‘I had to stare directly in the eye of what I lost.’: Woman shares candid reality of grief

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Experiencing Grief Unexpectedly

“Grief is a funny thing.

It comes in waves as they say, but those waves can hit many years later out of nowhere. Happy moments you believe will be full of laughter and bliss can trigger something that has been lying dormant deep within you. That happened to me just a month or so ago after graduating college at 36 years old.

Long story short, it was always my dream as a child to go to the University of Florida after high school, live on campus, and get my degree. I was an excellent student who was on my way to receiving scholarships, but my parents’ drug addiction made my life incredibly unstable. I ended up having to drop out of high school due to severe anxiety, panic attacks, and depression at the age of 16, and got my GED. 

Just 2 years later, both of my parents died 3 weeks apart from each other in what would have been the summer after my senior year of high school. I got married that same year, and over the next 14 and a half years, it progressively became more abusive and toxic. In November 2018, my 3 children and I left and were homeless for almost 4 months until we found a small trailer to call our own. After starting my healing journey, I decided to go back to school, enrolled in the University of Florida’s online program, and graduated with my bachelor’s degree in April 2022, walking the stage in a cap and gown for the first time in my life, 20 years after dropping out of high school. It was a dream come true.

So, why was I so sad when I returned home? Why did grief hit me like a ton of bricks after such a beautiful moment in my life?

That weekend in Gainesville, Florida was one of the best of my life. I was able to see and tour the campus for the very first time. I was amazed at how beautiful it was, and it was as if I was transformed in time walking it as a young adult taking on the world. As I marched into the stadium for the first ceremony, I gazed at ‘The Swamp’ in all its glory. I wondered how it would have felt to cheer for my team in the stands. Then, I was able to go to the VIP section of the second ceremony as an Online Student Commencement Speaker. The dean of the school came to me to thank me for my speech and to tell me how proud he was of me. It left me speechless which is very hard to do! I listened to young adults tell stories of their journeys and future aspirations, and I walked the stage with tears in my eyes. It was everything I could ever imagine it could be and more.

Understanding The Reality Of Grief

When I returned home, it began to sink in that although I was able to achieve my dream of graduating from UF, I never got to live out the full experience. I had to go through incredible trials that left me broken in the years that I should have been starting my life. My parents weren’t there to take my picture and beam with pride. I was 36 years old watching what my life could have been and what it should have been, but instead, I was picking up the pieces of addicted parents, a traumatic childhood, and an abusive marriage. I pushed everything aside for everyone else.

Then, the guilt began. I told myself, ‘You shouldn’t feel this way! What about your children and husband? You wouldn’t have them if you went along with your dreams. What about all the people that you are helping by telling your story? Isn’t it worth it all?’ The answer is yes, of course, I would never want to trade what I have, and I am so grateful to Jesus for it all, but it didn’t negate the fact I was hurting. It was the first time in my life I had to stare directly in the eye of what I lost as a child. It was robbed of me. I was not set up to accomplish my dreams, and it hurt. I also was reminded once again that my parents were not there. Their seats were empty once again, and it should have never been that way.

Allow Yourself Time To Heal

As I did a ‘tune-up’ appointment with my therapist, she explained to me that I was grieving. At first, my gut instinct was to find this extremely annoying. I believed I was too old to grieve over my childhood, and I should be happy with what I accomplished. This is how I handled grief for most of my life. It was an inconvenience, and everyone needed me. I never believed I had time to grieve, but as I listened to her explain what was happening, I decided that this time, I would do this the healthy way. She told me to allow myself the time to grieve, even at 36 years old. This was my childhood. It was a horrible tragedy, and I needed to treat it as such.

So, that’s what I did. I ugly cried. I reminisced. I got angry. I smiled thinking about the good memories. I questioned how things could have been different but praised God for the blessings and protection he provided. I grieved at 36 years old for something that happened over half my life ago, and it was the best gift that I could give myself.

Don’t be ashamed if you are going through grief, whether it’s in the exact moment of trauma or many years later. There’s no playbook on how grief should look. God sees your pain, and he is not mad at you over it. The people in your life that truly care about your wellbeing will benefit from the time you take for yourself and will be happy that you are healing. Talk to someone, scream in a pillow, blast music, cry over ice cream, do whatever you need to process. Be the friend you need for yourself.

Grief may be funny, but it is a part of life.”

woman holds a photo of her deceased parents while in her cap and gown on graduation day
Courtesy of Dana Rutherford

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Dana Rutherford. You can follow her journey on Instagram and her blog. Join the Love What Matters family and subscribe to our newsletter.

Read more from Dana here:

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