Stealth Grief

Sad manI’ve been rather sad, on and off, the past several weeks—and not because summer school ended much too soon this year (as in, today). No, this was a reappearance of something I call “stealth grief.”

This is how stealth grief typically works for me. I’ll see a family in the park or at the beach (or even in a particularly effective advertisement) and something about them will strike me. I’ll look at this ordinary couple with their two or three children and suddenly I’m overcome by a single thought: Why couldn’t I have that, or at least some of that? Why couldn’t I have an adoring spouse or a couple of children conceived without the aid of infertility treatments? If that was impossible, then how about a biological child produced with medical intervention? Or an adopted, non-disabled child?

Hey Universe, why couldn’t I have at least ONE?

I stare at the family and remember a time in the not-so-distant past when I too took all those things for granted. Then I’m struck by a sleeper wave of self-pity, sadness, and grief that knocks me off my feet. I flounder, adrift in rough seas. The emotional hangover lasts for days.

The funny thing about stealth grief is that on most days I honestly don’t mind being single or having an adopted, autistic child. You might not believe me, but it’s true. Yet when I’m hit with a tsunami of sorrow, then these things matter. Oh, do they matter.

Back when my daughter was a baby (and I was still married), I’d try to talk myself out of this “irrational” grief. I had a beautiful baby I adored, so why feel sad over the fact that I couldn’t conceive? It never worked. Fighting stealth grief only makes it worse and prolongs the suffering. So now I simply ride the wave of emotions and let it run its course.

I don’t want to give the impression that I encounter grief on a regular basis. It’s an infrequent guest in my life, and I’m grateful for that. But when grief does pay a visit, I can’t just show it the door. I need to give it my attention. I need to sit with it and listen to what it has to say.

This time my grief focused on my divorce and why things didn’t work out with my ex-husband. As I sat with these feelings, I realized I’m also sad because I miss being in a relationship. Plus I’m missing a friend who recently moved out of state. (Yes, Karen, I’m talking about you.) But mostly I was (once again) mourning the loss of my marriage.

Grief is not the nice, neat, linear path we expect it to be. It’s messy, circuitous, and doubles back on itself. Which is why, nearly seven years after Michael and I separated, I can see an article on unusual wedding attire, remember our wedding, and suddenly feel sad. The unexpected death of Cory Monteith from an accidental drug overdose did nothing to improve my already glum mood.

On this particular day, I started playing the “what if” game. Would Michael and I still be together if we hadn’t adopted a child? Would things have ended differently if Katie didn’t have autism? If Michael had been diagnosed as bipolar earlier, would that have changed anything? How would my life look if I had stayed? Did we need to separate in order for him to find sobriety?

I know this is a pointless game, but I couldn’t help myself. I just couldn’t.

When all is said and done, I doubt anything would have changed the outcome of my marriage. Michael was a bipolar alcoholic who couldn’t stop drinking. It wasn’t the life I wanted for me or my child, but that doesn’t mean my decision was an easy one. It doesn’t mean I don’t still grieve.

But after so many years of loss and disappointment, I don’t want to dwell in sorrow—which is why I love this beautiful, flawed man with all the compassion I can muster. And whenever grief rolls in like summer morning fog, I mourn the loss of our relationship, knowing that my pain, like the fog, is only temporary.

Until next time,
Cynthia Patton

About Cynthia J. Patton

Writer, Editor, Advocate, Speaker, Special Needs Attorney, and Autism Mom. Also the Founder and Chairperson of Autism A to Z, a nonprofit providing resources and solutions for life on the spectrum.
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6 Responses to Stealth Grief

  1. Jennifer says:

    I get those waves too. Sometimes overwhelming, sometimes just a fleeting thought. hang in there my friend– wish I lived closer. –Jenn

    • This has been rather minor on the grief scale, but it’s been floating in and out for a couple weeks. I think it was triggered by the death of such a young, successful actor. Addiction really SUCKS! Or maybe because I’ve been trying to focus on my memoir again. Who knows? As you know, grief does not follow any set rules.

      I wish you lived closer too, but I am so glad that you are in my life. Virtual hug,

  2. Donna Patters says:

    oh Cynthia! you have written what I have felt! I am finally in a loving relationship, but I still grieve for what could have been!

    • We think moving on to a new relationship or adopting a child will “fix” our grief, but it never quite does, does it? That said, I am thrilled for you. Congratulations (once again) on your engagement. You give me hope!

  3. Sue Ellen Schell says:

    Grief is like a window. It’s usually shut and you can look in and say oh, yes, and move on. But sometimes that safe window opens of it’s own accord.

    I never tell anyone dealing with grief that it gets better, but it changes and the days of light become more than the days of sorrow.

    • I never thought of grief like a window, but I like the analogy. At this point the days of light are definitely more than the days of sorrow, but I think anyone who reaches middle-age has a few dark days here and there. And without the bitter, the sweet isn’t as sweet.

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