Oma and Lina walking into the sunset

5 surprising things I’m learning about grief

On Saturday, the 24th of August at 9:36pm, the message popped up in our family chat that I’d been dreading for weeks: Eure liebe Oma ist gerade friedlich eingeschlafen. In English: Your dear grandmother has just peacefully fallen asleep. Suddenly, that was it. At the age of 33, exactly 16,187km from my lounge room in Australia, my only remaining and deeply beloved Oma took her last breath on a hospital bed in Germany.

Grief is a strange companion. It’s never invited, yet it visits throughout our life, sometimes when we least expect it, other times with forewarning. It manifests in different ways: sometimes hovering awkwardly above us, its weight resting heavy on our shoulders. At other times, it runs at you with force, punching you in the stomach and knocking the air right out of your lungs. No matter where you go, it follows, lingering in the background, until a memory or quiet moment opens the door for it to sneak into your mind and spread throughout your entire body.

Over the past two months, I have learned more than I ever could have imagined about grief. Of these, there are five things that I have found particularly surprising.

  1. Grief is complicated

When we first found out that Oma was in hospital – about two months before she passed away – we were shocked. Naively, we thought she was, despite her 85 years, invincible. She’d always been there in the past, so why wouldn’t she be there in the future? When her condition got critical, we went into prayer mode – we were warriors, fighting for her life. When she got better, we were elated, and when, just shortly after, the doctors confirmed that she was dying, we felt confused, sorrowful and lonely. How far those 16,187km felt then.

I began to write down all the emotions I was experiencing when I first felt the cold. I was shivering and aching, my whole body already beginning to grieve. Just recently I found out that my mum gets this body temperature drop too, and it made me reflect on how different family members were dealing with the news. My sister: busyness, distraction. My brother: full of seemingly unshakeable faith. My Opa tearful, talkative; my dad struggling, but needing to keep it all together and keep the family going.

Grief is complicated, and it’s different for everyone. It’s not just sadness, tears or easily identifiable emotions. For me, grief has been silence – the sound of the ocean breathing into the shore on a 10km walk along the water. It’s been gravity, pulling me to my knees, weeping at the sound of Oma’s voice when she said goodbye to me for the very last time. It’s been dark rings under my eyes from late nights on the phone to family, smiles at the photos of laughing faces and different times, and anger and frustration at the normality of life, which just continues, as if nothing at all has changed.

2. Grief raises very strange questions

In my only other close encounter with grief, a colleague had committed suicide and for all of us who were left, the biggest thing we had was questions. Why? Why so young? Why didn’t we see it coming? Why, when he had two beautiful young nieces? How could it have been so bad? And how did he manage to hide it behind his hilarious and light-hearted persona?

This time, grief was accompanied by hope – my Oma had faith, and so do we. She was 85, not 25; she was sick, and her body was frail. But the questions still came. Why now, when we’re all going to be in Germany for Christmas in just a few months? How did she know that it was beautiful where she was going, and how did she know that she was ready to go? When I get to heaven, how will I find her? Will she look like my Oma, or will her body be young? What do mangoes taste like in heaven, and how far in advance of a funeral does a body get cremated?

Some of these questions may never be answered, and part of the challenge is learning to live with the unknown.

3. Grief is physical

Some 3,000 years ago, a psalmist wrote “I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and body with grief… my strength fails because of my affliction, and my bones grow weak.” Today, the medical world is still discovering the ways in which grief can impact people physiologically, as well as emotionally. A publication of the Harvard Medical School, for example, says that grief can lead to aches and pains, loss of appetite and a lowered immune response, as well as an increase in stress hormone release. Fatigue, shortness of breath and digestive issues are also common. Whilst it is comforting to know that the physical symptoms I’ve experienced during the past two months are not abnormal, it’s also reinforced the importance of listening to my body: of going for a walk when I feel I need it, or doing yoga to stretch my aching muscles and remind me to breathe deeply when my chest feels constricted. So often in life we push self-care aside, but in times like this, we need it more, not less.

4. Grief is best shared

The day after Oma died, the introverted side of my ‘introverted extrovert’ personality spent the whole day alone. Having always been drawn towards water, I spent the day walking along a path by the ocean, mind numb, eyes drifting between dogs playing, kids jumping and shells glimmering in the sun. It was good for me, but for the rest for the rest of the week I would be back at work and coming home to an empty house, since my husband was away on business. It was not something that worried me: I’m an independent woman, after all, and one who’s particularly useless at asking anyone for help. When I mentioned this to one of my closest friends, her response was: “My introverted extrovert has the same struggle. Sometimes I need the space, but at times I also know that it’s better for me to be around people even if that’s a hard push initially. Think on it for a little while, and just let us know… our house is always open to you.” Later that evening, I realised with some surprise: was there a possibility that she was right? Could it be that at times, those who love us know better what’s good for us than we do ourselves?

In this instance, I am glad I listened to her caring advice. I spent the next evening with her and her family, and the two nights after that with other good friends. These friends cooked me dinner, made me tea, let me talk and reminded me that I was not alone. How rarely do we let ourselves be loved on! How for granted we often take friends. Times of grief can be a good reminder that life is designed to be lived in community, with people who will both celebrate with you in times of joy, and cry with you in times of sadness.

5. Grief is not something you ‘tick off’ your list

The final realisation that has hit me about grief is that it’s not something that you can just ‘tick off’ your list of life experiences. It’s not something that most of us will only go through once. When I think about the fact that I will endure all this again when my own parents die, when my siblings or my husband die, I can hardly bear it. And yet, I know that whilst the pain will never be less, and grieving will never become easier, the God I believe in will never change. Without life’s valleys, we would never appreciate the views from the top, and without life’s challenges, our character would never grow. And thus, I rejoice – not because of my current situation but because there’s a reason and a purpose for my grief.

And so, these have been my thoughts. Grief – a complicated, question-raising, physical, shared and repetitive thing. It’s universal, and unavoidable: a side effect of love, something which my Oma taught us all a great deal about during her time on this earth. And just like the ocean, which ebbs and flows, breathing in, breathing out, I will also learn to flow, breathing in, and breathing out, as the tides of life bring joy and pain, until one day only fond memories remain.

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