Complete Wellness

A Place for Healing MindBodySpirit

 

Grief

Death and loss are part of life; a lousy part but unavoidable. It is something we all have to face, and deal with, and most importantly live with. There is no correct or no one right way to grieve so we have to conclude that there is no wrong way. Whatever you’re feeling, however you handle this is, as long as you aren’t hurting someone else, has to be OK.

Whether you are grieving a death, a divorce or difficult diagnosis, or other loss, the physical sensation of that pain is always startling. The ache, the physical pain, is shocking. As much as we may want to die when suffering a substantial loss, it is not a fatal condition. It’s certainly not good for you, but it doesn’t kill you. 

A while back, I was asked to speak to a group called “Parents of Murdered Children”. (I know, right?) I was terrified to address a collection of people who have been so deeply wounded. But I sure didn’t want to be another person to avoid contact with them. When preparing for this, I had to try and conceptualize what no one would ever want to feel. 

It occurred to me that human emotion is immeasurable. If we tried to quantify it, we’d break the machine. If we could have a meter to measure how happy or sad we were, we’d be hitting the pin on both ends all the time. I called my imaginary measuring tool the emotion-o-meter.

On your wedding day, on the day your baby is born, at sunset holding your true love...those are times when you are sure no one has ever felt this feeling. You’re sure no one has ever been this deeply happy in the history of mankind. You hit the smiley faced end of the meter, and the pin vibrates but can go no farther. You’ve maxed out on bliss.

In grief, the feeling of being entirely alone in the depths of the abyss of sadness is overwhelming. You are sure that no one has ever felt this way before. The pain, the despair, the emptiness are all-consuming. The emotion-o-meter goes to the sad end and hits the pin. These are impossible times. You feel like you can’t possibly survive this burden.

In a visit to Israel, one of the most breath-taking moments for me was standing in the ruins of the Second Temple on the Temple Mount. I was looking at the beautiful Mosque of the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher just around the corner and the Western Wall just there. What a truly spiritual place. Across the valley, on a hillside, is a huge cemetery. There are miles of small white headstones from thousands of years. Looking at that gave me an amazing perspective of life. Seeing that expansive display gave physical evidence of the human experience over time and space. 

Each one of those stones represented a soul, a life. This was a mother or father, a daughter or son, a husband or wife, a lover or friend. The family who buried each one of these people suffered the same unbearable burden we carry with loss.

Recognizing that in no way minimizes the pain we feel, but hopefully makes us feel less alone in that feeling. As I said to the Parents of Murdered Children, this is impossible to survive, and we, as humans, do it everyday. 

One thing I really need to warn against is comparing our loss, pain and challenges to those of others. That is a real concern among support groups. Make sure you have a trained, skilled facilitator to keep your group out of the “Oh you think you’ve got it bad…..” kind of psychological one-ups-man-ship.

Like I said, the grief of loss totally maxes out the emotion-o-meter. It cannot be compared. Unfortunately, death is not an accepted part of life in our culture. Such an odd delusion or denial for such a smart people. I often have to remind adults that there is no better way for the story to go than for them to be at their parents’ funeral. Can you think of a better alternative? I can’t. 

I was greatly amused when I was reading a study in a journal about a heart medicine that was touted to “prevent death.” (Wow! Immortality! I would have thought that would have gotten more press.) The best we can do, as far as I know, is holding it off for a bit. We all die. It is an unavoidable part of life.

Having been through the grief process personally makes me the same as everyone else. Having been through the grief process professionally has been a privilege. Having watched as people evolve through the pain into recovery lets me look directly into the eyes of the next grieving patient and say “I know you won’t always feel this bad. I know you’re going to feel better, someday. Someday, maybe in a year and a half or so, your loss won’t be the first thing on your mind when you wake up in the morning.”

But be ready, because when your loss isn’t the first thought, when it does come to mind, you feel guilty that it wasn’t your first thought. Wow. You can’t get a break here. Letting that loss find its’ place in your life is OK. Time gives some perspective, some context. It in no way means your loss was not real or meaningful or painful. It just means an insistence of life to go on.

If you’ve ever been in a really mountainous area, look around and see that on the most inhospitable vertical ledge, you can sometimes find a bush or sapling. Life insists itself. There is a resilience and perseverance that is innate. It happens to us. It happens in us.

There is an excellent book written in the 1950s by Dr. Victor Frankl called Man’s Search for Meaning. He was a psychiatrist who was interred in a Nazi concentration camp. The book is his story, but not in an emotional way. He manages to maintain a fascinating clinical distance and make clear observations of what men become when they have nothing by which to identify themselves; no job, no family, no clothes or house. 

The only part in which Dr. Frankl gets really personal is in when his partner in line walking in snow with rags tied around their feet says “What would our wives say if they could see us now?” He suddenly realizes he’s been so caught up in his own survival that he hasn’t even thought about his wife and daughter, has no idea if they are alive or dead. And he also realizes that it doesn’t matter.

She is part of him. He begins talking to her, in his imagination, and she answers. It is just as real to him as if she were right there, because he knows her that well. He continues to have conversations with her through the rest of his time in the camp. These conversations were quite imaginary and he knew it, but they kept him sane. The part of him that holds her, never loses her. The part of the ones we love that we hold in our hearts never goes from us. (He didn’t find out that his wife and daughter had been killed almost immediately upon being taken until much later.)

Give yourself permission to grieve in whatever way you feel. I’ve heard it said that there is no such thing as a bad emotion, just a stuck one. Let’em roll. Let’em ride on through. Sure, you might feel schizophrenic. You might think you’ve gone completely mad. One thing I’m sure of is that crazy people think they’re fine. If you think you’re going crazy, that means you can tell the difference. You’re fine.

I love the Jewish mourning tradition. The dead, of blessed memory are buried within three days. No putting it off. The survivors traditionally host the community every night for the first seven days. The family isn’t supposed to do anything; not cook, not clean, not even look in a mirror. The people come. They eat. They share stories of the dearly departed. They cry and laugh. They don’t let the grieved deny or shut down. To watch this process unfold displays it’s brilliance. The process is going to happen. I love the idea of helping it along and making your community such an integral part of it. The tradition also outlines when you are supposed to get back into life. So nurturing. Brings to mind the sentiment of Winston Churchill, “If you’re going through hell, don’t stop.”

My overall concern is that we need to reintroduce the idea that death is part of life. Please make sure you have thought about this for yourself. Have a living will. Let your family know your wishes with regards to your end of life care. Get your burial/cremation plans all finished and paid for. You’re never too young or too old. I’m not saying you’re going to die tomorrow. But I guarantee you, it’s coming. And what a gift to those we leave behind to not have to guess how we would want things handled, to not have to make phone calls and arrangements. Google “The Five Wishes” and download a very practical and sensitive form suitable for anyone.

Another really liberating tradition is that the comfort of the living supersedes those of the deceased. So if Grandma wanted to be cremated, but you just can’t bring yourself to do it, you don’t have to. It’s a tough concept to wrap your head around, but this tradition recognizes that the dead are gone, and the living are left to live with the decision until their own death.

The strength and resiliency of the human spirit is truly amazing. Be patient with yourself and those around you. People might say the most bizarre things to you in attempts to be supportive. You might say the most hurtful things out of fear, anger and sadness. Take it easy on everybody. Give everybody a break. Don’t react too fast. Take your time. As they say, “Don’t just do something. Sit there.” Grief evolves. It changes shape and texture and flavor and intensity. Just wait. 

Grief is absolutely common to the human experience, but can be so isolating. Seek out community. Express the full range of the emotion-o-meter. Peg it on both ends and feel it all. It makes us who we are.

 

 

 

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