How Grief Gives Me Joy

She said you carry them inside you, collecting them along the way, more and more and more selves inside you with each passing year, like those Russian dolls, stacking one inside the other, nesting themselves, waiting to be discovered, one and then another.

Shauna Niequist | Bread and Wine | 182 

My Gramma had a set of Matryoshka (Russian) dolls. I remember carefully unlocking and lining up each new, smaller figure. The thin wood gave off such a distinct smell; I could almost smell the craftsmanship required to create that very set. Each doll had similar coloring and patterns but didn’t look identical to the one before or the one she held inside. Now, years later, I cannot think of a better picture of this process called life. Though the core of who God created us to be remains intact, we develop different layers as we mature. Each layer, like those stacking dolls, is still inside, making up our history, filling out the person who we have and will become. Our season in life and our circumstances help form the current shell, but we can unpack those former selves with some simple pressure on the seams that hold us together.


Sometimes I can’t wait to jump into a newer and bigger self. I’m all too eager to cover up my previous model and start filing out the roomy interior of my new circumstances. Although there were nerve-racking elements to the transition between high school and college, that was one time I was ready to move on. I wanted to explore a new place, stretch my intellectual, spiritual, and social muscles in a different arena. Distance and youthful energy helped me snap the college Emily shut over her high school counterpart.

Then there are the times I have a hard time clipping the newest doll over the old one. I’m not ready for the changes that come with a new season. I fear the old doll, my old self, will be lost, that everything embodied in part of me will be gone forever. The years following college were a bit like that. The seams of a new season were already pressed shut around me but I so desperately wanted to go back to what I knew best. I missed the structure and scholarly stimulation of higher education. I missed the freedom, with limits, that college afforded. My new responsibilities and the endless possibilities made me uncomfortable.

I’ve added a couple more dolls since then. I established a wonderful community of friends in California. I dated, then married, Tim. We moved to Idaho. We became homeowners. We began chipping away at developing a new community. Each of those new layer was added with mixed feelings, some more mixed than others. And now what seems like the biggest change of all, parenthood, is forcing another changing of the guards with my Russian dolls.

The adventurous, newlywed, Emily is having a hard time being shut into darkness. She keeps reminding me of the great things about herself – freedom, energy, possibilities – and the other dolls nested inside her. With such a drastic life change approaching, it’s difficult not to look back instead of forward, to see the things I am giving up instead of things I am gaining. I want to celebrate the things ahead, but am having a hard time letting go of the things behind. And that makes me feel guilty, especially because what lies ahead is truly a joyous thing.

But as I look back on those nestled dolls with sadness at what I can’t get back, I realize that too is part of the process. I cried over the loss of my intimate circle of friends when we moved. I cried about acclimating to a new church culture. Even marriage, something I had longed and prayed for, came with it’s own set of things to cry about as Tim and I adjusted to one another. I’ve shed tears about being pregnant, too.

Grief without GuiltI’m learning that grief is good. And because grief is good, I can let go of the guilt. Grief, without the guilt, is what makes us able to move forward with joy.

A vital aspect to living in the present is learning how to grieve and how to grieve well…When your life is going to change, there needs to be an acknowledgement of what is changing.

Kristin Ritzau | A Beautiful Mess | 144-145

My pregnancy wasn’t planned, but I expected my emotions to react like having a baby was all part of the blueprint I had drafted in my head. The quicker I tried to shove myself into this new season, the bigger and more unruly I became. Had I allowed myself to fully mourn the loss of my life plan, it may not have taken me so long to begin accepting God’s plan.

Twenty-six weeks in and my dolls are finally settling into their new home. I still have to process my new identity as a mom on a regular basis, but now when my former selves get angsty, I allow myself space and time to grieve with them. I acknowledge the changes ahead, open my hands for God to take what I’ve been holding onto, and accept whatever He gives to replace it (which is always better than I could ask or imagine!).

photo credit: backpackphotography & Rdoke via photopin cc

Affiliate links included in this post. 

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