Our culture sends us the message that we can and should have it all.
It tells us that we should “follow our bliss” and have the perfect career, that we should live in the perfect house in the perfect location, have a fantastic group of friends like “Friends”, and that we should “know” when we meet “the One”, which will land us in “happily ever after.”
But perfection doesn’t actually exist.
Everyone and every choice will fall short of perfection, including ourselves.
Embedded inside this expectation of perfection is the cultural failure to teach us how to grieve the lives unlived and the roads not taken.
For these are inevitable.
You may have a child or two or three but eventually you have to close the door on childbearing and grieve that ending. Or, by choice or circumstances, you may not have any children, and this needs to be grieved as well.
If you choose to marry, you can’t also remain single, and the single life will need to be grieved. And, of course, you can only marry one person, so choosing one means saying no to every other option.
You probably didn’t get blessed with the “Father of the Bride” archetype for a dad or the Gaia Earth Mama for a mother (very few people did), but when you grieve how your parents fell short, you can come closer to accepting the goodness they offer.
You may struggle in friendship, or have a couple of close friends, but not the magic “friend group” that mainstream culture espouses.
None of these examples might apply to you, but the basic message still holds true: life is imperfect, and part of the key to accepting this imperfection is to grieve the lives unlived.
How to Grieve
Healthy, productive grieving is an essential element of inner freedom, yet where do we learn how to grieve? People often ask me, “What does it mean to grieve? Does it only mean crying? What if I have a hard time crying?”
For many highly sensitive people, tears are a part of daily life, and I am a strong proponent of a daily cry.
But if tears don’t come easily, you’re not alone. Many people shut down their grief-channels early in life because they learn that it’s not safe. Crying is one of the most vulnerable things we do. It renders us defenseless and carries with it a feeling of being out of control.
If you were ever made fun of for crying, heard shaming statements like, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about” or “Crying is for weaklings,” or your tears weren’t tenderly received, it makes perfect sense that you would shut down those channels.
With time and gentle attention, the frozen channels can be thawed and tears will feel safe to be seen, but there are also other ways to grieve, including:
- Noticing where grief lives in your body (belly, chest, and throat are common sites), then bringing attention to those places. “Bringing attention” simply means holding that part of your body with your hands, your breath, and your curiosity. The practice of Tonglen is enormously helpful.
- Pausing at intervals throughout the day to check with your body and asking if there is any sadness that needs to be known.
- When you feel grief or tears pricking your eyes, slowing everything down and noticing if there are any shaming messages trying to shut down the pain.
- Draw the grief.
- Dance with grief.
- Paint the grief.
- Sing grief.
- Wail the grief.
It’s often during transitions that the grief of unlived lives rises to the surface. During these tenuous times when we’re between identities and life stages, our defenses are softened and we often have more access to long-buried grief.
Whatever the circumstance or practice is that invites the reluctant tears to reveal themselves, once they arrive we find that the experience of crying isn’t nearly as scary as we imagined. It’s the child/teen self who fears tears; once in an adult body with some years of inner work under our belt, we learn that our greatest fears around crying no longer hold water.
And not only is it less scary than we imagined, it offers a channel back into our hearts, and even our unlived lives. As Francis Weller writes in his masterful work of poetic prose, The Wild Edge of Sorrow, “It was through the dark waters of my grief that I came to touch my unlived life.”
Here we find a beautiful reciprocal relationship: we must grieve our unlived lives in order to open our hearts to the goodness of the life in front of us and when we grieve we touch into our inner unlived lives, which I understand to mean the places inside that we’ve stuffed into the shadows because we deemed them unacceptable.
You can watch the video version of this post here.
This is such essential wisdom, Sheryl. Beautifully written and so clear. Thank you!
Thank you, Rachel 🙏🏽.
I absolutely love this post and I so appreciate you sharing your wisdom, Sheryl. I find myself often yearning for times when I’m as younger and has less obligations and responsibilities. As a parentified child, I didn’t have the carefree teen and young adult years that our culture so glamorizes. I am often sad that I didn’t throw caution to the wind and make the most of those years, but if I am being honest it really didn’t feel safe to and I did what I had to in order to manage through.
Reading your post, I am reminded by a metaphor that Sylvia Plath wrote about in “The Bell Jar.” The protagonist, young adult coming of age in NYC one summer, talks about how she feels like she is sitting at the base of a fig tree and each juicy, ripe fig is a life path that she could take-professor, wife and mother, writer, world traveler, etc. She is unable to choose a path or “fig” because it means saying no to all the others. In the metaphor, her indecision is so paralyzing that she watches each fig slowly rot and fall to the ground. How telling it is that this book was written several decades ago and yet this metaphor rings true still today!
Thank you for the gentle reminders to create space for it al to coincide-the joy ad the grief, the longing and the contentment.
What a thoughtful and insightful response, Jen. Thank you for sharing it here. Also, our Gathering Gold episode on Escape Hatch Fantasies speaks to the piece about missing out on the carefree teen and young adult years.
Thank you for that recommendation, Sheryl. I will look into it. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.
Thank you for sharing the fig story and thank you Sheryl for the post, that came at an excellent time for me.
It was really beautiful and made it clear that unlived lives are a big part of being human.
Both Kierkegaard and much less intensely “Recipies for a perfect marriage” deals with the idea of unlived lives in regards to partners.
One day I also dream to write something about my unlived lives, as they seem to be such a source of creativity.
Right now I am grieving several unlived lives:
1. That me and my family will live in another part of the country than I imagined at one point in my youth. We just bought a house and I always dreamed of living in my grandmothers house. But she is still alive and her house is also too expensive for us.
2. In regards to this, I am also grieving not being rich, but being totally middle class(witch is not bad).
3. I am grieving not having an amazing career, but just a wonderful part time job, whit more time to my children.
4: i am grieving a life where I sometimes have anxiety and am not of perfect mental health.
5. I am grieving not having a perfect friend group and family living close by
I am grieving all this, but as Sheryl also describes, I am also celebrating.
I celebrate buying our dream house at a cheaper price.
I celebrate being middle class in a wealthy country and being able to affort most things I want.
I celebrate my values and time with my family and my lovely job, that gives me safety and joy.
I celebrate my creative mind and the healing path I am on. I celebrate life.
I celebrate living close enough to friends and family to see them a few times a month.
Both can live in me. Thank you for showing me that Sheryl.
This is so beautiful, ctang! Grief and gratitude. Grief and gratitude. Grief and gratitude. Thank you for sharing your deeply thoughtful reflections with us here.
ctang, thank you for your specific examples here. Both Sheryl’s post and your comment invited tears of grief, beauty, the joy of living. I love how explicit you are about the celebrating, ctang.
Right now I am abroad, visiting a host family and friends that I lived life with 12 years ago. I am grieving that when I see each person, it may be the last time I see them, and our visits are sometimes profound but sometimes brief or feel surface level. And I grieve that I don’t have the time or energy to deeply delve into connection and life here with each person, and also with each place I have known or want to know. Actually, I want this trip to feel relaxed and easy, which means saying “no” to most opportunities (especially the variety of options I myself come up with for “what I could do if I were perfect and extraverted and perfectly packed my schedule”).
In fact that’s been a theme of my life – that I love each person I meet quite deeply and yet I only have capacity to very deeply know/give my energy to a relative few. This feels very relevant to the topic of self care that Sheryl brought up in the email for this post, because in order to care for myself, I need to say “no” to deep connection with most people, while at the same time I feel a deep sense of love and respect for most people. It seems like a helpful technique to proactively grieve the lost lives of deep connection with each person, since I haven’t really known what to do with these feelings in the past. Thank you Sheryl, and ctang and everyone for your comments. 🙂
This is very beautifully articulated Jamie: the pain and grief we feel around not being able to have as deep a connection with as many people as the heart might like because we’re honoring our capacity. Through saying no to some people we say yes to ourselves. And when we say yes to ourselves, it opens up space inside for a true yes to others.
Thank you Jamie,
I actually deeply relate to what you write.
I am also good at forming connections, but cannot actually handle many close connections, as I also care so deeply.
Especially after having kids, I am grieving my lacking ability to have care and consideration for everyone I meet.
I really liked the way you refrained it into a form of selfcare – that rings very true to me.
I relate so much to all of this and it’s amazing hearing a stranger articulate so clearly what I experience. It’s been years since I’ve been in this space, and now with a baby in tow I’m finding myself drawn here again.
Welcome back 🙏🏽🥰
Can’t remember if I’ve shared this before, but this poem is one of my all-time favourites:
Another thing: I wrote a blog post about a life-changing moment with my therapist, some of your readers might be interested: http://joshuaseigalpoet.blogspot.com/2023/03/a-life-changing-moment-with-my-therapist.html
I like this post. Thanks for sharing!
Sheryl, can you talk about projection and relationship anxiety in friendships and other platonic relationships?
Hi Sheryl, as I am new also to the forum and your greatly appreciated work (I recently enrolled in your newest Live Break Free From Anxiety Course) I would like to thank you foremost for your approach of trying to present a basic understanding what it means to be human. I know for sure that my childhood was not a perfect one, e.g. I never ever wanted to have a relationship with a partner my parents had with each other. So somewhere along the way I decided to “mentally create my own perfect woman or partner” but as it turned they all couldn’t keep up with my “expectations” and the longing started again. You know, I do have a great job as a pediatrican, I have wonderful children and a grandchild, I’m holding a pilot licence and an instrument rating licence. Looking from the outside everythings seems to be perfect. I have an available partner (after a 2 1/2 year break up where she wanted just to be best friends she was recently making a commitment when my anxiety all started) I haven`t yet had the courage to commit (which feels AWFUL !!). But its still so hard for me making decisions because I am afraid of upsetting or hurting my loved ones. Like should I spent time with my originating family or with my partner?
With your statement “Everyone and every choice will fall short of perfection, including ourselves”
you`ve digged deeper into my psyche recognizing, that I have mistaken grief in the deep sense of “letting go” with self-pity which makes it so hard for me to make decisions. And you know what, I kinda hate myself for this self-pity, poor guy issue!
My favorite quote relating to grief and sorrow is: “Grief is probably the purest form of love!”
It seems like I haven`t yet found my inner freedom.
Thanx again Sheryl for everything you do with your work!
Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Journey. It sounds like you have solid insight into how you arrived here and are ready to do the deeper work, which is what it takes to heal!