!
    Much Love,
    Martha B

      • After the sudden deaths of my precious mother-in-law, my best friend and husband four months later and my mother two months after that I was a zombie. Now I can just be in church or reading a book or on a trip to see my grandchildren or in Walmart or walking down the street and I have to hide so others won’t see me and think I’m going off the deep end. The hiding part feels necessary because there’s no one who understands or maybe don’t want to make themselves vulnerable. Please know I understand.

    • I also broke down at a walmart. It was the last place I shopped with my mom before she passed. It was horrible and embarrassing.

  2. I am sorry that I can relate so well to your words… I am glad that you say them… you are a visible reminder that God works thru people to comfort us

  3. Dearest Brother and Friend…

    This is what it’s like being transgender, too…one long continual grief, one loooonng sojourn in the valley of the shadow.

    BUT: I also have longer and longer states of being in that wonderful second half of the words of the Psalmist “…for You are with me.”

    I guess that is what is the deepest wonder…how in the depths of a pain, an ache that never goes away I am continually surprised when billows of just…what? Just COMFORT…no, Consolation.

    Yes, that’s the word, Consolation…and it is so distinct and present as to actually just render the pain as if it were not…even in existence, let alone there.

    And then it goes out, Consolation, like a tide receding back into the Ocean of God’s Grace to refresh itself, and as it leaves it whispers “I shall return”…and the rocks and reefs of sorrow and grief are revealed again, but now they cannot escape the dripping, glistening overlay of God’s own Consolation.

    Be ye encouraged, my fellow humans…if They will do this for the likes of me? It is a CERTAINTY that They will for you,

    • but being transgender is a choice one makes in life; child loss isn’t a choice I chose so I don’t see where you can even begin to compare the two! please do not EVER do this again! I would rather have my son here with the family he loved instead of feeling like my heart has been ripped out and living the nightmare that I do just going through the motions of daily life so people like you can pretend and compare two totally unlike life changing styles, at least your family still has you just in a different form!

      • Dannele, you have my deepest sympathy and I will pray for your comfort.

        For now, the assertions you made about gender orientation and my family status I shall simply overlook… It seems that your hurt and trauma is far more important.

        I might gently urge you to be cautious when making such broad brush statements to people you do not know and about topics it is clear you have not done much study about.

        Again, may the Lord comfort you in His mercy and with the deepest consolations of Holy Spirit may you be salved and carried tenderly. May you be ushered faithfully to That Day of reuniting that awaits.

        In tender mercies, Grace and Peace to you.
        Charissa

      • I too have lost a son, and I disagree with you, Pain and grief, is pain and grief, When my husband died 18 months before my son,For the first time in my life, I found it did not help, that others had experienced more loss ,this was my loss my Pain, and it was ripping me to shreds, then when my son died well my heart shattered and though it has been 11 years and I have 4 other children and have been blessed with many grandchildren, my heart remains shattered, I am no longer whole. Yet i can relate to the words consolation comes and then recedes, and If anyone wants to share what helped their pain , perhaps it will help another. Is that not what this is about, helping each other thru the valley of pain. It is not a contest,I have a friend whose has many grandchildren and two of them were born transgender, they are only 5, they look female,and were pronounced so at birth, but an illness and testing shows that all there internal organs are male, no uterus or ovaries. This is not a choice, So please do not judge an-others path, let it be enough to help ease the pain where we can, and just support where we cannot. All of us must walk this path, there is no life that is not touched by pain,

      • Annalisa thank you so kindly for your input…truly it is the support of those like you that will help us to walk this life we live…but for now, we all together keep the focus on lifting up each other, bearing this burden of death that we mortals are yoked with, if only a little while…it hurts beyond the beyond, and is not anything words can address.

        I continue to ache along with you, with the other writer who lashed out, and with each person here who experiences their own unique crucible of grief.

        Lord, in Your Mercy, hear our prayers.

      • Right on
        Thank you for your courageous words of TRUTH. May God bless you this day and comfort you each and every hour,and give you the full and sure knowledge you will be reunited with your son. I am so sorry for your loss but what an amazing gain his life is to you and all that knew him.the Lord be with you.

    • I agree with Charles, You are the only Christian writer I read as well. I am grateful for your report on those that suffer silently with this chronic pain of depression and physical pain. Throughout my childhood I was told that people don’t want to hear about your problems, keep them to yourself. And that is exactly what I have done all of my life. Unfortunately as an adult I still suffer greatly in silence. I have spend thousands of dollars in therapy, but as soon as I walk out of that office that fake smile comes back on and I say everything is fine, while my insides are still ripped to shreds. When people suffer from depression it literally feels like you’re completely alone and often think that no one can understand the kind of pain that you feel. I lost my mother 22 years ago and I still grieve her loss daily. She always seemed to have the words to say, the hug to give, and the unconditional love she showed to me, that only her shoes could fill. I am a very quiet, highly sensitive soul and feel it is important to put on a mask every time I walk out the door. Thanks for your post John!

  4. Thanks for this piece. A few years ago, after longing for a child for many years, I had a miscarriage in the midst of the end of my relationship. For me it was grief upon grief and not really something i was able to discuss without completely losing my composure. So i didn’t… and i isolated myself, knowing i really couldn’t handle the question, “how are you doing?”. So i avoided my friends and family and shared very little about what had happened. And, of course, I said i was okay. I remember very vividly during this time walking down the hall at the high school where i taught, knowing my own tears were just below the surface behind the “brave face”.. and i remember thinking that any one of these people (students and adults) could silently be suffering too.. you just never know… A few months later, my older brother, a pastor, called me and asked how i was doing. Of course i said i was ok. And he said, “you know.. you’ve always been so independent and i know you are strong, but i just want you to know that it’s ok if you are not ok..” That was a watershed moment for me. And a real bonding point between my brother and i. Those hard-earned treasures for me are that realization that many others are soldiering on as well, and it’s ok not to be ok, and a new-found bond with my brother.

    “everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.. be kind”

  5. On another site, I posted, and many agreed with:

    1 Don’t squirm when the grieving person wants to talk about the person that DIED, that is DEAD (not gone, passed on, departed)

    2 Don’t squirm if the grieving person cries while talking about a beloved person who has died – just listen and be present

    Sometimes the best thing is to do or say nothing – just be present; a quiet, supportive presence is immeasurably comforting

    Alas, I’ve learned not to talk about my dead husband except to a very, very small group of people …I can see everyone else squirm when the subject comes up, and that’s too bad…

  6. Thank you. I grieve daily the loss of a precious baby boy who was cruelly robbed from us by cancer. As you say, most of the grieving is done silently, as people just can’t understand the intensity and frequency of those stubs, of the constant heart ripping, as you call it.
    Funny enough, I find myself comfortable in the presence of people with chronic pain, as our souls understand each other now.
    Thank you for validating them and us, the bereaved. Thank you so much!

  7. “The really horrible moments are those other ones; the random, unexpected, unspectacular times when the pain comes out of nowhere and sucker punches your soul.”
    YES.

  8. My infant daughter died, and I have isolated myself instead of trying to play “normal” with the world. Grief makes people uncomfortable, and I can’t care about how I’m being perceived on top of how I just am. My mother tries to be in my grief journey with me, but her world is nothing like mine. It is a burden carried alone. Even my husband appears fine. I am starting to feel comfortable going at it alone; after all the platitudes and cliches and pat answers as to the “why” have been spoken it’s just me and God, although I have never once felt His comfort in this.

    • I feel your pain. We lost our little girl at 1 month. I was so stressed but my husband and I supported each other. We were living in Japan at the time but went home to have her buried. When we returned I found my friends were uncomfortable and I had few visitors; then a friend told me that people are afraid that the loss of a child can be ‘catching.’ I was floored but unfortunately it makes sense. I often worried that my baby would get lost in such a big place as heaven. It was several years later that I had a dream. Jesus was sitting on his throne jiggling my little baby on his lap, she was laughing and he was too. He turned to me and said, “don’t worry, she’s fine, I’ll take good care of her until you come home. I woke up finally in peace. I will pray for peace for you and rejoice with you when you are reunited!

    • Dear Ellen, My 54 yr old special needs daughter died in her sleep, in October 2016. The coroner wanted to do an autopsy- “no” – 3 other sisters may want to know. Two days later I had a dream. An authoritative voice said to me ” You are observing”. Instantly I was standing beside her bed at her group home watching her sleep. She had an enlarged tongue. As I watched her breathing lessen and lessen, and then stop, I felt something like warm honey completely envelope my body from the top of my head down. I was instantly at peace, and had total understanding of how she died. I had been gifted by God to be with her at the end of her life and to understand what happened. In December when I was on a steady crying mission, Hope came to me also in a dream, and said “don’t be sad Mommy, I’m spending Christmas with Jesus”.
      Your husband is most likey suffering in silence also, although men can’t have the bond born by carrying a child inside your body.
      A grief group through Hospice has helped me. I also loved the movie “Heaven is for real” and found it very comforting.
      Nothing really helps with the grief of a child’s death, whether at birth or at 54.
      I found that exercise, just keeping busy, and doing for others placates and puts off crying jags. Tears cleanse the broken heart though, and I can feel it coming sometimes, other times – yes it is a really hard punch in the heart from nowhere.
      Ask God to speak to you, and He will, or send a messenger, as He did for me.
      I’m sending Angels to comfort you, cradle you, protect your Spirit, and keep you safe.
      Talk to your baby girl and tell her everything. I know she is listening.
      We are Spiritual Beings here for a short while in a human body. Then we can’t use our body anymore we return to spiritual beings.
      Your daughter knows very well who you are and is waiting to be reunited with her mother.
      Do the best that you can do to help others along this path to the Father and Eternity with those who have gone before and are going to welcome us when we’re finished here
      Blessings and Love
      Nancy

  9. I know what you are talking about. My dad died in 1996 and my mom in 2003. Just yesterday I had one of those moments out of the blue and couldn’t hold back the tears. This time it was just my wife and me, but I also know those times when you have to bury your feelings and act like everything is fine. Thanks for this article reminding us that we aren’t alone. We have others who understand because they go through the same thing and we have the Spirit of God, the comforter, within us.

  10. Thank you for this John.

    i think (retrospectively) hell is a good place to visit but a lousy place to live, because as you pointed out, there is so much to learn, including dismantling our assumed entitlement position. Learning to see from someone else’s perspective; seeing Gethsemane and Good Friday from Jesus’ point of view and finding Love in Resurrection…..however long it takes.

    • My son died Sept 13, 1015 I also have lost its seems like all the men in my life my high school sweet heart , my brother, my dad, now my son .. And My husband was in a wreck 2004 I had to take on every thing I know he changed then also but he would always say to that we signed our vowed in sickness and in health… I had a nervous breakdown and then in 2009 I lost my job that I loved … I worked there 8 yrs.. I isolated my self for ever .. I never had time to myself so I did every thing my kids because I loved it I love people .. It makes me happy it’s like he was jeoulous of it. So after my husbands wreck his back (6 torn disc sacks). Doctors said time would it.. I know he still hurts every morning getting out of bed but would not go to see a counselor for his man card taken away .. He just need more of me then.. Our we’re kids were then 2 yrs & 3yrs old he missed out on a lot .. As time went on I here from him I so him effect ion Wow and now since our son died ( he was 14 teen ). I haven’t been able to go back to work much go out my front door go in a store .. I can’t be my self I told him I am I now a night person .. I have been in dispatch ( headset ) so I do that a lot at home .. He can’t stand it I laugh and talk out loud it’s funny no I am not that kind of crazy nut (. I loved fun things making people happy is and was me .. So I have been doing that at home now daily I always went fishing with my boys .. Now my void is so empty. How can I get my husband understand that he is not a people person at all .. I love him but I seem very different now this time totally because I don’t agree with anything he does or says.. am just doing things and I grieve so differently .. But he expects me to just be ok about being intiment and he consitly complains he doesn’t get enough attention from me ..

  11. I lost my brother just last week. We had a wonderful service for him, 200+ people, grown men sobbing, they loved him so much. He leaves behind myself, a wife of 38 yrs, and four grown children. I have never experienced such deep, deep pain in my life. He was such a good, good man. The pain is such that I’ve had moments when I wished that I was dead and didn’t have to go through this agony. Loss has got to be the worse thing a person can go through in this life. Thank you for your writings on grief! they are a help, you do make a difference with the sharing you do from your heart.

  12. Thank you so much for writing this! I lost my mother in April this year. This has been the hardest 5 ½ months of my life. I knew that it would happen one day, but it’s not something that I planned on dealing with at the age of 27. It’s very, very hard. She’s going to miss my wedding and her first grandchild.. There’s no words to even explain how it feels.. I’d say you hit the nail right on the head.

  13. “Chronic” is a perfect word describing the pain and sense of bereavement. Pain and joy and faith and hope can all coexist, yet pain has been a constant companion (alongside joy and other emotions) since losing our only child at the age of 44 three years ago.

  14. 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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  16. 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.

  17. 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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  22. 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!

  23. 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.

  24. 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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