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I Avoided My Grief for 30 Years. Here’s What It Cost Me

November 1, 2017
From the WebMD Archives

By Kim Richardson

Sometimes we encounter pain that seems just too big to feel, too frightening to face – it looks like a tsunami. So, we run.

My tsunami came when I was nine years old.

I was jolted awake by the sounds of my mother’s screams – “Bob? Bob?! BOB!” I ran down the hall to my parents’ bedroom. My father was on all fours, gasping for air, his eyes wide with panic. My mother was frantic – desperately trying to figure out how to stop what was happening. I ran to the phone – 9-1-1, the neighbors, anyone – “help us!” My 3-year-old brother stood in the doorway with his stuffed bear, watching. Soon there were sirens, EMTs charging up the stairs. My mother’s panic had been replaced by shock. She sat at the kitchen table with tears running down her face as we heard them upstairs trying, in vain, to save my father. He died there on the bedroom floor.

The instinct to deny my pain took over almost immediately.

When my friends came to console me the next day, I remember “pulling myself together” as I walked toward them – straightening my posture, holding my head up high, determined to show them that I could take it, that I was fine. I remember how good it felt to say the words, “I’m fine” – as if saying the words somehow made it a little bit true. And “I’m fine” didn’t just keep the scary feelings at bay, it also gave me a sense of control, a way to take action, a way to push back.

The more I denied my pain, the more I was praised by the adults around me – “Oh, look how strong she is!” And let me tell you, to a child in extreme pain, praise and acceptance are a powerful – and addictive – balm.

So, I kept saying “I’m fine.” Over and over and over. I said it enough – performed it enough – that I even fooled myself. I believed that I was okay.

And that’s when things got really dangerous. Because pain doesn’t just “go away” – that whole “time heals” thing is a total crock. Time brings new experiences — good and bad — that cover up the pain, making it harder to spot clearly, harder to get to, harder to heal. So, 30 years after my father died, when I looked around for an explanation for all the years of destructive behavior – all my dysfunctional relationships, my horrible decisions, my divorce, my lack of self-worth, my shame, my abusive relationship, my inability to trust, I didn’t know how to explain it all – I couldn’t find the root of the pain in my life because I had covered it up so damn well. All the “I’m fine’s” – 30 years of them – buried the pain of that nine year old girl.

Her pain had been trying to come out, to be heard, to be healed, my entire life.

And, finally, it was.

After years of therapy and a lot of grace, I found my way back to that night where the pain started, back to the tsunami. This time, I didn’t run. I faced it. It hurt – it still hurts – but now, when it hurts, I let the pain come. When I feel a swell of emotion, I run toward it, not away from it. I lean into whatever thought or memory prompted the pain, curious about where it will take me and what I will find. Sometimes the memory leads me to such a deep well of sorrow that, as my tears are falling, I can’t imagine how they’ll ever stop. It feels like I’ll get stuck in that well, like I’ll drown. But I don’t. I cry until I’m done crying – whether it is just a couple short minutes or an entire day of being “weepy.” Every time, the tears eventually stop, and I take a breath of “today.” More tears will come, of course – there will always be tears. But now, I’m not scared to say, “I’m not fine” – because I know, eventually, I will be.


Kim Richardson is an editor at WebMD. She is passionate about emotional health and grief recovery. To read more of her work, follow her on Medium or on Instagram.

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