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Embracing the Journey through Grief

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by Michael Mesmer, MFT

    This article was scheduled for 2004 publication in "Grief Matters", published weekly by National Grief Support Services, Inc.

What does it mean to embrace grief?

    When we embrace grief, we accept what we're feeling and appreciate grieving as an opportunity instead of an obstacle. We don't deny, struggle with or try to "get over" our grief but, instead, let ourselves naturally and in our own time integrate and grow from the experience.
back to top   How can someone appreciate such a painful experience as grief?

It can be difficult. The real impact of a serious loss on our lives can be devastating, and the feelings can seem unbearable at times. But several things may be helpful to keep in mind when considering whether to embrace grief: first, everyone grieves at some time; it is perfectly natural and happens to healthy people in all walks of life and all cultures throughout time. Moreover, others have suffered losses far greater than our own and survived, even prospered, because of the experience. And remember that we grieve because we care - the stronger our grief, the deeper our caring. Grieving is a reminder that we are alive and that our heart is open, a good sign indeed.

There are several natural experiences in life that can be painful but are understood to be positive in some way and therefore possible to appreciate. None can match the depth of pain involved in loss, but experiences such as teething in young children; growing pains felt by many adolescents, menstruation and childbirth are growth experiences of sorts. Similarly, grieving is a natural, healthy experience that can, if we embrace it, provide positive results for us despite the very real pain that is the first result of loss.

back to top   What are some of the reasons to embrace grief?

Generally, grief is our normal reaction to the loss of someone or something important in our life - we are usually grieving because a close relative or friend has died or because we've lost a home or another aspect of our life that we depended on or were nourished by in some way. Grief, in other words, is healthy and deserves to be supported rather than suppressed.

Another reason to embrace grief is because we usually have no choice - we're feeling what we're feeling when we're feeling it. Viewing grief as abnormal or an inconvenience puts us in the awkward position of having to struggle with a natural part of ourselves, an effort that can lead to more problems than it solves.

Perhaps the most important reason to embrace grief is that it enables us to heal more completely and to better and more effectively use grieving as a learning and growing experience. In effect, by embracing grief we learn how to grieve.

back to top   How can we learn from grief?

There are several ways in which we can learn when we embrace grief. The first has been mentioned already - grieving is often a sign that we have cared about and been touched by or nourished by someone or something. Sometimes we aren't aware of this importance until grieving begins. Alternately, as in my case when my father died, we may learn through grieving that we were incomplete with someone or something and that their passing signifies a lost opportunity or the end of certain chances to connect. In these and other ways, grieving helps us become aware of a quality of caring or needing in ourselves that might not be evident if we suppressed or hurried past the feelings that arise during grief.

Another way we can learn from grief is that the experience can deepen our empathy and caring for others who have suffered and lost. Sometimes our lives are so successful and happy that we have a hard time understanding why someone we know might be so upset about a loss in their lives. We may hear ourselves saying, "Get over it! Move on!" Although our intention may be to help this person, we haven't really been empathetic. Our own grief can open the doors of compassion and understanding in us so that never again will we react so brusquely or unsympathetically when someone around us is grieving.

back to top   Can you suggest some specific ways we can embrace grief?

A good first step is to recognize that we are grieving. We may not have expected to grieve a particular event and can overlook feelings of loss. At other times we recognize in ourselves that "something" is going on but misunderstand it as "fatigue" or dismiss the feelings if they seem triggered by something minor. Instead, keep in mind that even small losses can stir feelings of a surprisingly strong nature. Also, pay attention to what has changed in your life recently - a new job can mean the loss of familiar routines and coworkers; a new relationship can mean the loss of options available only to a single individual.

Embracing grief is opening to it. Start from the possibility that grieving can be helpful and healing. Develop an inward focus to complement the outward consciousness of daily life. Study your experience instead of judging certain aspects of it as right or wrong. Begin to explore what this particular grief is about.

Knowing the stages of grief can be a big help. As we know, although each person grieves differently at different times in their life and for different reasons, there seem to be somewhat predictable stages in the process that begin with the loss itself. Often, an initial period of shock or unreality about the loss is followed by a second period of flooding feelings and waves of alternating highs and lows. This often leads to a time of apathy, depression or numbness, as we face the prospect of living life after the loss. Some people cycle through these stages more than once, but eventually almost everyone comes to a time of reawakening interest in life and a sense of looking forward. Knowing which stage we're in can go a long way towards helping us study it more closely and learn from it.

back to top   What are some ways that a person could study their grief?

Visualization can be an effective way to go deeper into an experience such as grief. Set aside some quiet time alone where you can sit relatively still and undisturbed. Here's a meditation to try: close your eyes if you like and imagine that your grief is a particular color and shape - what do you see about your grief? Is it black and jagged like a shard of slate or perhaps a throbbing red ball of sadness? Where in your body do you see this grief being experienced? Perhaps in your chest or your fists or your eyes that cannot stop shedding tears…or perhaps your grief lurks nearby in the shadows, ready to pounce on you at unexpected moments. Now imagine that you can surround yourself with the soothing light of acceptance. What color would acceptance look like? Imagine an aura of acceptance surrounding you and your grief - let it slowly settle down around you, relaxing you, protecting you, healing you. Notice if your grief changes at all in color, size or location. When you've learned something about your grief, acknowledge yourself for exploring the truth and gently return your attention to the world around you.

There are many tools we can use to help us study our grief. A diary or journal gives us a place to bring out our thoughts and feelings when no one else is available to hear about them. By experimenting with poetry, painting, music or movement, we can focus on additional facets of our grief and how we experience it.

Another place to focus is on the ways in which the person or object lost will remain in our lives despite their evident loss. There may be photos or home movies that can help us remember a person or place. There may be qualities in us or our family and friends that are a continuing testament to what we once enjoyed in our lives but have now lost. And our relationship with people, pets, even places or things can develop long after they are "gone". In fact, when someone we know is alive yet not present - because they're traveling or living elsewhere - we still can have satisfying relationships with them. Sometimes, talking with someone who has died or left our lives is not crazy but actually quite sane.

Ask yourself - where is this person, pet, place, process or thing right now? Do you have a sense of where he or she or it is? Has it completely gone or is there some way in which you still have a real sense of it? What is he or she or it doing right now? If you don't know, let yourself imagine an answer that feels right. My dog, Natasha, returned to the pound when I was 10 for being too hard to handle at home, is running in a field of snow, playing with a group of people who love her. My father is fishing on his own boat with a crew to help out. Let yourself fantasize about where your loved ones would be if they could be somewhere wonderful. But also consider the practical changes in your life that have resulted from this valued presence in your life.

back to top   Is embracing grief safe?

Normal grieving is safe to experience for almost anyone. Although I have heard of certain people, pets, and plants that apparently died from grief, the vast majority of us grieve naturally and without detrimental physical effect. Here are some guidelines that should increase a person's sense of emotional safety while grieving.

First, only go as far or as fast in your work with grief as feels safe. Do not read a book or continue an exercise or meditation if it does not feel supportive. That doesn't mean avoiding discomfort - grieving is often very uncomfortable but, as mentioned earlier, this can be a good thing. I mean that we should feel ready to face what's ahead but protect ourselves from anything that is overwhelming. Postpone whatever doesn't feel right; you can always come back to a memory or a concern later on, when you feel up to it.

Next, work with others. You don't need anyone else to embrace grief, but you'll find it a lot easier if you've got the support of your family and friends, for instance, and the guidance of a grief counselor or other mentor that you trust. Some ways of working with grief are appropriate to share with loved ones. For example, creating a memorial to a lost family member, pet, or even a former home, is a perfect project for including everyone in the family in celebrating such an important part of everyone's life.

If you're feeling suicidal, call someone for help - there are local and national hotlines for support available 24 hours a day by telephone and on the Internet. Reach out to someone you can trust or a trained counselor to share your concerns and get some perspective. Suicide is "a permanent solution to a temporary problem" and should be our last resort in times of grief; get together with someone and give the part of you that still wants to live a chance to speak about your situation and consider reasons to live through it.

Also, working with grief is work! To compensate and support yourself, take extra care of yourself during this time. Pamper yourself whenever possible; fifteen minutes is all you need to relax in a hot bath, or in a quiet meditation. Pay attention to your eating and exercise habits - they're even more important when we're grieving.

"Grounding" techniques can be especially helpful when we're feeling overwhelmed with thoughts or feelings. Standing with our bare feet on grass, sand or dirt connects us immediately with something outside ourselves and allows us to regain a calm, centered feeling. Swimming or just soaking in water is also very calming and soothing. Meditation that brings about calmness and peace can be practiced several times a day to provide immediate relief as well as build a foundation for future work.

back to top   What about spirituality?

The spiritual aspects of grief are important to consider, especially when someone we know has died, even if we don't participate in organized religious practice. Certain philosophical or metaphysical questions (including "Where do we go when we die?" and "Is there anything permanent I can depend on?") can become important when we experience a significant loss. An understanding of these and other spiritual issues can help us help others and ourselves during and after the grieving process.

Spirituality means more than the worship of a Creator or other divine beings; spirituality signifies a dimension of human experience other than the physical and the material world we normally focus on in our daily activities. This dimension includes feelings of déjà vu, intuition, hunches, and hopes; we are in this plane when we see beauty in a child's smile or a forest sunset. This world overlaps the physical one: mathematicians and astronomers are in the spiritual dimension when they experience "A-Ha!" or "Eureka!" in their work, musicians when they surrender to the notes in a piece of music. Spirituality is simply recognizing the human soul and its importance in our lives.

With this point of view, you can be spiritual and not believe in a supreme being. You can be agnostic or atheistic and still have a spiritual life. We can take comfort from the parts of life that do not fit easily into words and sentences; we can celebrate that which is mysterious and spontaneous. The wonder of the universe is available for all to contemplate whether it has been in existence for 6,000 years or 16 billion.

Every major loss is a spiritual one, for it reveals life as unreliable and unpredictable and hence real. There's nothing like an unexpected loss to destroy our complacency and return us to living in the moment. Grieving also reminds us to be thankful for that which we have not yet lost; if spirituality includes that which inspires us to improve, then grieving can indeed be considered a spiritual experience.

back to top   How does grieving ever finish if we embrace it?

Let me offer this point of view. In a grief counseling training session, a woman came to speak to us about the death of her son. He had been three years old and pulled away from her to dart into traffic and the path of an oncoming car. That had been five years earlier; the woman had gone on to have another child with her husband and in general live her life to the fullest. But as she stood there in our classroom telling her story for the hundredth time (she spoke to groups and families regularly about grief), tears came to her eyes and sobbing into her voice. Her experience was, she said, that she would never get over his death and, even though she had gotten on with her life, she would always know the pain of the moment that he slipped away from her. She felt comfort in this; it meant to her that her heart was still open.

Perhaps grieving is a condition of life always, not just when someone or something ends. Each day ends, each moment dies - as far as we know, never to return. Plants and animals die so that we may live. Having an open heart may mean recognizing the cycle of birth and death, creation and loss, as the very heart of life and grief as the passage through to whatever awaits us after we too have died.

Grieving is not just sadness -- it is our laughter when we remember a special moment with a departed friend, our appreciation when we see ourselves doing something exactly as we learned it from a parent or teacher. Grieving can be a celebration of the special gifts we've received from having, for a relatively short period of time, someone or something special in our lives.

Occasionally, some people can find themselves caught in a period of so-called "complicated bereavement"; they just can't stop crying or focusing on their loss. This is a time to be especially open and patient with the process of grieving; there may be some grieving left over from past losses being processed as well, hence the flooding of feeling. Support the person who's grieving by acknowledging the depth of their loss and giving them the space to feel all their feelings now instead of postponing them once again.

back to top   What else can you suggest for those of us curious about embracing grief?
    The most hopeful thought I have to share is that we can embrace almost anything in life, even horrible tragedies, and thereby endure and grow from the experience. Grieving the loss of someone or something important is painful but it does naturally evolve into something else - tomorrow. And until we die, there's another tomorrow waiting for us after that. Sometimes we don't understand why it is that we have gone on living while others have died before us. It may be that we are their eyes on life and that it is through us that those we have known and loved live on.

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