I read a lot of books – fiction and non-fiction alike, but I try to spend my time immersed in the content rather than pulling inspiration for my own work. I find that if I look too hard, I’ll miss the joy of reading. But this last week, I was reading a novel about a woman in the hotel industry and the way her life has pivoted. She made a throwaway comment that got me thinking, “This is something we need to talk more about,” so here we are. This week, we’re unpacking what I’ll call blindsiding grief – the stuff beyond the stuff we never saw coming.
Blindsiding grief is not losing someone unexpectedly, although the same idea applies. Blindsiding grief is when you notice yourself grieving that which you never thought much of in the first place. Typically we assume we will grieve the death of a loved one, the loss of a relationship. We understand shared or communal grief, the weight we feel on behalf of others we care for, and we know we will grieve missed opportunities or broken expectations.
But what can we do to understand our grieving process when the loss reveals an unexplored desire along with an immediately closed door?
There are a few ways blindsiding grief shows up in our stories. In the case of the novel I read, it was regarding an unexpected pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage, followed by the loss of the partnership as well. This character had never wanted children, felt overwhelmed by the prospect of a pregnancy, and struggled deeply with the miscarriage in a way she didn’t understand.
I won’t dwell on this example, because I don’t want to feed the trope of “suddenly becoming maternal” when one becomes pregnant. Not all pregnant people want to be pregnant, and becoming pregnant doesn’t always change their mind. So as a side note, be mindful of how you speak with someone in this situation. It’s easy to project our expectations and feelings onto someone without pausing to learn how they really feel about their lives.
And isn’t that true of grief in general? We are so careful to even speak about loss, we put our fears first in the conversation or supportive moments instead of allowing the griever to take center stage. Knowing your own story of grief is 100% different than being a meaningful grief supporter, and blindsiding grief is one of those areas you can allow yourself to practice really listening to someone in panic and pain. I would almost consider it Level Two grief support work, because you’re now expecting yourself to handle straightforward, expected loss events as well as supporting someone as they navigate why they’re grieving something they didn’t want in the first place.
Okay, so let’s pick a different example. We’ll use one from my life. Quite a few years ago, I worked for a very unhealthy person and wanted to leave, but I was financially stuck and honestly, enmeshed with the person and the success of the business. When this person fired me for pushing back on their ethically gray workplace decisions, I was entirely conflicted. I knew I needed to leave, and yet felt great loss around the circumstances and next steps. I noticed myself grieving the loss of my reputation at work and with our professional community. I grieved being fired; being rejected as not good enough and started believing the awful stories this person continued to tell about me and messages sent to me. I was grieving my own identity, wondering why I stayed for so long in a situation that felt unsafe and unhealthy, knowing damn well that had I taken a step back to observe the situation differently, I would have declined the job on day one.
Grieving this job loss meant pulling on all the strings it was tied to, and I wasn’t expecting to do any of that when I left that job. Years later, that person still comes up in therapy from time to time, as I reflect on what I’ve learned and who I’ve become.
Blindsiding grief from losing a dangerous or unhealthy relationship is also hard for others to understand. We know we’re not in a great place, but for everyone around us to completely miss the nuance of the connection (and what we might gain from it) is an isolating experience. How can we trust someone to hold space for our grief when they’re so busy inserting their own understanding and opinions in the process?
Following this idea a little further takes us to the obvious conversation of abusive relationships. My grandmother worked in a domestic violence shelter as an advocate and counselor for over 20 years, and while she wouldn’t disclose details, the generalized impression I got was one of compassionate listening and resource creating. Her role wasn’t to tell these women and children how unsafe they’d been. It was to come alongside them and develop new avenues of living for the women and children to grieve and heal in their own ways.
While she had plenty of clients eventually return to their abusers, she had so many more experience a fresh chance at life because they were offered kindness when the blindsiding grief finally surfaced. It’s so complicated to understand why someone would hesitate to leave a dangerous situation, which often feels like permission to judge the griever. We create a litmus test of whether or not we would leave, and forget the nuance of connection, history, codependency, enmeshment, family patterns, basic needs being met. There are so many justifications for staying, even when we can point to the justifications to leave as well, that many in abusive relationships remain because at least they don’t have to constantly justify their decisions.
Loss aversion is a huge reason for someone to stay in a dangerous relationship. The blindsiding grief when they eventually do leave to find and create safety is a huge reason why we need more grief literacy in our communities. If we could create a safer place for people to land without judgment or questioning their sanity, maybe the fear of loss and grief work would lessen. Maybe more people would hold themselves to a higher standard of being lovable and worthy of respect. We can’t know until we allow ourselves as outsiders to a situation to invite those experiencing the loss to be honest with themselves, and unafraid of being judged for doing so.
I’ve grieved for abusive people when they’ve died. It feels like self-betrayal, grieving someone who harmed you. For me, the loss itself was a blindside, as was my response. We keep wanting grief to fit into a nice package; one that we can bundle and sell in five easy lessons for a quick weekend retreat. Grief will never make full sense, and yet here we are, continuing to make meaning and gain understanding of our own context and stories in a way that feels like healing…because it is.
As we continue to recognize ourselves in the aftermath of grief, we learn new things about ourselves and who we are becoming. Think back to your experience and expectations of life before you knew what grief was like. Were you rigid? Did you plan for the future like it was a foregone conclusion? I had strict ideas of where I was heading and although the details were fuzzy, the intention was clear: My life would be what I envisioned.
Learning to swing with the shifts meant more than simply holding on while gravity threw me back and forth. I had to notice the rhythm.
There were moments in my grief experience and even future life planning that felt easier to navigate. The pressures alleviated and I felt like I had some momentum; upward swings, if you will. And of course, there were times I noticed myself really gripping the tabletops like I would fall off the edge of the world if one more thing added pressure. I feel like blindsiding grief is that gust of wind trying to blow me off-course – as if this new and unexpectedly necessary experience of grief can’t possibly fit into my already overwhelming life.
But each time I’ve experienced it, it wasn’t the loss that made itself comfortable in my life. It was me, inviting the grief into the story. We have an idea that we write our own stories and tell our own tales and yes, of course, that’s the power of self-efficacy. I don’t believe it’s all planned out and scheduled according to a grand plot master. What I believe is that we have a choice to engage the side-characters in our story or not. We carry the influence of who we are into every side adventure and subplot we are offered, and when my latest blindsiding grief event occurred, I knew I had a choice to include the narrative or to strike it all from the record.
Because I spend time exploring what grief means to me and how it impacts my life, I noticed the wind on the approach. Blindsided though I was, I kept my head up and saw that despite what shuffled the leaves in the trees around me, I was grounded. I was prepared and going to survive another heavy loss, and all the secondary losses that came with it. I had learned my own rhythm in grief, and knew I would be okay.
Thank you for listening to episode 108 of Restorative Grief. As I write this essay, my own blindsiding grief feels like an exhale. The somatic practioner in me notices the softening of my facial muscles and while it’s not a true smile, it’s not a frown, either. As you explore your own lived experiences for opportunities to bring more healing, honor yourself. Honor the body that has carried your grief – both blatant and blindsiding – for your entire life. The fibers of your being are worthy of the love, safety, and honor found within a healthy relationship to grief. And while no one wants to grieve, no one has the option of avoiding it, either. So consider today a fresh invitation to dive in, eyes wide open and heart ready to find your smile again.
If this is your first time listening to Restorative Grief, I hope you’ll remember that your stories are just as important to tell as anyone else’s. Remember what matters – those core values of your being that propel you forward day by day, and thank you for making this show part of that journey. Please subscribe so you’ll never miss a weekly episode, and leave a shiny five star review. Those little winks from my listeners remind me that although this work is vulnerable and challenging, it will always be worthwhile. If you’re interested in more content from Restorative Grief, you can check out MandyCapehart.com/coaching or join our Patreon or free coaching group online – everything is in the show notes for you.
And as always, one last thing. Please remember, the only solution for grief is to do the work of grieving. Thank you for listening. I’ll see you next week.
Links + Resources for this episode: