What Grief Taught Me About Emotion

There are very few days in my life that I remember with as distinct clarity as Thursday, February 11, 2010. I can recount the breakfast I ate, the friends I laughed with on the way back to my dorm room, and the greeting I gave when my dad called me with the news that completely and immensely changed my life.

It was cheerful. Life was fun. Free. Going my way. Happy. Light.

My dad’s voice on the other end of the phone was all it took. A few words. A conversation that was truly a blur. And my world completely changed.

You could say it came crashing down.
Splintered into more pieces than I could count.
Trampled my spirit. Crushed my soul.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her. That I don’t think of the hole her death left in our family. In my heart. In our future. The loss of a sister is something I never expected to experience at 20 years old.

In the months and years that followed her death, I’ve struggled. It would be a lie to say I haven’t. While outwardly, I strive to be optimistic and to be strong, inwardly, I’ve wrestled with the emotions that grief has thrown at me every day since.

I’ve sat down a million times to write about it, thinking that it’d make me feel better.

I’ve attempted talking to people about it, with varying levels of success. It’s fucking hard to talk about.

I’ve pondered the truths of life, death, heaven, hell and immortality more than I’d like to admit.

But most of all, I’ve learned to sail through stormy seas.

You see, I have found that Grief has been a swift, challenging and unforgiving teacher in my life.

In the worst of times, it challenged me to truly feel.

To look SHITTY, HORRIBLE, TERRIBLE, NO-GOOD emotions right in the eye, grab hold, and fucking figure out how to live through them… while on occasion, managing to unearth the HAPPY, JOYFUL, ENLIGHTENING emotions that were lurking in the darkness of my heart during the toughest of times.

Through those lessons from Grief, I’ve come to learn three truths about emotion that I believe to be universal:

First, when something truly tragic and difficult happens in your life, you do not simply ‘get over it.’ Ever.

The sadness never goes away. It doesn’t relent. You don’t wake up one morning and decide, “oh wow, hey, I’m totally over that horrible thing that completely changed my world. It’s like it never happened. I’m good and happy now. Hooray!”

If anything, I’d say that your heart and mind figure out how to accommodate the hurt. Your brainspace for feelings and such rearranges.

You figure out how to say, “Yep, still burns like it did when I first heard those tragic words. But I now know how count my blessings, thank God for the time he did give us together and be happy, because that is how she’d want me to go about my life.”

You figure out how to put happy and sad right next to eachother and project out onto the world the emotions you want projected back at you.

Secondly, Grief has taught me that in the darkest of times, your heart literally expands.

I’m not talking about the blood-pumping organ here. I’m talking about emotional capacity. Your innate ability to feel.

Many people say that when they first hold their newborn child, they literally can feel their hearts overflowing with love. I’m going to turn that saying on it’s head with some morbidity and say when you feel your first true heartbreak, you literally feel your heart expanding to make room for grief. It’s a slower process. One that takes a lot of crying yourself to sleep to fully understand… but it happens.

In the four years since Kristina has died, my heart has only grown. Sometimes, I like to think that’s her spirit, giving me strength and teaching me how to truly, deeply feel. Not just the hard emotions, but the light-giving emotions. Happiness. Joy. Friendship. Empathy. Love.

I can feel the SHIT out of a whole range of emotions now. And I like to think it’s because Grief taught me how to.

And finally, every individual experiences every single one of their emotions in a complete, deeply personal, unmatched way.

There is no competition. There is no race. There is no “I know exactly how you feel.” <– That statement will never, ever be true. There is no “your grief is greater than mine” or “my grief is greater than yours.” While we as humans have an immense and beautiful capacity to feel empathy for one another, no other person will ever fully understand our individual emotions.

And that is perfectly okay. It ’s divine, even.

After Kristina died, for awhile I felt somewhat like an outsider among my friends and peers. I was dealing with something that thankfully, very few of the people in my life could relate to. As I struggled with the grief of losing a sibling, I often felt like the day-to-day trials and tribulations of life were simply not worth getting worked up over and found myself thinking in my head, “geeze, there are so many worse things that could happen to you” while others worked through their problems.

That kind of thinking wasn’t serving me in being a friend to the people that were in my life at the time and it certainly wasn’t serving me in coping with my loss.

You see, as the great teacher Grief would have me learn, each and every one of our emotions are unique. Our strength and capacity to feel are situational.

We’re emotional beings, all trying to stay afloat amid different and difficult stormy seas.


  • Erika, this is so powerful. Grief is one of those bewildering emotions that has the capacity to both totally overwhelm and strengthen. I love when you say that grief increases “your innate ability to feel.” My sister and I were just talking about how it has been over 20 years since our mother died. That seems truly unbelievable to me since the pain is still there (you are right–it never goes away) but we were also amazed at the empathy her death has enabled us to experience over the years. Thank you for writing this. And I am sending you a huge virtual hug.

    • Erika says:

      Ah, thank you for the sweet words Amy. A HUGE virtual hug back to you. <3

  • Mo says:

    This is a beautiful post, Erika, even though it is rooted in such a sad, terrible place. Thank you for sharing your story and your sister with the world.

    • Erika says:

      Thank you Mo! Always always enjoy your comments. Thank you for reading! <3

  • What a beautiful and important post. I’m sure your sister is incredibly proud of the way you have handled your grief and I have no doubt that her spirit is with you always.

    • Erika says:

      Thank you Maureen! I can only hope that you are correct. 🙂

  • […] Erika’s Story: Sailing through Stormy Seas: What Grief Taught Me About Emotion […]

  • Katie @ A Beautiful Little Adv says:

    This was such a beautiful post. I loved reading your words. You are a beautiful women and offer such wise support for those going through grief. Thanks for sharing your perspective and helping. Once again, beautiful.

    • Erika says:

      Thank you Katie!

  • Kenzie says:

    Beautiful, Erika. I love your perspective–you’re so raw and real here. And you’re so right–grief is always unique to the one who experiences it, and there’s really no way to understand exactly how another person feels. All we can do is be there to help keep one another afloat. I’m so glad you’re in blogland and that you’ve shared this with all of us. Keep sailing, girl!

    • Erika says:

      Thank you Kenzie! I appreciate the kind words! <3

  • Agent Q says:

    This is very well written. I honestly don’t know what to say. The three lessons rendered me speechless because I feel like I have nothing to add to them. Mileages do vary because some folks are more prone to reaction than others, and the environment in which they grew up could also affect the intensity of response. :/

    And yes on never getting over it. Even among the most jaded, there’s no true “getting over.” One way of looking at it is by asking how and why s/he became jaded in the first place. Some experience must’ve shaped that personality, which shows how permanent or significant the impact must have been. So yea, I definitely agree with you that there’s no “getting over” for good.

    • Erika says:

      Thanks, lady! Appreciate the kind words.

  • This was an incredibly moving post Erika and I’m so glad you chose to share about sailing stormy seas for this project. I’ve experienced a lot of loss so far this year and I don’t think I’ve come anywhere near your level of processing and understanding it yet, but you’re absolutely right in that we all feel it differently and cope in our own ways. Following three separate losses this year, I definitely felt the inner frustration of listening to people complain about our content management system at work or a bad haircut or whatever felt comparatively inconsequential and unimportant at the time. But loss is also a harsh teacher in reminding us to savor all the moments, the good and the bad and developing that capacity to feel is a finer thing in life.

  • That’s an amazing perspective, that your heart opens up more in grief. Though I haven’t lost someone this year, I have been through stages of grief due to terminal illness in the family. Your perspective makes me feel better about the waves of raw emotion that have come on again and again this year. I appreciate you writing this, though I know this type of topic is incredibly difficult to write about. Sending some love your way my friend.

    • Erika says:


  • Sarah | For the Love of Chow says:

    The perspective on this is fantastic. This is beautifully written and so, so very true. Experiencing extreme emotions in life helps us to glean a wider range of emotions and insight out of life in general. The scale by which we measure emotions and life experiences is forever expanded to include the sharp sting of grief, and as such, our hearts are expanded.

    • Erika says:

      Thank you so much Sarah!

  • I wish I could have read this when I experienced grief for the first time. I was starting senior year of college, fresh back from a year abroad in France, and my uncle had just killed himself. He was my mom’s younger and favorite brother, my grandma’s favorite son, and the uncle I’d spent the most time with. Needless to say, suicide is a shocker, and I felt really alone as I processed it all. I didn’t want to socialize with anyone back at school, and I felt like my friends (aside from my bestie, who’d lost her dad when she was 11 or so) didn’t quite understand what I was going through. I’m now able to look back with compassion for myself and all of the confusion of the time, but again, it’s hard for anyone to relate who hasn’t experienced deep grief. And the grief I felt was strange anyway, because I didn’t just grieve my loss, I grieved moreso for my mom (the thought of losing any one of my siblings terrifies me), and even my grandma (because you’re not supposed to lose a child). Thank you for writing this in such a compassionate manner- no one’s grief is more or less than another person’s. It all hurts.

    • Erika says:

      I can definitely relate on grieving others’ losses. I feel as though I’ve done that a few times with my mom (she has lost both of her parents as well as my sister in the past 8 years or so). Watching others grieve can also be very emotionally draining and hard to deal with. I’m sorry for your family’s loss. And you’re right – it all hurts.

  • Chandler says:

    Oh honey, I am so sorry about your sister! And I know that it never ever gets easier, so I’m not going to tell you that. But your thoughts and perspective on all of it make this a wonderful piece on grief. I am so glad that you have found the words to express how you are feeling and all the things that grief can teach you (or anyone).

    • Erika says:

      Thank you Chandler!

  • Just wanted to say that I’m thinking of you! I read this piece last week, was searching for the right words to express to you but was feeling a bit speechless – but still, your words have stuck with me. And I’m still drawing a blank trying to express how this made me feel, and how much it made me want to break down the barriers of this teeny screen and hug you xo

    • Erika says:

      *hugs* 🙂

  • Jess @ inpursuitofsimple.com says:

    Thank you so much for being so honest. I am a regular reader of your blog and really admire your writing style and what you choose to share

    Jess @ http://www.inpursuitofsimple.com

    • Erika says:

      Thank YOU Jess, for the lovely comment and for reading along! Happy to have you. 🙂

  • Mrs TeePot says:

    I am so sorry for your loss. You have written so beautifully about the grieving process and what we can learn from it though, I hope it has eased you in some small way to put it out there. I don’t have any words really, but I have read and I was moved.

    • Erika says:

      Thank you, lady! :- )

  • So much emotion in one post! I love the analogy comparing grief to stormy seas. It is so true that the sadness of grief never goes away, but as time passes seas do seem to get calmer. Keep sailing! Thanks for sharing.

  • Caitlin says:

    This is such a beautiful post, Erika! I definitely believe that grief can open doors in your heart. This line: “We’re emotional beings, all trying to stay afloat amid different and difficult stormy seas.” really hit home + reminds me to always be kind to others, we’re all facing hard battles!

  • Erin O'Brien says:

    Great perspective. It is so true that everyone’s grief is different. I can relate to feeling like the heart opens up more after grief and feeling like people get to worked up over little things. My dad died four years ago when I was 18 and his dad died less than a month later. There’s no getting over it. But supportive friends and family really help.

  • […] less-than-perfect parts of your life (remember when I wrote about the obstacles of single life? Or dealing with painful grief? Or how hard it is to make friends? Those are my most popular […]

  • […] When I wrote about grief a few months ago, I talked about how in experiencing it, I literally felt my heart expand to accommodate an entirely new spectrum of emotion. Reading this memoir made me realize that you can create experiences for yourself that do something like that, too. […]

  • Diana Blue says:

    Thank you for sharing this personal heart felt post. Grief has given me a new outlook and not take life so seriously, to instead enjoy it, spend time with family/friends, laugh often and travel whenever I can.

  • Abby says:

    Thank you. I cannot believe that you took what is in my heart exactly and put it into words. I read a lot about grief and I get annoyed at some of what is said, stages and “they are still with you” bullshit. This is the most helpful thing I’ve read.

    • Erika says:

      Abby – I’m glad this helped and I’m sorry for your loss. <3

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