How do we really be with grief and loss?
“What has to die is your refusal for things to die. Your refusal for things to end. If that dies life can be fed by that.” — Stephen Jenkenson, Orphan Wisdom School
The harsh truth is: everything we love we will lose.
Whether by unexpected death, or passing from old age, or simply because the relationship we committed to is not meant to be – grief and loss is inevitable. Death, in all of its forms, is unavoidable.
Just as the change of seasons is essential to nature, the cycle of life and death is essential to our human experience.
Why is something so natural and universal so painful? Why do we turn away from our grief and sorrow?
Why does our culture collectively cower in the face of the only thing we know for certain — that everything and everyone will die at some point?
Too Busy to Grieve
We live in a culture that relishes constant busyness over deep emotions. We’re taught to bottle up our emotions, especially the darker ones.
Our grief, which by definition is deep sorrow over loss, is compartmentalized. Even the deepest grief for the death of a loved one is often confined to a few hours of public grief at a funeral home.
As long as we keep grief and loss within those walls, it won’t swallow us whole. That’s what we think.
In the book, Entering the Healing Ground: Grief, Ritual and the Soul of the World, Francis Weller calls our Western culture a “flatline.”
We’re too busy to feel much of anything really, Weller writes. Those “negative” emotions, we avoid at all costs, causing a type of chronic grief that shows itself as depression. We function at this steady, monotone flatline of emotions.
Weller pins this denial of grief on the fear of never coming back, of never recovering if we allow ourselves to go there.
But here’s the truth: In order to truly feel alive, to feel joy, we must feel pain. We must grieve and come out on the other side. Otherwise, we exist in a shadow life — a shadow of what it could be if we fully lived.
It’s the shadow life of denial that consumes us, not the experience of grief.
“Grief asks that we honor the loss and in so doing, deepen our capacity for compassion,” Weller writes. “When grief remains unexpressed, however, it hardens, becomes solid like a stone. We in turn become rigid and stop moving in the rhythm of the soul.”
Avoiding the D Word (Death)
Our American culture is in denial. Just as we live this very moment, not one of us is guaranteed the next breath. You and I, all of us, will die in our bodily forms someday.
Despite this solemn truth, we skirt the issue, hide it, minimize it, and deny it at every turn. We reject the idea of death, of aging, of fading away into the earth. How do we do this?
By searching for the wellspring of eternal life, we fantasize about avoiding death.
By grasping for youth and beauty, rather than showing reverence for aging and elderhood, we deny aging in its natural form.
By mandating that grief and loss be a solitary practice rather than a communal one, we hide from it.
Think about our culture. The funeral is our only real ritual involving death, and it’s more about honoring the deceased than acknowledging and holding the bereaved.
Even large-scale tragedies hold our attention for a few days, a week at most. Then what? The grief goes behind closed doors.
We’re shamed for our grief, chided for public displays of heartbreak. Told to:
- “Get over it.”
- “It’s been long enough. Move on.”
- “Remember the good times.”
- “Life goes on.”
- “Go cry in the bathroom stall.”
But for the grieving, life doesn’t go on. It is forever changed. What could be more hurtful than the advice to move on, when your heart is broken?
Why can’t we simply acknowledge that…life doesn’t just “go on.” That we can’t just “get over it.” That it will never be “long enough.” And if we want to sit in the open-space of our office, a bus station, a waiting room, and sob, we damn well can.
Why is this culture so offended by the expression of grief? Why do we so stubbornly deny death?
How Other Cultures Express Grief and Loss
Early on my spiritual path, I learned about Buddhist monks who spent long stretches of time in burial sites, studying decomposing bodies as a contemplation on death and impermanence. Now, I’m not asking anyone to do that. But the point is the reason monks engaged in this practice.
Buddhists believe that only by recognizing how short and precious life is, can we make it meaningful and live fully in the present. They also believe that by familiarizing ourselves with the natural process of death, can we remove our fear of it, thereby ensuring a good rebirth.
The Jewish ritual of sitting shiva is another example of a profound embracing of death and grief. For seven days after the death of a close relative, the family observes a shiva. They gather in the same place to grieve and comfort each other, as well as honor the deceased.
While not formalized like shiva, many families do come together in one way or another to support the mourner. But so often, each mourner retreats to his or her own private misery.
What if we turn toward the grief instead? To sit by the river of sorrow, gazing, dipping our toes in, swimming but not swept away, for as long as we need to.
What might we learn about life and the living of it, if we embrace death and the end of it?
Other Forms of Grief and Loss
If grieving the death of a loved one too hard, too publicly, or for too long is shunned, imagine the cold shoulder given to any other type of grieving.
We feel the pangs of grief and loss when:
- A romantic relationship ends.
- A friendship ends.
- A career ends.
- A childhood or youth ends
Some kinds of grief are more accepted by society than others. But it’s your grief. Shouldn’t you be able to experience it?
Of course, you should. In part two of this series, we’ll delve into grief over the end of a relationship and how to fully grieve for your loss.
If you’re in the San Francisco area and are experiencing grief and loss, schedule a session. We’d love to help guide you through the natural grieving process.