Many people who mourn don’t feel they can admit the darker parts of grief. The days they don’t get out of bed. The feelings of anger or hopelessness or desperation. Oftentimes, when a grieving person tries to share these darker places, his or her feelings are diminished or silenced by others. “There’s always hope,” we’re told, even when we’re feeling hopeless. “Look on the bright side,” we’re encouraged, even when all feels dark. Few understand that deep darkness is a natural part of grief.
In my own life, every day of grief includes a conversation with despair. Even though I choose to move forward with grief, despair is a dark voice that still speaks, sometimes just in a whisper and other times as a shout. My past, my present and my future have all been touched by death. Sometimes life looks very dark. As I journey with grief, I am learning that despair’s voice is important too. To be whole, this darker voice must be acknowledged and heard, not silenced or diminished.
It’s hard to imagine feeling hopeless about my past. My life with Rob brought me so much joy. Yet, I am the sole custodian of that past now. Everything. From the big events to the seemingly insignificant memories now made priceless by his tragic death. I worry that time will take even our past away from me. If I don’t remember it all, it will slip away. The pressure feels overwhelming. I look through old pictures, and I don’t want to forget a single moment. But how can I ever remember it all alone? Despair whispers, “You can’t.”
In my present, I have little time for conversations with hopelessness. I bear the weight of so much responsibility — four children to raise, a home to tend, finances to manage, a life to rebuild. I cover my ears, talk louder, move faster to drown out hopelessness’ voice. Yet when I’ve tucked my children in at night and the house grows quiet, my fears grow. What if something happens to me? How do I find the energy to really live again? I’ve done this alone for ten months, but can I keep this up? Despair whispers, “You can’t.”
If hopelessness whispers in the past and present, it shouts as I look to the future. Lord willing, I have many years ahead. So many years without Rob. I’ll build the second half of my life without him in it. I’ll retire without him in the camping chair beside me. Even the anticipation of joy is tinged with sorrow. Standing at my childrens’ weddings. Bouncing my grandbabies on my knees. All without him. My daughter asks me, “How do I tell my children someday that they don’t have a Grampie?” I don’t know how to answer, and my future begins to look bleak. What will bring meaning to my life once my children are grown and flown? Will I age alone? How can I shoulder this sorrow for the rest of my life? Despair mocks, “You can’t.”
When hopelessness speaks in my life, I am learning to stop and listen. I no longer shush her or tell her to chin up. I don’t spout verses or platitudes or remind her to have faith. Instead, I attend to her. I listen and cry with her. I tell despair how sorry I am that life feels so dark. I remind her that what she has to say is normal, even if it isn’t the full story. I tell her that her presence, her voice, is important — a natural part of grief.
I want to believe that hope, not its lack, will get the last word in my life. I want to believe that resilience is real and attainable. Nevertheless, hopelessness still speaks. If I am to carry my grief in a way that brings life not death, I am learning that I must listen to despair. I must attend gently to her woundedness. In acknowledging this darker part of grief, in giving her a voice, I will find freedom and peace, life and light.
Important note: This post does not substitute for mental health care. If you are contemplating suicide, please reach out for help. Don’t let despair have the last word in your life. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 for free, confidential support. Reach out to them at 1-800-273-8255 if your despair feels really big and if you feel like you can’t go on. They are there to help.
8 thoughts on “When Despair Speaks”
Thank you so much for going to the darker side of grief. This has helped me tremendously!
I’ve been trying to ignore the despair which has not helped, so thank you for your insights and words that that I can speak to directly to despair.
Oh, Sharon, I totally understand! It is hard to turn to those darker voices and listen without judgment or fear.
I like to think of all of these parts of grief as students in a classroom. (I’m a former teacher, so this image helps me.) All of these parts of me raise their hands in the air and clammer for attention. When I ignore one, it only makes it try to get my attention in a louder and more disruptive way. (Think: the student in the class, raising his hand saying “Oooh! Oooh! Pick me!”) I find that these darker voices get angry and disruptive when they’re not listened to.
Here’s where the classroom image really helps me. If I allow a single voice to be the only talker in the classroom, my life becomes really unbalanced. The student in class who answers all the questions actually isn’t helping the whole class move through learning together. And listening to a single voice doesn’t help the WHOLE me to move along through grief. If I only listen to hope, I’m not acknowledging the very real hopelessness I sometimes feel. If I only listen to despair, I’m not acknowledging the fuller picture of my life.
So it’s important to know when to turn to hope or despair or anger and listen, and also to know when it’s time to ask them to take a seat and give it a rest for a while. “You’ve said your piece, darling. Now have a seat and let someone else speak.” Sometimes I imagine hope and despair in conversation with each other. No voice is the sum of all of me.
I’ll point you to this podcast by Tammy Sollenberger that discusses parts of us and how they interact with one another. Perhaps you’ll find something helpful there! http://theoneinside.libsyn.com/
Blessings to you on your journey as you find hope in the midst of despair.
yes, these words in your post help me clarify some emotions
You may be “nicer” to hopelessness and despair than I am. I really can let them have it. I warm up with Psalm 102 and Psalm and sometimes let it rip, both barrels blaring. We don’t all attend to the darker side of grief in the same way, but I very much agree with you, that doing so really is important. And like you, most times, having attended to the darker side of grief, I find “freedom and peace, light and life.” … And always much mystery.
Acknowledgement is 90% of the work, Don! You’re right — we all have to do it in our own way.
I can’t thank you enough for your voicing these feelings. My despairing questions are different from 20 years older. Like this…I inherited our business. Do I want to be a business owner? How do I eventually remove myself and let the kids run it? Will they care about it tenderly like their dad? How much money is required to retire? With my kids all in their own lives will I keep this house forever or find something smaller? It’s a new road. This is largely the only time I have been single. I lived at home throughout college. Married John and moved into married life.
I love that you are being kind to explore all your thoughts. You and my wonderful tribe give me permission to care for myself as well.
So true, Cynthia. We each have our own fears and questions. Sending you all my love as you face your questions and listen patiently to those darker places.
Thank you Clarissa for sharing your thoughts. It has helped me to become more sensitive in identifying my own emotions which are almost always a blur. Despair seems to find me wherever I go and it’s going to take sometime to warm up to it. Much like the character of “Sadness” from the animated movie “Inside Out”. 🙂