Moving Forward with Grief

“The more you welcome your vulnerability, the less afraid you’ll feel.”

Lori Gottlieb, 
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone 

It was the month of September when 10 year-old Billie Joe Armstrong lost his father to esophageal cancer. At his father’s funeral, Billie broke down and ran home, locking himself in his bedroom.

When his mother knocked on his door and persuaded him to come out, Billie responded, “Wake me up when September ends.”

You know it’s the mark of a great writer, when he or she is able to tap into a memory — whether it’s in the form of a line or an image — and turn into something meaningful for the audience. For Billie, the one line he spoke when he was crying in his room stayed with him for years. 

Some time after he formed Green Day, Billie started writing the song Wake Me Up When September Ends to honor his father’s memory. As he sings, 

“Like my father’s come to pass, 
Seven years has gone so fast.”



The song is about the anniversary reaction that he experiences every September, when time seems as though it has frozen momentarily still, and the grief he feels for his late father is particularly difficult. 

Yet, for the longest time Billie felt that he wasn’t ready to finish the song and record it. It was only until they worked on their album American Idiot, over twenty years after his father’s passing, that he was finally able to do it. He sings in a later verse,

“Like my father’s come to pass, 
Twenty years has gone so fast.”

 

Since its release, Billie has been open in explaining the song’s meaning, and how difficult yet also therapeutic it is to perform it.

“I think about him every day, really,” he said in an interview with Howard Stern. “I kinda avoided writing about him for many years, and then finally having a breakthrough like that felt good. It wasn’t like a negative emotion so much, but it was just kind of like honoring him.”

Every one of us inevitably experiences losses of some kind — whether that means the loss of a family member, a partner, a home, a pet, or anyone or anything that was dear to us. We all know how time gets distorted in grief. When we’re drenched in our pain, mere minutes can feel like hours. Other times, years can pass by, and we feel as though it was only yesterday when we experienced such a loss. 

Whenever we bring our losses up, a typical response from others is “you should move on”, as if we can simply forget and not think about our past at all. “Moving on” comes with a sense of guilt as well, that if we still feel upset over our losses after a long time has passed, we are seen as weak or too sensitive.

Listening to the song Wake Me Up When September Ends and remembering the story behind it, reminds me that perhaps “moving forward” makes much more sense than “moving on”. 

By moving forward, you’re acknowledging that grief doesn’t have a timeline, that it takes however long it has to take for yourself. You’re acknowledging that you might still feel the weight of your loss, but that life can still go on. You can still be grieving while you are able to smile, laugh and feel joy. But everyone does this at their own pace, to the best of their own abilities.

For Billie, finally being able to talk and sing about his loss felt like a breakthrough. It was a milestone of sorts, that even though he still feels his father’s absence every day, he could make space for other things in his life as well. 

My therapist Sophia taught me this analogy for grief.

Untitled

Excuse my crude drawing, but imagine that your grief is that balloon. When you’ve just experienced a loss, you would find that balloon hitting the pain button often. Over time, the balloon may get smaller, though it might still hit the pain button every now and then. But with that, you are also able to make space for more things as compared to when the balloon was much larger in size.

So remember that grief is a process, and that every one goes through this process differently.

You don’t have to feel ashamed for grieving, any more than you don’t for being a card-carrying member of the human race. 

We love and we lose, and that’s what makes us all human.

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