Each and every person on this earth has experienced loss. We may think when grief comes over us that we are alone in our mourning, that the smiling chatty folks around us don’t know…but of course they do. Being alive in this mortal world means knowing loss.
And grief—grief is the process by which we heal those holes ripped in our life through relocation, through divorce, through death. We mammals are designed to feel acutely the loss of one we love; it is a survival mechanism that binds parent to child, that binds together family group and tribe. The more we bring people into our hearts, the deeper the hole they leave if they are taken from us.
I think that we in this age have more trouble with the process of grieving than earlier generations because we expect to move through things quickly. In the Jewish tradition mourners take a week to sit quietly with family and friends and observe their grief. They are not to work and they have no other social obligations during this time. They cover the mirrors in their homes to relieve any responsibility or anxiety about literally “keeping up appearances.” For the most acute losses they observe a period of mourning for a year, as a reminder to themselves and their community that grief ebbs and flows long after the religious services are over.
My colleague Craig Schwalenberg describes grief as an ocean, along whose shore we walk. At any time the waves may come in, wetting the bottoms of our feet and receding, or knocking us over with their power, perhaps even pulling us under. When those waves come it is challenge enough if we are in a safe place where we can surrender to our grief, but sometimes they arrive while we are driving our car, at our job, at a dinner party, and we are disoriented, confused, overwhelmed.
Grief takes many forms—it is as variable as humanity itself. Tears and sadness we expect. But other emotions like anger or numbness often take us by surprise, and sometimes go unrecognized as grief. We may even notice guilty feelings if we imagine we are not grieving the “right way.” We might be surprised by anger at the person who has left us. Maybe we regret things done or left undone, said or left unsaid. It is common to experience relief when someone who has been struggling for a long time finally dies and has an end to their suffering.
All these feelings are possible and important and real. Counselors during the peak of the AIDS crisis noticed that some folks were losing so many friends and loved ones that they had sort of a grief fatigue; they began to grow numb and felt incap-able of grieving any more. Whether it takes the form of tears or irritability, rage or complete numbness and emptiness—all of this is grief, and no one way of grieving is better than another.
We grieve not only relationships that gave us comfort and joy, but also difficult relationships. When we grieve, for example, the loss of a friend or relative from whom we had drifted apart, we grieve not only the loss of what was, but also of what might have been. Perhaps we always assumed that someday we would reconnect, and now we have come to an ending with things still unsaid and undone. We grieve the loss of a future together.
We need to grieve even the loss of those who were abusive to us. Maybe we feel rage for how we were hurt, sadness for the healthy relationship we deserved, perhaps guilt that we had wished that person would finally leave our lives. This kind of compound grieving can be hard to navigate, hard to express. Still, I think the best we can do is to witness each facet as it is uncovered, as it washes over us.
When waves of grief come, however they come, I believe that the best wisdom is to simply observe it, not to struggle against it, but to let the grief do its work. To let go. When the waves come, small or overwhelming, I encourage you to pay attention, to take the time you need. We don’t always have the luxury of saying “I’m taking the afternoon off because I need to grieve.” But pull over to the side of the road if you are driving. Stand up from your work and take a walk or find a place to sit undisturbed for a few moments, or a few hours.
The pain of grief is not like the pain of getting your hand too close to the fire, which tells you to pull away. It is more like the pain of a wound healing, which requires time.
Grief is the process of knitting back together those holes, those empty places where our loved ones used to be. We wove them so carefully into our lives, and now that they are gone we feel we may unravel without them. My theology professor told us that after the death of his wife he experienced an acute moment of grief as he was ready to leave a party, and looked around for his wife as he had done at the end of every party for 40 years.
That hole where our loved ones used to be causes us to stumble—to wonder how can we live each day without them. Loss creates a change in the terrain of our lives, and grief is the process of re-forming our lives, transforming them into a new wholeness. Even those waves that drag us under help transform our lives. Those waves are part of the slow process of washing us clean of what is gone, of what we have lost. And so instinctively we struggle, because that pain binds us to what we have lost. Says Dr. Earl A. Grollman, one of the great teachers about death and loss:
Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.
Lest we be washed out to sea, we need anchors to keep us tethered to all that is still alive and growing in this world. A favorite movie or poem or piece of music can be a tether to bring us back to ourselves. If walking in the woods or gardening restores your soul in ordinary times, you need these things more than ever when you are awash in grief. For some, work can be that anchor, but it can also be a way of blocking out or avoiding grief.
This is not the time for ambitious projects, but for simple actions that pull you back to yourself, like putting your hands in the earth, or in a dishpan of soapy water. A key is not to expect that this time of grieving will be like other times, but to witness and notice. Today I washed two dishes and even that was hard. Today I walked in the woods and everything reminded me of her.
The most important anchor is compassion—especially for yourself if you are grieving. When you are not as productive as you might normally be, or patient, or witty, or when you just have trouble putting words together, be compassionate and kind to yourself, as you would to a dear friend who was grieving. Don’t let your grief come between you and the people who love you. It can be hard to connect with others when those waves come; it is easy to isolate yourself when you are grieving. Because truly, no one can really understand what you are feeling, and no one can take your pain away. But no living being can survive in isolation, either. We need one another.
Being with one another in grief is difficult. It is difficult because it may bring our own grief back to us in a fresh way. It is hard because we can never really ease the grief of another—only the miraculous restoration of the one lost could truly fill that hole in their lives. It is difficult because we know how tender the heart is when it is grieving, and sometimes we might say or do the wrong thing. Maybe the very thing that would bring comfort to us is painful to our companions.
A colleague once told me a cautionary tale of going into the hospital room of a young man dying of AIDS. She asked him “How are you?” and he replied in fury: “How do you think I am! I’m dying!” The lesson my friend took from this moment is to never ask, “How are you?” But I took a different lesson from it. If we ask how someone is, we must be ready to listen and stay present with however they really are, whether that is rage, sadness, despair or a need for solitude.
Any attempt to smooth over the loss will fail—must fail. Statements like “He’s in a better place now,” or any variant on “It’s for the best,” or “Life goes on” are attempts to bring premature closure. Usually it speaks more about the well-wisher’s discomfort with the depth of grief than any need of the mourner. Our goal as supportive neighbors, family or friends is not to soothe, not to smooth over, but to be present with the truth of what is.
To say simply to a neighbor or friend, “I heard about your loss,” and “I’m sorry,” gives the mourner a chance to speak about their loss if they choose, or just to know they can number you among those who will understand if they are not quite themselves. As we are present with our own grief, so we can be present with the grief of another.
We grieve because we are creatures who connect, who love, and therefore we know loss. Writes Wendell Berry: “Grief is not a force and has no power to hold you. You only bear it. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”