The Grief No One Told Me About

This time last year, I was still in therapy. I remember sitting in the therapist’s office bursting into tears several times as I processed my past experiences. I thought of the girl I used to be, the girl who wore her heart on the sleeve because she believed her authenticity could change people, the girl who enjoyed daydreaming and was easily impressed.

As I knocked on the therapist’s door for the twentieth time, I was no longer daydreaming or easily impressed. I saw reality as clear as day— quite the opposite of what I’d deluded myself into believing. It was like I’d taken a red pill and gotten out of the matrix. I was both happy and sad — and perhaps even resentful — that my life was never the same again. My therapist said I was grieving over my past self; I was growing into an adult woman who takes care of her own needs.

All the good stuff. Yet, I felt so strange.

For a very long time, I was living a life that I thought was fun and interesting but turned out to be hurting me inside out. I was alone and detached from my roots; I used superficially good feelings to band-aid deep psychological wounds; I surrounded myself with people who didn’t share my core values; I had nothing stable in my daily life; I was selling myself terribly short while looking for answers in broken people; I was feeling lost and depressed. Many nights, I screamed silently into a pillow, but the pain wouldn’t go away.

I couldn’t believe that it eventually did.

Within the short span of a year, I found me, I found a stable life, I found a healthy serious relationship that has the warm familiarity of my upbringing, I found myself crossing to the other side of my mid-twenties, becoming solid.

In Vietnamese, there’s a proverb that says “like a kite in the wind” which has the same meaning as “like a duck to water”. Well, I’m that duck and therapy is the water. Perhaps therapy has worked out too well and the growth has happened too fast that I found myself reluctant to step into it. Life is pushing me along while I’m still clumsily piecing together all the pieces of who I am, trying to make sense of them all.

When I look at the calendar, months have passed and all the things that used to overwhelm my days have become the past — further and further away from my present. They’re supposed to be irrelevant now, but my mind hasn’t quite come to terms with this newfound reality yet.

Part of me is still holding onto what I always knew — the pain, the shame, the trauma, the abusers, the toxic relationships, which used to be my normal — while the rest is progressively rewriting the narrative of me through positive life changes. With each day passing, I find it harder and harder to identify with my old self. It didn’t help that the pandemic suddenly happened in the middle of my healing journey, drastically changing everyday life. Almost nothing in my current life resembles my old life, leaving so many gaps that I didn’t know how to fill.

The only time I’m close to my old self and old life is during my nightmares when my brain handles the stress I’d tried to suppress. According to Lisa M. Shulman, MD“disturbing dreams by night and intrusive thoughts by day are evidence of traumatic memories that are buried in the subconscious, and were never properly integrated with past memories and emotions, our previous life experience.”

In a way, I’m pleased to see that my life is finally stable enough for those memories to be relayed and processed, instead of being buried away by even more traumatic events— I have space for them now. Though, I suspect that those recurring nightmares are also evidence of me wanting to feel connected to my old self. I would think, “Without these memories, how do I know that she existed? How do I validate her pain? How do I appreciate her strength?” On the other hand, I feel a sense of guilt and resentment for having ever let those traumas happen to my old self and having had to grow in such a hard way.

Luckily, as time passes, the nightmares have been less frequent. “Over time, the intensity of grief tends to slowly decline, and the periods between waves of deep sadness get longer,” said Robert G. Robinson, MD. I feel more and more comfortable with my new life, including the post-lockdown lifestyle. I don’t actively feel guilty or resentful — it’s mostly a passing feeling that I could let be. In fact, I don’t have any reason to be bothered by the past as none of the toxicity is kept in my present. I realise that it’s only a matter of me telling myself that it’s okay to move on, to be who I am now, to embrace my present, and doing just that.

It’s okay to grieve.

As I’m rebuilding and redefining myself, I’m learning to accept what was and let go of what used to be. Beyond the pandemic and my therapy work are the mid-20s transitioning and physical aging that I’m learning to get used to. I remind myself that moving forward doesn’t mean killing or abandoning any part of me. She’s still here, with me, in my upgraded instinct, in my sound judgment, in my growth. I’m not her anymore, but she is always part of my becoming — cherished and treasured.

No one told me that life transformation, no matter how positive, has a price — grief, but I’m grateful for this experience. I know I’m going through it because I have successfully built a loving, compassionate relationship with myself — and it also means giving my old self the permission to go through whatever it was she did so she could find her reasons and become me. Most importantly, this grief teaches me that I’m deeply, marvellously human. And I guess that must be okay.

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