The middle-aged woman sitting in front of me said, “What do I need this for? If you ask me grief sucks and I just want it to go away”. That’s a sentiment I’ve heard many times in one form or another.
My own long walk with grief began at the age of five, with the deaths of my maternal grandmother and grandfather less than a year apart. Even though I didn’t really understand what it was yet, I did have some concept that death was a normal occurrence, and something to be expected once we reached a certain age. Like most young children in that situation I was more curious about what was happening than anything else. My mother came from a large family and my grandmother was especially beloved, so the reaction of the adults and her odd appearance laying in open casket definitely made an impression.
That experience was followed by the sudden and unexpected deaths of my best friend in the second grade, then my first crush in the fifth grade. From that point on I knew what death was, and that it could happen to anyone at any age. I also knew what grief was and that it meant never being able to see someone again, no matter how much you might want to. Over the next 40 years there were more deaths and other types of endings like divorce. Grief kept showing up in my life, so many times there’s really no point in reciting the full history here, each one attended by a period of intense mourning. In my 50’s I began working with grieving people professionally, which has afforded me the opportunity to hear hundreds of heart-wrenching stories.
When you’ve lived with grief as a personal attribute as long as I have you begin to recognize its patterns, and one of the most important is that it comes in waves. The waves tend to get smaller and farther apart over time, but from that first experience on grief will always live inside of us, sometimes lying dormant for years, waiting for the next death or the right trigger to rise again. That might sound dismal many, but the fact of the matter is that most people I've encountered over the course of my life have perceived me as a pretty happy-go-lucky person, and I often seemed to get more satisfaction and from the simple things in life in life than others. My grief may have been profound, but so was my joy.
During periods when the grief would suddenly surface like a tsunami, my sorrow would often take people that didn't know me well by complete surprise. I was asked many times, “Why can’t you just let it go and move on”? Almost everybody says that. The answer is simple.
Do you remember what you had for lunch on the first day of first grade? Probably not. You let that go and moved on. Lunch didn’t make much of an impression on you. There probably wasn’t much emotional content. But you would remember it in detail if the school bully shoved your face in it, or the teacher humiliated you in front of the class and forced you to eat something you didn’t want. Then it would have enough emotional content to leave an impression. But let’s say you met the person who would become your best friend for life at that lunch table. In that case you might well remember where you met, but you probably wouldn’t remember what you ate. In this case it’s your friend that provides the emotional content and leaves an impression, not the food itself.
There are things that happen to us in life that, for better or worse, we will always remember. Those we love dearly and rely on leave very deep impressions. They become woven into the fabric of our lives and never disappear completely. The only way to “let it go and move on” would be to forget them as completely as you forgot that lunch in first grade. It’s not going to happen, and why would anyone ever want to?
Of course I tried. In fact I tried it all. Maybe you have too. For me that included everything from running away and numbing to religion and psychotherapy. I spent way too much money on all sorts of worthless alternative therapies that promised to “rewire” my brain for joy. I endured New Age “shamanic” ceremonies, sweat lodges, rebirthing and soul retrieval that were supposed to remove “the spirit of sadness” that had “attached” itself to me. But none of them were able to provide the cure they all promised, and most of it was just a waste of money.
What I didn’t realize in my 30’s was that the people pressuring me to move on either didn’t have any experience with tragedy, or they weren’t grieving simply because they were doing everything in their power not to feel it. Using the same strategies I had tried they were better at suppressing their first experience of grief as adults than I had been as a child, and so they were opting to postpone it for a later date instead. Avoiding grief is one of those things that always seems like a good idea in the beginning.
It was in my early 40’s that I finally accepted the fact that grief was going to have its way whenever it showed up. I finally had enough experience to recognize its patterns, and I started to focus on working with the process rather than thinking of it as an affliction that needed to be cured. It was only at that point that I began to see grief as a very special gift rather than a recurring affliction to be battled and vanquished. About the same time many of my peers began to be devastated by grief, as they too were initiated into the real world – not only through the deaths of parents, spouses and children, but also through other life-changing events like divorce and chronic pain or illness.
In my late 40’s and early 50’s people who had rejected my perspective on grief previously, suddenly became more interested as they began to be initiated into the world I had inhabited for so long. That’s when I started teaching meditation and facilitating retreats.
Throughout our entire history as a species grief has always been a communal experience. It really wasn't until the last 200 years or so that it was privatized. The best way to describe ancient village life is to say nothing belonged to you, not even your sorrow, and everything was freely shared. Urban life is the exact opposite. What’s yours is yours, what’s mine is mine, everything is owned and nothing is freely shared. That includes our sorrows. When we made that transition we didn’t eliminate the need to grieve, but the supporting cast -- the people with whom our grief would have formed lasting bonds though shared ritual and meaning – slowly drifted away. The tragic consequence has been an almost catastrophic isolation, not only in our periods of bereavement, but in the rest of our lives as well.
The inevitable result of individual ownership is that we’re forced to use code words to hide our fear and we end up speaking about death in terms of loss. More consequences accrue as a result. There’s overwhelming evidence that phobias always get bigger when the thing that’s feared is avoided, and one of the defining characteristics of modern American culture is its death phobia.
Are the dead really lost? Is that the best word to describe what’s really going on here? Do those who don’t think so get a voice in the matter? Go back to that concept of impression for a moment. Even an atheist can agree with the idea that loved ones live on in our memory, and that forgetting them is not only impossible, it’s not even desirable. To say that grief recurs is not to say that it cripples. Studies by clinical psychologists like George Bonanno at Columbia University (author of “The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss”) show that we’re much more resilient than the self-help books give us credit for. We’re actually designed to grieve. The real problem is we’ve forgotten how, which of course means we’ve also forgotten how at companion those who are grieving.
I’m now entering my 60’s, and looking back over the whole experience I’m now convinced the American approach to grief is all wrong. I’ve come to believe the more we use code words like lost to avoid talking about death, the more isolated our lives become and the more acute our suffering grows. We might think we sound compassionate when we say “I’m sorry for your loss. You’re in my thoughts and prayers”, but to a grieving person with more experience these are just code for “I don’t know what to say right now and I need to get as far away from here as possible”, so the reality for all grievers in the dominant culture of North America is that these two statements -- the two most common responses in the English language -- are quickly followed by abandonment and isolation. It’s the inevitable result of our phobia and the unfortunate consequence of our lack of emotional ineptitude when it comes to grief and trauma.
Having said what is wrong, let me now share what I believe the better approach might be. Let’s get rid of all the baloney. They didn’t pass away and they aren’t lost. They died. It’s ok to say that. It’s also ok to just acknowledge that you don’t know what to say. Emotional competence at such a moment sounds like this, “I know there’s nothing I can say that’s going to bring your loved one back, and I don’t know exactly what you’re going through, but I want to understand because I care about you. Cry whenever you need to and as much as you need to”.
Then we just have to follow through and show up. Mostly we’ll just be listening to them share their sorrow as they work through the emotions. It won’t be necessary to say much, but other important opportunities to help will appear and we should take them, because someday it will be our turn to receive.
#grief #bereavement #ptsd
Ed Preston is the Founder of The Grief & Trauma Resource Center, an online directory created to provide more accurate information to the general public about grief and trauma. His own decades long journey with grief has lead him down many paths. He holds a degree in Cultural Anthropology, is a scholar of the Orphan Wisdom School, and a breath meditation teacher.