Grief, Fear, and New Beginnings

This week I had some things to do, exploring new opportunities, trying to figure out what I’m going to be when I grow up, or maybe more accurately, who I’m going to be when I grow up. When I’m on the verge of something new, there’s always this double-edged sword that sticks itself straight through my chest: excitement and possibility on one side, and abject fear on the other. How can it be that something so positive and promising can inspire the same feelings as loss?

In Begin Again, Leeana Tankersley explains it this way: “One of the most genuinely inconvenient truths I know is that often something has to die in order for something new to live, And so when we know— deep down—that something isn’t working, there’s also a part of us that knows what it’s going to take to make the thing work again. Likely, it’s going to take a death…But who in their right mind wants to look death in the eyes? Or at least the possibility of death. It’s hard to think about letting something fall apart, only to put it back together again in a different way.” 

This has been my experience. I was looking through all these old photos on my phone last night, and came across these pictures taken at my wedding. In most of them I look so happy and joyful, until the very last one. Other Half was looking over my shoulder and said something like, “You don’t look quite as happy in this one.” 

In this picture, I was taking one last look at all the family and friends who had gathered to help us celebrate, and getting ready to leave for our honeymoon, and the thought crossed my mind that nothing would ever be the same. I wasn’t the same person anymore. I was someone’s wife now, not just a daughter or friend or niece or grandchild. I had all these new responsibilities and no life experience and I was only 20 years old. I didn’t even clean my room on a regular basis, and now I had a house. I was afraid. I was embarking on this new adventure with this person I love, and it was exactly what I wanted. But it was also the death of life as I knew it, and there was no going back. 

I experienced the same sensation with graduating from college, accepting my first job. Quitting my first job and moving on to my second job. I have experienced real grief and loss over the past 2 years on a larger scale than I would ever have predicted, and during this time I have learned that C.S. Lewis is right. Grief feels a lot like fear. 

When you finally get the thing you thought you thought you wanted, or the new beginning you were forced into without anyone ever consulting you about it, it comes with a price. It comes at the expense of your stability and your predictable patterns. It costs the peace of mind you experienced by having the same pattern of behavior day in, day out, for days and months and years. You pay in the energy that it takes to paste on a smile everyday and feign excitement, and with the tears no one sees. You pay with deep breaths and anxious thoughts and worry about the future. You pay with the surrendering of everything you loved about your old life— the life that came before this change. 

In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis writes, “No one ever told me that grief feels so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid, The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.” And then a few chapters later, “…Perhaps, more strictly like suspense. Or like waiting; just hanging about waiting for something to happen. It gives life a permanently provisional feeling. It doesn’t seem worth starting anything. I can’t settle down. I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much. Up till this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness.” 

This is the process I go through with every change, minus the smoking. I envy people who are excited by new opportunities and challenges, but to me, the solace of predictability has always been preferable. I like knowing what is coming tomorrow. I like seeing the same people day in, day out. I like knowing who will be there for me and where we will be together, and any threat to this monotony is met with me kicking and screaming, internally begging for mercy and inwardly shouting resentful rantings of having something I loved yet again ripped away.

But this process is important. If I don’t grieve the thing I’m leaving, if I don’t admit the loss, then it will follow me into my new adventures and become another ten pound weight in my pack, slowing down my journey to new places. The fear steals the joy. And almost every time, the things I was afraid of never happens.

Because in the moment all I could feel was loss, it was all I expected to see coming next. I could not wrap my head around the possibility of new life. My grief and my fear of the unknown worked so hard to convince me that what I wanted to happen was never going to manifest that during the period of time when I could have been daydreaming about my future, all positivity was swallowed up by my anxiety and fear of failure and my belief that how badly I wanted something was inversely proportional to my probability of getting it and how many things could go so very wrong.

For the longest time, I thought that by refusing to grieve— whether a death or some other type of change in my life— that I was proving how strong I was. “Look at me,” I would think. “This didn’t bother me. I’m strong. I can handle anything. I don’t need this. I am perfectly capable of starting over on my own and screw everyone. I got this.” Usually these thoughts are accompanied by an impolite hand gesture, a head held high, and a heart that was racing. What I realized after many years of living that way, though, is that I was proving to myself how strong I was by refusing to let go of a single brick I carried until, eventually, I crumpled under the weight. And the only path to healing was to baptize myself in the tears I refused to shed when I should have.

A few years ago, I did this Bible study on Esther by Beth Moore, and I wrote down my favorite quote as a reminder to myself that the fact that I hate these changes so much is likely a harbinger of the number of them that I will face in my lifetime. It says, “Accept that you are not called to an easy life. You are called to a purposeful life, Making the decisions you think will kill you, then watching as the miracle causes ‘Who knows?’ To become ‘I know.’”

I have seen this again and again. Every fear faced leads to growth and maybe even eventually joy. It leads to new experiences, and learning what I’m capable of, and growing my faith. But it’s not free. And every single time, it is preceded by crippling anxiety and fear that grips my heart, convincing me that nothing will ever be the same. That my life is over. That I will never get what I want or have any stability again. It blinds me to the possibilities and limits my vision to only the 4 walls of fear closing in on me. “What if nothing is ever right again? What if your best days are behind you? What if there is only failure and loneliness and longing for a past that you can never get back. What if you spend the rest of your life desperately wishing for this one thing you can never have again?” 

But then something amazing happens. One foot in front of the other, one deep breath at a time, one more morning waking up thinking I don’t know how I’ll make it through the day except that I do, and then a few months later I realize that my breathing is relaxed. My posture has changed. I don’t feel that tension in my shoulders anymore. My chest doesn’t feel like it’s going to explode every time I think of those people or that place. And I realize, I like where I am, and all the fear and uncertainty were worth it to get me to the place I needed to be. And I figure out that fear doesn’t get to have the last word in my life. I can rest in the sovereignty of God. 

So that’s where I am. Balancing on the edge of a double edged sword, anxiety-ridden but ready, and hoping when I jump off the end and fall, I’ll land in a fountain of peace to recharge for the next leg of the journey. It feels terrible, in case you’re wondering, but it won’t feel that way forever. For me, or for you. Feel the fear, but don’t wallow in it. Shed the tears, and let them wipe your slate clean. On the other side of this death, there is new life. You’re just in the middle of the process, and no one likes the middle. But the end? The end is worth it. 

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