Grief & loss

We usually think about the experience of grief in the context of the death of a loved one.  Of course, this is one of the most painful, incomprehensible events that we go through as humans.  Our minds aren’t constructed in a way that allow the concept of death to be easily grasped.  The sudden disappearance of a person that occupied space within our days and hearts is something that defies our natural expectation of consistency. Even if the death was anticipated, it still registers as an abrupt rupture in our attachments.  Grief is about recognizing the sense of loss inherent in our attachments to people, our pets, home and neighborhood, career or job position, and circumstances that we come to expect as constant and unchanging.  This is the greatest trick of human existence: all those things that seem secure and constant are in fact ever-changing.  Grief is the experience of feeling the rupture in an attachment and the associated fear in the acknowledgement that all relationships and experiences are indeed temporary.  Sometimes, this is good news.  If things are devastating, hopeless, and painful, we can be certain that factors contributing to our suffering or our response to it will change.  Unfortunately, the opposite is also true.  Positive and heart-lifting experiences will change as well as our relationships.  Life contains the ebb and flow of loss and gain, death and birth.  When you lose someone or something that you love or identify strongly with, an opportunity for growth and wisdom can be gained. 

When we generalize grief to the experience of loss to something we conceptualize as “permanent”, we unlock a series of losses over our lifetime that are worth acknowledging and exploring.  Even losses that seem subtle often tie into past experiences or reflect the loss of security and certainty for the future.  Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was a psychiatrist that introduced a map of the grief process.  This map consists of five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  We now know the grieving process is not so linear and happens far more often than we recognize.  A helpful image can be one of a spiral staircase.  I think anxiety is the most commonly identified emotional state that people name when learning to better connect to how loss feels in the body and heart.  Grief is also complicated because it accumulates over time and especially so when past experiences of loss haven’t been acknowledged by others.  This creates a corresponding sensation of loneliness.  I have met with many people whom never gave themselves permission to grieve nor had others bear witness to these losses.

Grief is meant to remind us of the fluid and temporary nature of our existence.  It offers us the opportunity to work through the anxiety that surfaces when we face the concept of impermanence.  And finally, grieving losses is meant to bring about a sense of community.  We aren’t supposed to grieve in isolation, though the impact of loss absolutely works to push us away from others.  Research on traumatized groups (yes, grief registers as traumatic in the body) shows that the communal aspect of suffering creates more resilience and even a sense of acceptance of the pain.  Once we accept that grief and loss are inevitable, wisdom needed for our spiritual growth and evolution is born.  A disclaimer is needed here: acceptance does not mean “getting over it” or “moving on.”  Acceptance is a quality that we bring to the grieving process.  We aren’t honoring the process of grief if we push aside aspects of the experience or ignore the larger themes.  In the words of a Buddhist philosopher,

“We have to accept this reality and smile.  This is the practice of facing fear.  Fear is always within us: the fear of getting old, the fear of getting sick, the fear of dying, the fear of being abandoned by loved ones.  It is very human to be fearful and worry about loss.  We are not advised to suppress these fears.  We can invite these fears to the upper level of our consciousness, recognize them, and smile.  Every time your fear is invited up and you acknowledge it with compassion, it will lose some of its strength.  When it returns to the depth of your consciousness, it returns as a smaller seed.”