Grief is all too often blind to time. It is rarely a linear process and tends not to chime on the hour. Rather than being predictable and “healed” the grief tends to orbit around us. The old idea of grief being “healed” is presently seen as being very limited in its accuracy. Here’s an example of why that might be. Think of a person who had their arm amputated. We would all have a great deal of compassion for such a traumatic and life changing loss. Now imagine approaching this person a year or two after the amputation and asking them “Are you over that yet?” The question can easily be seen as being absurd. You don’t get over an arm being amputated. It’s something you learn to live with. It is something that demands you live your life differently and also demands that you transform from the person you were to a new person who relates to the world in a much different manner. That is often the way of grief.
Much of the confusion about grief comes from its being associated with the medical model which assumes that healing has a beginning and then an end. You can think of examples like the flu or an abrasion which have an onset, a lifespan, and then they are over. There’s the cut or scratch, it bleeds, it scabs up and then it leaves a scar which fades with time. This is the way it is for issues when we seek medical treatment and often because of this, medical professionals, psychotherapists included, will think in the linear model and expect a clear beginning and an end to grief. This is frustrating for those who are bereaved because they are all too aware that grief is just not that simple. Especially when it comes to time. It can be a powerful force years down the road or it can seem to vanish right after the loss. It’s rarely simple and rarely linear.
Most of us are aware that grief is not really a medical problem. Grief is the normal human reaction to a difficult loss. Keep in mind that the medical model wants to find “the problem” and then get rid of it in order to make us “healthy.” The reality is that if you think in these terms you will be harming those who grieve since they don’t need the grief “removed” they need it “heard.” This is why grief is more often transformed by others who have had a similar experience and can offer compassion from that perspective. They understand the power of telling one’s story and of being acknowledged and heard. This is the power of a support group or a group like the Compassionate Friends who provide a safe place for those having experienced the death of a child or sibling. A safe place to tell their story. Others who have gone through the same loss will be more likely to have compassion and understanding.
A good safe place is hard to find.
Without love our grief would all but disappear. The essential fuel for grief is love. Each tear you shed is connected to the love. We can contrast this with our cultural assumption which seems to think of grief as more a nuisance and a meaningless nuisance at that. Oh, how we have that wrong.
I once met a man from the Dagura tribe in Africa. He described his shock and disbelief when he first arrived in the USA, about the lack of open grieving. He couldn’t believe it. His culture sees grief as essential and life giving. In fact they see the tears of the bereaved as fuel for the grieved person to find their way in the afterlife. They would literally try and grieve as much as they could in order to aid their loved one. Imagine his confusion when he came to this country to see the way that grief is ignored and devalued. His tribe, the Dagura, saw the power of grief and also connected the grief with meaning. It meant something to the people of the Dagura to grieve. It was an important task that had meaning. When he came to the US he saw a culture that firmly believed that grief was meaningless! He realized right away that this assumption that grief was meaningless was hurtful and unhealthy. We are truly living in a crazy place.
We can learn from the Dagura. Our grief indeed has meaning, one reason among many is that it is connected to our love.
One of the things that makes grief so invisible in our culture is that sadness has a bad name. People think of sadness as something that needs to be hidden, something that others shouldn’t see. It wasn’t always like this. In Chaucers time if you ate and drank “sadly” it meant you did it with gusto! The definition of sadness at that time was “fullness of heart.” You know, that feeling you get in your chest just before the tears come? It’s a certain fullness. What a great definition. In fact, one of the roots of the word sad is sate or satisfy. We have taken sadness and turned it into something that it is not.
With this widespread inclination to hide sadness we who are bereaved are left with an abundance of sadness but very few places to put it. The sad fact is that we are living in a crazy place. Our present day culture passes judgment on the emotion of sadness and this leaves many of us backlogged with grief and so few places to process the contents. This is a huge problem since it is grief that brings us a deeper sense of compassion for others and an often profound increase in maturity. The Persian poet Rumi said it best when he said “Grief is the garden of the heart.” Without grief we are all too often left with a heart that is less than open and understanding. The very thing that brings us depth is what our culture is trying to hide and avoid.
We are truly living in a crazy place.
Webhealing.com has been serving the bereaved on the web since 1995. It is the home of the internet’s first memorial page, the Place to Honor Grief and also sponsors grief forums including forums for the death of a child, the death of a sibling, death of a loved one and others.
Similar to letter writing is journaling. Journaling is an intellectual act of simply keeping a record. Many people will do this following a loss. In some ways you are literally writing your own history. The act of journaling is a very intellectual process. We use our thinking to mark our situation. I have worked with many people who have used journaling as a way to tell their story and connect with their loss. Almost everyone I have worked with raves about the benefits of journaling saying that simply by writing things down there is some relief. By writing it down you are telling your story and when we are able to tell the story we move towards a place of transformation. So this heady and thinking-oriented practice helps in telling the story and in so doing also connects the writer with the emotions connected to the loss. Many times the writing is focused on the emotions and describing their strength and nature. Those who journal say that this is a boon since one can go back to any point in the written history provided by the journal and remember what was happening at that point in time. They say that simply by reading the words they can remember clearly the depth and nature of the emotion they were feeing at that time. This makes journaling a powerful and useful tool since grief is often so foggy and hard to contain. It sometimes acts like smoke, you see it and then in a moment’s time it simply disappears. By using your intellectual side you are marking your experience and telling your story in a way that can be of great help.