When we’re young, we get a lot of the messaging ‘You can do whatever you set your mind to’ – or some variation of that.
We may be told we can do whatever job we want.
We may be told we can get married and have children.
We may have been told we could buy a house, or travel.
There’s one thing we’re not told about – and that’s the unspoken grief of life.
What do I mean by 'unspoken grief of life'?
There are two aspects to this.
One, is the fact that inherently as we get older and go through life, we lose possibilities.
When we’re younger – whether it’s in our teens, twenties, thirties, forties or beyond – there are levels of open possibilities.
(Side note to recognise that this sentence will be true to different degrees for different people and situations – depending on things like gender, race, cultural background and socioeconomic status.)
Usually, even if there are certain restrictions, there are areas where we have expectations or hopes about how things will go.
They can be big things like expecting to be able to have our own children, or have a specific career, or, like I mentioned, buying a house.
They can be smaller like having a dream wedding, a water birth, or not being part of a group you thought you’d be a part of.
As we get older – even if we have, relatively speaking, wonderful lives – those possibilities slowly close.
We thought we would have accomplished certain things by a certain age.
Things that we assumed would automatically be true for us do not come to pass.
The second is that we say goodbye to phases of our lives.
When we’re in our 30’s we often can’t go out as much and recover as quickly as we can in our 30’s or 40’s.
Children go from babies, to kids, to teenagers, to adults who leave our home.
Our bodies change, their capacity for activity may change.
We may be excited about starting a new phase of life, but that also means saying goodbye to the old one.
Yes, but... someone has it worse than me.
Unfortunately, one of the standard refrains in our society is ‘someone else has it worse than me.’
How dare you feel sad you didn’t have a boy when you have three wonderful girls?
Yes, you might not have been able to have kids but at least you’re safe and healthy.
Boo hoo, you don’t have a bigger house – at least you HAVE a house.
So you can’t travel as much as you’d like – there are people struggling for food, you know.
A lot of people wanted to be a professional athlete and didn’t – get over it!
You got 99% of what you dreamed of – how dare you be disappointed in anything in your life.
This is why it's unspoken.
This is the unspoken grief as we move through life.
As one choice made closes another off.
As change brings joy AND means losing something.
As things don’t work out the way we pictured so we lose the possibility of it being a different way.
As events happen in our life that lead us to choices that mean we lost years of our life on ‘the wrong path’.
These are all things that we lose, these are all things that cause grief.
And no one speaks about it.
We don't want to be ungrateful - but these feelings exist.
Because we don’t want to be ungrateful.
We don’t want to be insensitive to others who have greater hardships than we do.
Outside of certain society-sanctioned griefs (like infertility, death, health loss), we’re made to feel – or we make ourselves feel – like we have NO RIGHT to feel sad about these things.
However, the emotions that we don’t experience, that we don’t process, that we don’t acknowledge…
Have to go somewhere.
They can live in your body, they can sneak out in other ways, like drinking or numbing or avoidance or anger or seething resentment.
Or, you can give them space to exist.
How to give this grief space
How do you do that?
First and foremost, validate your own feelings.
Notice if you’re feeling sad about the dream you had not happening the way you wanted.
Notice if your knee-jerk reaction is to minimise or dismiss that emotion, or if you feel guilty for having.
Remember two things can be true at the same time.
Yes, you not having your dream career in broadcasting is, relative to grief or challenges of people who are food insecure is a ‘small’ loss.
But it’s still a valid loss, a valid feeling, and your grief is valid.
Now that you’ve given space for that emotion, you may want to get support.
AND... don't be an insensitive douchecanoe
It’s like the circle of support (if you haven’t heard of it, I can share about it in another article).
You go to someone who is NOT suffering more than you for support.
Don’t go on social media and loudly complain that you didn’t make it to a C-suite position by the time you were 40 when you’re earning 50k/year.
Don’t complain to a friend who’s suffered with infertility that you can’t have a third baby.
Don’t complain to a family member with a chronic illness that your dream of running a marathon in under 3 hours is gone forever.
And DEFINITELY don’t express your disappointment in ways that would harm others around you (example: if you didn’t get to do something because you had kids, don’t actually put that on your children).
AKA use the awareness that might have stopped you from allowing yourself to feel the feeling at all to stop you from making others feel worse about their own situation.
You can feel this unspoken grief of life AND be sensitive that others have more struggles in those areas than you do.
Instead, do this:
Hopefully, you’ll have a close friend or family member (or sensitive therapist) who can sympathise with your grief and give you space to verbally process your feelings of loss.
If you don’t, journaling is always a good option – verbalising feelings can be very helpful in being able to store and process them (I learned this in The Whole Brained Child by Dr Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson).
You may already know what things you’re grieving, if you are.
You could take a deep breath, connect to your body (as long as it’s safe to do so) and ask yourself:
‘What did I wish would be different? What *relatively small thing* did I imagine for my life that hasn’t happened?’
*in case there are obvious big things – this is more for the things we don’t feel justified in grieving
Something will come to your mind.
Notice your reaction to it (as long as it’s safe for you to sit in that space with it).
Do you feel embarrassed because it seems trivial?
Do you scold yourself because others have it so much worse?
Do you blame yourself because if you had made different choices, or done something different, that thing could have happened?
No matter what, every moment we say ‘yes’ to something, we’re saying ‘no’ to a million other things.
Not to mention how much in our life is simply out of our control.
Today, the one wish I have for you, is that you give this emotion space.
That you don’t judge yourself for feeling it.
That you don’t shut it down (unless, of course, it’s triggering and you need to be with support to explore this feeling – remember, you’re your ultimate authority here!).
Have compassion for yourself, the one who wanted this thing that didn’t happen, or didn’t happen the way you wanted it.
You don’t need to tell anyone about it, especially if you’re afraid of being judged for it by others.
But this emotion lives in your body, whether you acknowledge it or not.
And the body can either carry it for you, or you can give this grief space to express itself, and then leave.
And it may come back – if you live in a body that experiences a lot of physical challenges, you may grieve a lot for the healthy body / life you didn’t have.
If there are things that aren’t accessible for you that you hoped would be part of your life, you may face it every time that thing comes around.
The main takeaway:
I want you to know – this is NORMAL. Everyone I’ve worked with, or even who I know (that I can think of), go through these stages of grief because of just… life.
It’s not a grief we’re taught about. We’re not prepared for the feeling when you hit a certain age, or pass a certain milestone, and realise something isn’t possible anymore.
Even if you don’t want the thing anymore, you may still grieve the possibility being gone.
We lose our child selves, we lose our 20’s selves, we lose our 30’s, 40’s and 50’s selves.
Our bodies change, our faces change.
Things we thought would happen don’t, or don’t happen the way we want, or we simply leave behind a phase in our life that is now gone forever.
(Example: I don’t want to have any more babies. My children are heading towards their teen years. I still miss and feel sad sometimes about that baby stage again, even though I don’t want it to happen again).
We’re often instinctively feel it’s wrong to feel sad about these things.
That it’s spoiled, entitled, selfish.
It IS spoiled, entitled and selfish to not be sensitive to how we may be privileged relative to other people.
It’s perfectly normal to feel sad as we move from one phase of life to another.
Sad AND happy. Or any complicated mix.
It’s perfectly normal to be excited about what’s coming next for you in life, and grieve what the new phase in life means you’re losing.
If you feel a bit off as you get older, as you make one transition or another, or as something doesn’t work out the way you hoped it would – even though it’s not exactly working out badly –
Remember, this is just the unspoken grief of life.
We’re not taught about it, we don’t speak about it. We often feel too ashamed to share it or even look at it.
Hopefully, as we build the awareness of how natural this is, it will be easier for us to recognise it, make space for it, process it, and release it.
In case you’d like to explore this in your own journaling practice, here are some prompts to use, if you’d like:
One: What are the things that I’m sad weren’t part of my life, or can no longer be part of my life, that I also feel like ‘shouldn’t be that big of a deal’?
Two: Where am I judging these feelings in myself?
Three: What does my inner self need to hear to feel comforted as I recognise the feelings of grief I’m experiencing around this?
As always, only explore what feels safe for you to do so.