22 Feb 2011, 7:33am
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Grief

Grief

I’m tempted to put this word at the top then leave a blank expanse of white page. What can I say about grief to those who grieve? It feels like hubris to assume I have anything to put down on paper that will make a difference. Yet, if my experience can ease someone’s pain even a bit, it’s worth the effort. Sitting with a person who aches with loss, writing them a heartfelt note and sending it through real mail, listening as they share their feelings, in person or in writing – these actions can be helpful when people are in the grip of grief. Following through on an offer to do necessary tasks the bereaved has no energy to attack; this too is a skillful response.

Whether it’s anticipatory grief in advance of an expected loss or the empty, aching territory of a loss already a reality, the physical, mental, and emotional symptoms are the same. I list some here only to affirm what is normal. Loss of appetite, neglect of grooming or housework, absence of energy, difficulty concentrating, virtual paralysis of activity, a heavy heart, waves of panic, and bouts of tears and/or rage.

Yes, rage. There is a free-floating rage that can come with grief and we look for someone or something to attach it to, to blame. Someone is making your situation worse than it needed to be. Many times I’ve heard  “I could cope with ______but because of so and so, I have to deal with THAT too!” This is an attempt to put the normal anger that arises at losing someone we dearly love into someone else’s camp. I’ve done it. You’ve probably done it too, if you stop to think about it. Rather than accept that we DO feel this bad, we want to believe it wouldn’t hurt so much if only…

These thoughts occupy the mind to distract us from actually feeling our loss. When we feel the full force of grief, it threatens to swallow us whole, set us adrift, obliterate us entirely. Everything looks bleak and lonely.

How do we stay grounded when these powerful forces threaten?

Grieving is a highly individual experience. As it  has no timetable, it’s difficult to make suggestions about navigating it. There is no grief playbook. What I can do is describe what I’ve observed about people who’ve come out on the other side of grief intact and engaged with life again. (Yes, withdrawing from life/activity is one of those symptoms). I will put this down as if they, these grief pioneers, are speaking to you.

 

Be willing to have life slow down. Accept help in whatever form is compatible with your way of being in the world, gently refuse help that is not.

Write about it when talking about it is too tender, too intimate. Talk about it when you can with someone you trust, someone who will listen and not try to replace your voice with his or her own. Attend a grief support group. Find one that’s a good fit for you. Hiding out alone in your well-defended bunker is not what your beloved would want for you.


Find your unique way to honor your loved one’s memory. Engage your family in this process if they’re available to you.


Speak of the beloved at the poignant times, the holidays, the birthdays, and the anniversaries. Tell their story. Tell the story you two made together. Carry on their traditions. Craft new traditions when that seems right for you.

Consider assembling sacred objects that hold meaning for you. This becomes a place to ground yourself when grief threatens to overwhelm you.


If an unfamiliar hobby or activity attracts you, explore it. Give it a try. You need people. Others will welcome your unique, now deeper and more engaged, personality.

Yes, having your heart broken open changes you. Why would you be the same person? The landscape of your heart is irrevocably altered. You’ve had to question nearly every assumption you ever made. In the quest, you’ve become wiser, tenderer, and more present. It’s possible you’ve come to value mystery over mastery. The world is a beautiful, surprising, and mysterious place.

Grief has its cycles, its seasons. It mirrors the world we inhabit. If we can be mindful of the path we walk, as we’re walking it, we may find ourselves, in time, more awake and alive than we’ve ever been. We may be delighted by what we notice.

Grief is the unwelcome stranger that forces us to pay attention. It comes to everyone, in time, and draws us into a community of souls on the way to a deeper awareness of our connection to each other. There are intervals of Grace in the grief process that carry us through the gnarly parts. Peace to you on the journey.