Here’s to Grief
Updated: Jan 2
“Oh, you should definitely go to the Alps,” he said, swirling his cocktail to clink the ice. “We just got back from Switzerland and had the most incredible time skiing.”
I was at a friend’s birthday party a little over a year ago, talking to a couple I’d just met. Both of them were in sweaters and jeans, her hair bright red and his dark brown. (As I try to place myself back at the scene, my memory of what the couple looked like has been completely replaced by Daphne and Cameron from White Lotus—but, whatever, close enough.)
“What about Morrocco?” Daphne asked. “Have you ever been? Shopping at the markets there is unreal.”
“No, I haven’t been...” My words trailed off as I took a sip of chardonnay.
“Well, anyway—you’re going to have such a fun year!” Cameron interjected as he raised his glass, and nudged Daphne to do the same. “Cheers!”
“Cheers,” I laughed, picking up my wine. “Here’s to grief, I guess!”
At that point, I hadn’t yet had enough practice answering the question, “So, what do you do?” At that party, I’d said something like, “I’m getting ready to travel for a year and write about grief.” It was easier for me and the Daphnes and the Camerons to amble through a conversation about the travel part rather than dig into the painful grief part of my upcoming journey.
When I think back on those early conversations, and even looking at how I framed the GrieveLeave.com website a year ago, I glamorized and emphasized how important I thought traveling would be in my grieving. I was thinking of it as an output—my travels would be my trophies of a year well-done. Even when I first sat down to write this post, I caught myself reverting to that old mindset, as I began my drafts with flashy stats like how many cities I went to this year (35), how many countries (4), and how many miles I put on my RAV4 (more than 20,000).
Maybe you’ve been following this journey since January 1st, or maybe you’re new here and just crossing your fingers for more Adele content (honestly, I respect that). I’ve learned a hell of a lot about myself over the past 365 days of Grieve Leave, and about what meaningful grieving looks and feels like: it’s not what I’d call “fun,” it’s certainly not glamorous, and, I imagine, it’s nothing like skiing in the Alps.
It turns out that even though I thought a full passport would be a symbol of a meaningful year, I’ve realized that Grieve Leave wasn’t really about the travel, at all. Travel turned out to be the means to an end: to better understand how I felt in my grief. After a year of traveling the world, from Graceland to the Super Dome to Oaxaca, my takeaways from my grief sabbatical year really boil down to just three things that I needed all along in order to grieve authentically: quiet, compassion, and community.
Yes, traveling helped me get to these takeaways. But to keep living out what I’ve learned, to keep grieving, none of these things requires any gas, and none costs a dime.
I spent a lot of time by myself this year, and, for the first time in my life, I was ok with that. Spending time alone allowed me to get quiet enough to hear my own feelings and acknowledge them. Having all that quiet time made space for my grief.
Getting quiet became powerful for me when I spent two weeks driving across the country by myself at the beginning of the year. I started to notice that it felt especially quiet on the highway in the middle of New Mexico, where an hour would go by without seeing another car or a single building. Later on, the quiet found me on the roads of southern Colorado that wound around frozen, rocky peaks. At the start of my trip, I blasted Britney and Taylor and true crime podcasts galore to keep me entertained. (Maybe all that excitement is why I got a speeding ticket on the second day of my road trip.) But eventually, I found myself turning the radio off, something inside of me simply wanting to be present on the open road.
There were quite a few times when I’d round a corner into a breathtaking view, and I’d turn down the volume in order to focus on my feelings—this wasn’t something I did consciously, it just kind of happened. The thoughts that often surfaced for me in those quiet moments taking it all in were, “I wish my dad could see this,” with tears in my eyes. The quiet helped me let out the grief that I had kept tucked away for so long. Over those two weeks, I drove for hours every day in silence, the only sounds around me the air whipping at my windows, and the light snores of two tired pups in the back seat.
For the rest of the year, I’ve worked to recreate that quiet because it became so important to me. But, it turns out, I don’t have to be alone on I-40 in the middle of the desert to find quiet moments to focus on my grief. Now, I seek out silence at home every day. A few ways that I do that? I leave my phone in the other room while I drink my hot tea in the morning, so I can hear myself think and let myself feel whatever is surfacing for me that day. I’ll often do yoga without any background music on, or at least turn off the tunes for a few minutes of silent meditation at the end of my practice. And if I’m feeling upset about something, I try to take a few minutes of quiet, alone time to sink in and really listen to what my feelings are, not just react to them immediately.
My father would’ve gotten a kick out of all of this. Once I asked him what my first word was as a child, and his response was, “I don’t even know—you just started talking in complete sentences one day and wouldn’t shut the f*** up.” (He was kidding, of course, and always relished in how outspoken I was, even as a toddler. But he honestly didn’t remember my first word.) Anyone who knows me well would agree: before this year, I was never the quiet one. But now? I’ve learned the power of silence to better understand how I feel, and to hear my grief.
Being able to get quiet enough to hear my grief is one thing, but giving myself the permission to grieve is another thing, entirely. After a lifetime of idolizing productivity, my career, and what I saw as success, this year I finally gave myself permission to do less and feel more. I learned to be compassionate with myself and my grief, becoming more accepting of those these gut-wrenching feelings.
I first realized I had some work to do when it came to compassion in January on a trip to England, when my brother and I sorted through my great aunt’s house and belongings after she died. Although my brother and I look a lot alike, we are very different in many ways—including how we approach going through a dead loved one’s stuff. Back in January, I was frustrated that my brother was moving slowly and keeping so many of our great aunt’s things. He wasn’t doing enough, like I was with my huge donate pile. The clock was ticking, and I was impatient as I saw an entire house full of stuff we needed to go through in a short period of time.
At first, I was anything but compassionate with my brother’s grief for our great aunt, for whom he had coordinated healthcare across an ocean for years before she died. And in my perpetual tendency to hustle, I was pushing past my own feelings, smothering them by Getting Stuff Done and Making S*** Happen. I wasn’t letting myself authentically grieve, and I certainly wasn’t compassionate that my brother was trying to grieve in his own way.
Thankfully, my brother has been a mirror for me this year. He has been patient and supportive since he snapped that photo of me the evening of December 31st as I clicked “publish” on GrieveLeave.com. In England, he and I had our first of what would be many challenging and poignant conversations this year on our respective experiences with grief—we had many, many more as our grandmother neared and reached the end of her life. My brother helped me realize that when we are hurting, we all deserve patience and compassion, and not the tough love and “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” mantras I was used to giving. He told me—pretty directly—that I needed to respect his feelings and his process for grieving our Great Aunt Shirley. He needed me to be more compassionate.
It had always felt safer to keep charging forward, to plow through life, to grind, and to push. When my grief peeked in, I’d push it out of the way with productivity—even in this year of Grieve Leave, those old habits kicked back in sometimes. My brother helped me ask the question: What would happen if I slowed down? What if I let myself feel all those ugly, painful, griefy thoughts? The answer: I felt better.
So, after a stubborn start, I fell apart over and over and over again this year. There’s nothing comfortable or pretty about real, honest grieving. Sometimes it can feel like a free-fall. But I’ve learned to be compassionate with myself and with others going through that pain, even when my mind tries to default to the old escapist daily grind. Today, when I feel grief popping up (sometimes out of nowhere), I do my best to love myself through it. I give myself the compassion to feel it all, not avoid it, and let those messy feelings be totally okay.
At the end of what’s been a long year of painful work on grief, I realize that I didn’t need a trip to England to build compassion—I needed to have open and honest conversations with someone I love. My brother has helped me be gentle enough to sit in all that grief once I found it.
We can’t take away the pain of grief—that’s a given. It comes with the loss. But the isolation we feel, like we’re the only ones who have ever felt this pain, that there must be something wrong with us? That we can do something about.
I used to feel like my grief was my painful secret that made me different from everyone else. But, this year I’ve connected with so many other people who have gone through painful losses. I’ve realized over and over again that I’m not alone, and that sense of community has helped me feel more whole in a way that I didn’t know was possible.
I found a community in the woods of Pennsylvania when I worked at a camp this summer for grieving children. Nearly all the other counselors had lost parents, too, and all of the campers did. I wanted to bottle up and take home that feeling of belonging—I felt like I truly fit in somewhere for the first time since my mother died when I was a child. I can’t overstate how remarkable that feeling was…it was like I could breathe better every day up there, and I hadn’t realized how short of breath I’d been for so long.
But community can be built virtually too, no woods required. I've gotten emails and messages and comments from people all over the world who are connecting through Grieve Leave: People who have left their jobs. People who have left relationships. People who have lost loved ones. (And even some, like me, who have done all three! Hat trick!) Building community with others who are grieving doesn’t mean we need to travel far—we can connect from our couches, if we want to.
When we come together in our grief, in person or virtually, we are stronger. It’s the club no one wants to be a part of, but damn if it isn’t amazing to meet other members.
Grieve Leave started as an idea I had to take time to grieve, but this journey was never intended just for me. My mindset from day one was that I wanted to use the privilege I had in leaving my job to create something out of this year that could help other people who are grieving, too. Stay tuned on my social media (@rfeinglos) and to GrieveLeave.com for what that will look like moving forward—because this Grieve Leave community is just getting started, my friends…
I look back at who I was a year ago, and I felt completely sunk. I was angry about the way my life was turning out: no parents, no marriage, a Covid-ravaged world, a grandmother who was slowly dying…and I’d just left my job on a gamble that I might help myself feel better if I spent time grieving. There were moments when I regretted that decision: I called my partner in one of my lowest nights this year to legitimately ask him, "Do you think I ruined my life by doing all this?" His response was, "No, Becki. I think you saved your life.”
Today, after grieving for a year, after taking in the quiet, learning how to act with compassion, and by building a strong community, I feel like I’m the most myself that I’ve ever been. I feel at peace with exactly who I am and how I feel. That doesn't mean I feel great all the time—I can still feel sunk every now and then. But now, I feel proud of not just what I do but who I am.
That means that now when I go to parties, my answer to the question, “What do you do?” has changed. These days you might hear me say, “I am a writer, advocate, and educator on grief and grieving.” I might explain that I took a yearlong grief sabbatical, and I might be tempted to dig into the places I traveled…but I do my best to center the conversation around the hard part—because I’m not scared to talk about grieving anymore.
To conclude this year of Grieve Leave, I want to propose a toast to all of us who are grieving today and who will be tomorrow.
Here’s to 2023:
Let us be compassionate.
Let us connect with each other.
Let us be unafraid of what we hear in the silence.
Let us be brave enough to face our feelings.
Let us make our loved ones proud.
Let us make ourselves proud.
Here’s to grief!
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