Friday, August 16, 2013

The Grief of Grieving

And could you keep your heart in wonder at the
daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem
less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart,
even as you have always accepted the seasons that
pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the
winters of your grief.                                    
-Khalil Gibran

It there is one statement that summarizes most of the therapy sessions I've had with clients over the past twenty-nine years it would be, “Help me make the pain stop.”  Very often this experience of pain, mostly psychological and emotional, but sometimes physical, is associated with some type of loss.  It can be the loss of a loved one through separation, divorce, or death, the loss of family pet, the loss of a job, social standing or status, and even the loss of a cherished dream or belief. As all cancer survivors know, it can also be associated with being diagnosed with a life-altering illness.  The experience of this suffering is what most of us refer to as grief. 

Conventional wisdom tells us that grief, from the Latin gravare, "to make heavy,” is a part of life.  It’s normal, we are told, to feel sad and heavy-hearted when we experience loss.  However, under the sheer weight of this burden, very little seems “normal” and many of us worry that we will be unable to hold up and carry on.

While all grief is connected to loss, not all loss leads to grief. We can all look back at our lives and count numerous losses that did not lead to grief responses.  How is it that certain situations create such deep pain and emotional scars, while others leave barely a scratch? 

The answer is that we experience suffering in direct proportion to our level of attachment—a felt sense of connection—to a person or thing. This connection is a uniquely personal perception and helps explain why people vary in their responses to losses.  For instance, the loss of a job for someone who perceives that his or her sense of self-worth is defined by what he or she does for a living will likely feel catastrophic. The same job loss for someone who has little sense of self invested will feel much less devastating.

Traditional grief work seeks to help individuals understand and work their way through the stages of grief identified by Elizabeth KΓΌbler-Ross as denial, depression, bargaining, anger, and acceptance.  Those grieving are advised that these are not sequential steps and that there is no set time-frame for moving through the stages. Mourners are encouraged to seek support, express their feelings, and be patient with themselves while they find ways to adjust to the loss.

Common expressions during this adjustment period include, “Nothing seems real,” “My heart is broken,” or “I feel dead inside.” The fear that underlies these statements is that one will not survive this feeling; that the broken heart can no longer sustain a meaningful life. Grieving itself becomes the source of pain. One is left feeling like C.S. Lewis when he wrote, “I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.”

To find comfort during such times requires a new way of looking at grief. Instead of focusing on bringing the grieving process to an end, sometimes called “closure,” we can see it as an opening into the very nature of life. When we look through this opening with a compassionate heart we will experience not just the grief, but also a sense of relief and gratitude, or what I call gralief. 

Gralief begins by shifting our focus away from the past, before the loss happened, and the future, where the loss will remain, to the present moment. Here, there is no “life before” and “life after,” there is just life. When we are not being pulled apart by these opposing forces we realize that not only are we going to survive the loss we encountered, we will survive the grief process as well. This sense of relief allows us to look at our pain and see that it holds lessons for us which, paradoxically, are able to heal the broken heart. The wisdom gained from these lessons leads to gratitude—an appreciation for the natural rhythms of gain and loss, up and down, life and death. We are grateful to see that hiding in the shadows of our losses are unimagined treasures which are revealed after the walls we build to protect ourselves break down—or more to the point, break open—and let in the light of our awareness.

Gralief teaches us the art of letting go, thereby allowing us to discover that our losses are not interruptions in our life; they are a part of the process. It allows us to feel a very deep connection to people and things in our life, minus the need to cling to them when they move on. We are able to, as Khalil Gibran says, “Watch with serenity through the winters of our grief," knowing that even sadness, pain, and suffering come to an end in their season.

Getting some gralief:
1.   Create rituals that acknowledge the loss and honor your courage in facing it. (A good friend sends a balloon over the ocean every year with a message attached in memory of her father.)
2.   If you are struggling to accept what has happened outside of you, accept what is happening inside—allow the sadness and hurt to be there and observe them with self-compassion, as you would watch over a good friend who was suffering. 
3.   Use prayers, mantras, or affirmations during particularly hard times. (“This too shall pass,” the serenity prayer, or simply meditative breathing helps bring one back to present moment that is life.)
4.   Challenge guilty feelings and the thoughts which create them. (Too often people deepen their grief through feeling that they could have or should have done something to prevent the loss.)
5.   Keep a mental, or physical, diary of all the things in life that you are grateful for and make them the last things on your mind before going to bed.
6.   Take some time to reflect on all the things in your life that you once thought you could never live without and realize that while they have come and gone, you remain.
7.   If you are dealing with multiple losses at one time, as is often the case, feel free to place your grief on hold. (A client once told me she had no interest in grieving the pending loss of her job as she was already grieving the loss of a significant other and her health.)
8.   Remember that the word solemn essentially means "ceremonial," not "serious." It’s ok to smile, joke, and laugh when grieving.
9.  Find ways to support others who are grieving—you become the light at the end of their tunnel.
10. Forget about being your "old self" again and focus on the new you that is being born before your eyes.

Most importantly, forget about trying to go this alone. If friends and loved ones aren’t
Immediately available, seek the support of professionals. Simply finding a watchful
eye and listening ear can help ease the pain.

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