There's no way Around Grief, but there is This
This article was originally published in Elephant Journal on Nov. 16, 2016.
In the past few weeks the subject of grief has come up again and again. A friend grieving the loss of her sister, another grieving the loss of a relationship, and a client whose previously peaceful life is currently in turmoil; grief seems to be a theme. For me, visiting my ailing mother at her home in Africa confronted me with a level of grief I hadn’t encountered in decades.
As often happens when we are struggling wisdom presents itself. This time it came in the form of a passage in a book that spoke to the subject of the moment beautifully. The brilliant Anne Lamott says this in her book, Small Victories, "All these years I fell for the great palace lie that grief should be gotten over as quickly and as privately as possible. But what I've discovered since is that the lifelong fear of grief keeps us in a barren, isolated place and that only grieving can heal grief; the passage of time will lessen the acuteness, but time alone, without the direct experience of grief, will not heal it.”
Beautiful words describing a very painful truth. There is no way around grief. When we attempt to shut ourselves away from that specific pain we also shut ourselves away from the good feelings, because grief is sneaky and, somewhere deep inside, we know this. We know that if we allow ourselves to truly feel joy that grief could sneak in when we weren’t on our guard. That moment of relishing a beautiful day or a conversation with a friend could trigger a memory associated with the grief we are trying so hard to keep at bay. So rather than risk it we lower our threshold of experience. We close ourselves off to both ends of the emotional spectrum and live in an increasingly narrow middle range. Or we medicate ourselves with alcohol, drugs, food, television, or sex. Anything to keep those intense feelings away.
When I was in Africa, perhaps because I was out of my element and didn’t have access to the distractions of home, I was in what felt like a pit of grief nearly the entire time, with short breaks provided by the beauty of the place. And the grieving continued on my return home. It wasn’t a choice. I literally didn’t have the capacity to pull myself out of that pit. It took months before grief wasn’t my predominant feeling each and every day. And it was brutal. And it was necessary and healing in ways that I couldn’t have envisioned from where I was standing at the time.
Being willing to experience our grief opens us to feel other things more deeply because we aren’t spending our energy protecting our self from a stealth attack of grief. We learn we can hold both grief and joy; and that not trying to shove the grief away actually enhances our feelings of joy.
It’s been said that the things we struggle against hold us prisoner and I believe that is particularly true of grief. The harder we fight the feeling the more incapacitated we become. The harder we fight the experience of grief the less energy we have available for the rest of our life. The harder we fight grief the more damage we do to our soul.
We grieve in direct proportion to our ability to love; the more love, the more grief. So, in its way, grief is a compass pointing toward the true north of our heart. Grief can break us down but it also strengthens us by showing where we truly live, who we truly are, and what we truly value. Grieving reveals us to ourselves and others and moves us from the “barren and isolated place” to a place where healing and connection live. So while none of us would seek out grief, when it does arrive allow it in, let it do its work, let it move through you, and then on.