And then one day joy showed up - A personal journey through grief

I woke up one day and found that 6 years of my life had passed. Passed in a haze of sadness, exhaustion and despair. I had aged, white hairs had shown up, and life had moved on, seemingly without me. Friends had grown tired of waiting for me to come out of hibernation and had slowly, gradually stopped calling or inviting me out. It felt like stepping out of a deep dark cave into bright sunlight, it felt overwhelming and I wasn’t quite sure where to begin.

6 years before I had begun a journey of trying to conceive a child with my new partner. I also unknowingly began the deepest, darkest chapter of my life so far. A journey through grief and loss. The hoped-for, longed-for child (actually, children) did not come to be. Instead I faced personal demons, a crisis of the soul, and ultimately a period of intense growth and learning.

I’d faced other grief in my life, but none like this. I knew that it could take a year or more to grieve a heartfelt loss. What I didn’t realise was how the rollercoaster of trying to conceive month by month extends, prolongs and intensifies that experience. At times it felt like grieving a new loss every month, and an endless, impossible-to-get-off cycle of despair and hopelessness, followed by renewed hope and fantasy 2 weeks later, followed by inevitable despair and hopelessness all over again. I think these losses were cumulative and there was never time to recover from one before the next one piled on top of it. I came to see hope as the enemy, as a toxic thing in my life that did nothing but set me up for a bigger fall. I lost count of how many times people would say to me ‘oh I still have hope for you’, a kindly-intended sentiment that would leave me feeling like punching them in the face. They had no idea how painful it was to keep hoping.

The rollercoaster ride went on for around 5 years for me, before the final blow came with perhaps the biggest loss of all. The recognition that it wasn’t going to happen, the slowly dawning realisation of the finality that it would never happen. I would never birth a child, never be a mother.

I was staring into an abyss. I tried to look forwards into the rest of my life and I could see nothing but a big black empty hole. I had never pictured middle age or old age without family being an integral part of that picture and I couldn’t see an alternative vision of how that could be. I looked around me and saw no role models. I imagined a life completely devoid of meaning, purpose and connection. A life of loneliness and regret. I seriously wondered if it was worth sticking around for. Those thoughts plagued me for a long time. I looked into the future and saw it only getting worse. Old age without kids or grandkids. No Christmas or birthday rituals, no family holidays, no one to visit me in my old age.

People tried to console me with ‘but you have so much freedom!’ But freedom to do what? I could no longer find anything I enjoyed in life or wanted to do.

It’s a scary, scary place to be.

There was anger, rage, envy, jealousy, sadness, hopelessness and despair. There were tears that seemed like they would never stop. There was guilt and self-blame about life choices and decisions.

There was deep deep shame that kept much of this experience a very privately guarded one. There was depression and exhaustion and low, low energy. And it rolled on and on.

It seemed that this dark tunnel I found myself in had no end. I went through the motions of living my life, going to work, seeing friends from time to time, doing things I once used to enjoy. I went through the motions of congratulating other people on their pregnancies and newborns, all the while dying inside and being consumed by jealousy and rage. I thought I would never know lightness and joy again.

But time does not stand still and one day, seemingly out of nowhere, I was hanging out with a friend and her 10 year old daughter, we were making up games, being silly, and then it dawned on me ‘I’m having fun’. It crept up quietly without a big fanfare. It had been such a long time since I recalled that experience, I soaked it in, but didn’t take it for granted. And then low and behold a few days later, there it was again, strolling through one of my favourite cities, looking at old buildings, shops and cafes.... joy.

It appeared as suddenly and mysteriously as it had disappeared. Who can say what led to turning that corner at that point in time? It had been just over a year since that final realisation, that final giving up of the dream. And I think that big grief like this definitely needs a good long stretch of healing, but somehow that healing had been kept on hold the whole time I was still hoping and fighting with reality.

Somehow for me I believe that letting go of the dream, reaching that moment of reality acceptance in all its bleakness, was the first step on the road to healing.

There’s a quote by the poet Rumi ‘The moment you accept the troubles you have been given, the door will open’. It sat on my bookcase for a long time and I read it every day. It was a guiding light.

And now sadness still shows up at times. Tears still fall, the loss is still palpable. But it’s just one aspect of my life. It’s starting to be interspersed with joy and love and excitement and plans and dreams and goals too.

I learned a lot about life in the last few years. I learned that we’re not in charge, that there’s a path we’re on but it’s not always the one we think we’re on. I learned that acceptance of reality is a key part of healing. I learned that I can face my worst demons and survive, that I’m stronger than I think, and that I am whole, whether or not I achieve my dreams. I learned too that the oldest clichés do have truth – time really can be a healer.