Grief: The deep river of the soul

Grief is a beautiful, languid, and powerful emotion that is very different from sadness. Sadness arises when you’re holding on to something that isn’t working anyway; sadness arises to help you relax and let go.

Grief is different: grief arises when something is lost irretrievably, or when a death occurs – be it actual death, or the death of important situations, ideas, or relationships.

Grief does not simply bring you the capacity to relax and let go (as sadness does); grief transports you to the deepest places when you have no choice but to let go – when the loss of vital relationships or vital attachments feels like (or is) death itself.

Grief will arise in response to many kinds of loss: to the end of a love relationship, to the irretrievable loss of your health or well-being, to the loss of a cherished goal or possession, to the end of normalcy and stability, or to a stunning betrayal of your trust.

Grief will also arise in response to never having had something we’re all supposed to take for granted, such as health, strength, security, or a happy childhood.

Grief enables you to survive losses by immersing you in the deep river that flows underneath all life. If you can’t move into your grief, you may only experience destabilization and dissociation in response to the shock of loss, injustice, inequality, and death – instead of being cleansed and renewed in the river of all souls.

GRIEF: The Deep River of the Soul

GIFTS: Mourning ~ Lamentation ~ Release ~ Remembrance ~ Complete immersion in the river of all souls

WHAT YOUR GRIEF DOES: Grief arises when something has been lost irretrievably or when someone has died. 

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE: Mourn, grieve, and honor your losses.

THE INTERNAL QUESTIONS: What must be mourned? How do I honor what was lost?

The Gifts of Grief

(This excerpt is from the Grief chapter in my book, The Language of Emotions)

A few years ago, I saw a TV news report about a young child who had wandered into a neighbor’s pool and drowned. The news crews got onto the scene quickly, and they caught the reactions of the large African-American family who had lost their little one.

On the front lawn of the neighbor’s house, the entire family (including teenaged boys) were wailing, weeping, hugging, and collapsing to the ground, calling out to Jesus.

I was mesmerized by this family’s grief, both because it was so open, shared, and honest, and because I had been socialized in white culture never to show grief openly. In the funerals I had attended, everyone was hushed, dressed in their best and least comfortable clothes, looking uneasy, and offering bland platitudes.

The mourners I knew sometimes cried, but they usually apologized for it. There was no openly shared grief – just polite, suppressed sadness and uncomfortable silence. The grief of this family, however, was real and honest, and I could clearly see the grief pulling them downward.

But many of us learn to avoid grief

Like most people, I avoided the downward movement into grief for most of my life. All four of my grandparents died before I was eleven, but I didn’t grieve or mourn for any one of them, because I was unable to truly feel or process their loss. I never wailed, I never dropped to the ground … I didn’t even cry. I’m not alone in this. Grief impairment is everywhere.

A Mexican oferta shrine for the dead
A Mexican oferta shrine for the dead

Many people move to numbness, rage, distraction, or dissociation — many people will do everything but drop and grieve when death or irretrievable loss occurs. But avoiding grief doesn’t help; in fact, it only makes things worse. We trick ourselves into thinking that we can guard ourselves against all pain if we just refuse to grieve (or think about or prepare for death).

In that refusal, however, we make a tragic mistake, and each death and each loss, because we don’t feel it honestly, just stacks itself on top of the last death or loss – like papers on a disorganized desk – until we’re filled with unfelt, unmourned, unresolved losses and deaths.

Without the ability to grieve, we are repeatedly traumatized by loss and death.

Grieving is necessary and sacred, yet in our grief-impaired culture, we often move dead bodies into boxes and urns, and gather quietly in our somber outfits around tables full of food. We tell each other it was all for the best, or that little Bobby’s in a better world now.

We devise perfect explanations and rationalizations, we imagine our dearly departed in heaven or nirvana, we anesthetize our emotions, we dissociate from our bodies – and we “hold up” very well (what an amazingly accurate description of grief impairment!).

When we see someone actively dropping into grief and mourning, we often turn away. It’s embarrassing, it’s frightening, it’s distasteful – it’s just not done!

Many of us turn away from the grief around us, because we don’t want to feel anything that deeply. It’s too threatening, so we straighten our clothing and turn away. And that’s the real death – of compassion, of community, of feeling, and of understanding.

The healing purpose of grief rituals

And yet our innate capacity to mourn and grieve is never lost — which is a blessing, because moving intentionally into and through grief is an intrinsic part of becoming whole.

In the Mexican culture, which honors its dead in an exquisite yearly festival called Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), there is great wisdom about death. I found this saying on a Dia de los Muertos shrine bench at Chicago’s O’Hare airport:

La muerte nunca muere; la muerte es la ventana al otro mundo.

It means “Death is undying; death is a window to the other world.”

In the post below, I explore healing rituals for grief that can help you honor what you have lost, and open a healing window to the other world….

Related post: Healing rituals for grief


20 Responses

  1. Angie
    | Reply

    Can you offer some specific thought or advice on working with grief, and other emotions we are often taught to ignore, after an affair in our marriage has been discovered? It regularly feels like I’m being crushed under many different emotions. I think I may be incorrectly identifying some of what I am feeling is sadness (which certainly exists) rather than recognizing it and working with it as grief. How do those of us that are going through this experience and choosing to stay and work on our marriage manage the voracious torrent of emotion in a healthy manner? Especially when our spouse has their own torrent of emotions such as shame and anger. Don you have any suggestions for resources? Thank you for any insight or support you can offer.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Angie — this is a time when multiple emotions are needed, because the situation is so intense. I’d expect grief, anxiety, guilt, shame, anger, jealousy, shock (panic), sadness, depression — it seems that nearly every emotion might be called upon.

      With this many emotions roiling at once, therapy or counseling are really important. Couple’s therapy with someone who has experience in adultery as a specialty would be wonderful, but not always possible. Getting therapy for yourself would be very helpful in any case. A helpful thing to know is that with support, this too shall pass, and the roiling emotions can calm down when you’ve addressed each of them. If you can remember that each emotion is arising in response to the situation, and that each one is trying to bring you gifts, skills, and energy to make it through, it can feel a little bit less daunting.

      Take care!

  2. Carolyn
    | Reply

    Hi Karla,
    I’m just finishing up your book “language of emotions” and I have so many questions! After reading the chapter on grief, the feeling seemed to resonate with me but i have a hard time knowing why I would be feeling a sort of general grief. I have a hypothesis that I like potential and generally like to leave things open: jobs, relationships, possibilities; instead of bringing definitive closure to them, I let circumstances and other choices get in the way as opposed to closing the door. I don’t like to give up on possibilities because I have hope despite challenges. Have you come across this kind of persistent but low level grieving of the loss of possibilities before? What would you do to deal with this?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Carolyn. I’m not sure about this — it seems as if it’s a saddens issue — which is not letting go of things intentionally. With grief, you don’t have a choice, and it seems that you’re choosing not to let go.

      It also sounds a bit like confusion is at work — where there is a fog of possibility but one can’t choose.

  3. Valentina
    | Reply

    Hi Karla,
    I stumbled unto the podcast you did with Tami Simon. I haven’t read your book ( I just ordered it). I’m struggling with sadness and grief after an ivf pregnancy,miscarriage and a divorce shortly after that. My sadness and grief not only comes from the miscarriage but from the idea of being able to have a family. I am currently going to therapy. I guess my question is more on how to go through the emotions of that idea or goal of having a family.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Valentina. I’m sorry about your multiple losses, and I’m glad that therapy is available to you. This is a lot to deal with at once.

      In the Grief chapter of the book, I talk about grief rituals, and you may find something helpful there.

      Miscarriages are a special kind of loss, however, and it may help to be with people who understand it specifically. These organizations are a good place to start to find support in your area.

      Unspoken Grief
      Mission: to build and support a community of individuals and families who have been touched directly or indirectly by miscarriage, stillbirth and neonatal loss. Working together to remove the stigma of perinatal grief by sharing our stories and increasing awareness of the lasting effects of perinatal loss.

      And this group has chapters in the US for grieving the loss of a pregnancy in a supportive community:
      Share Pregnancy and Infant Loss Support

      I hope these resources are helpful. Take care of yourself, and rest if you can.

  4. Susan G
    | Reply

    Dear Karla,
    I have read Language of Emotions and given it several times as a gift to people I knew would love it too. I use it’s wisdom almost everyday as I teach elementary kids mindfulness. I have a friend who is struggling. I looked to your website for articles on betrayal, My friend’s father committed suicide when she was 11 years old. She is now an adult with kids who are leaving the nest to go to school and begin their adult lives. She seems to talk of betrayal a lot. She drinks pretty much and says she’s been diagnosed as bio-polar. But the feeling betrayed- by her therapist, her priest, even her kids (she doesn’t say her kids are leaving for school- she says, “now that everyone is leaving me…). I re-read your section on grief, unprocessed grief, and that’s where the word betrayal appears. I’d love to give her this piece on grief, but I don’t know how to approach this. Her therapist mentioned that she may benefit from MBSR, which I have studied, but am not certified to practice. Do you think to a sufferer of complex unresolved grief, that this might be helpful if unsolicited?

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Susan, and thank you for supporting your friend. I think you’re right to be cautious about suggesting anything, if she’s feeling betrayed.

      This site at Columbia may be helpful, though she may not want any input. It can also help to simply ask her what has worked so far, or what she thinks would help.

      The Center for Complicated Grief: Grief is a form of love.

  5. Jennifer
    | Reply

    Black river Rising
    Inundate my Soul
    A great migration flowing South
    With thousands upon Thousands
    Of ebony egrets Emerging
    Falling back I Release
    And rise to the surface Light

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Gorgeous, Jennifer.

  6. Mel
    | Reply

    Dear Karla, I’ve been reading your book the Language of Emotions slowly over several months – reading about different emotions as they show up in my day to day. This book is so awesome and has given me so much insight and helped me to connect with myself in a different way.

    It’s Easter morning here.
    This morning I woke up from a dream where I was in a house similar to the house I grew up in but it had turned into a bar/restaurant. I looked around, seeing a similar format of my the house I grew up in. Similar floors and walls.

    (I now live abroad and most of the connections I had with the past have shifted) . A lot happened in my life over the last 3-4 years, loss of father, selling of childhood home, moving out of country, endings of friendships.

    In the dream, as I looked around the bar/restaurant in the dream I started remembering my family home. Then a cat came to me from the entrance. I picked it up and another one appeared. ( I used to have two cats when I was younger so I think it was them.)

    I started feeling very sad in the dream realizing what happened to me in my life, like all the changes.

    As I walked out the house, I put my hand in my pocket and found various sets of keys. 2 belonged to the restaurant house and there were some other random pairs of keys. As I walked outside holding the cat, a person was sitting on the porch and said that I needed to return the keys. I had given them the first one and as I jangled around my pocked found the other set of keys with a beautiful precious stone key chain. They told me I needed to return the extra set I had been holding onto. I needed to let it go.

    With this I woke up crying so deeply in pain. I was startled but let myself continue to cry. Later in the day I read your chapter on grief and continued to bawl while reading this chapter. It was very intense but I was cool with just letting myself be.

    I thought of my dad and my grandmother who have both passed on. Whenever I thought of anything from my past, I just bawled. It feels like a crazy kind of grief. I had not been thinking about any of this so was surprised for it to show up so intensely.

    I think it’s related to all the changes and shifts that have occurred in my life over the last 3 years. It’s like I woke this morning only realizing how much loss I actually feel.

    How can one process this kind of grief. I want to work thru this. Do you have any articles or resources on grieving the past? I know my soul has come thru a lot and I just realize now the need for reconciliation.

    Thank you in advance much for any info/advice you can share

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Mel, and welcome. This post contains the suggestions I have for grief, and it could be that you simply need some time and a supportive group or individual to speak to.

      Here in the U.S., hospice agencies in each town provide grief support groups so that you can be with people who are also grieving. And this level of grief could be related tot he changes and to the sudden memory of what you’ve lost. Crying and grieving are the appropriate responses, so you’re doing the right thing.

      I would suggest that you look into a local grief support group, or talk to a counselor so that you can get some support. It’s not unusual to grieve long after a loss occurs, but it can be intense!

      Take good care of yourself while you’re in between the worlds.

  7. Max
    | Reply

    Hello Karla I have an old friend that has ghosted me for more than a year and may very well never hear from him again. Is grief or sadness the correct emotion to handle this matter or a combination of the two? I wish I could hear from him again, had entreated to no avail many times before:(

    -Thanks, Max

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hello Max. I’m so sorry about the loss of your friendship; it can be so painful to lose a friend in this way.

      I would say that, because you did not choose this ending, and because you aren’t able to contact your friend, that this is a situation that calls for grief.

      Certainly sadness would be there to help you let go of ideas about your friend that aren’t working for you any longer, but the absence of choice in the matter is what makes me think that this is a grievous situation, and not just a merely saddening one.

      Some form of a grief ritual might help. Or Burning Contracts, if you know that skill. It can be very difficult to move forward when a relationship is dead, but the person is still alive. These rituals can help to support you through this difficult transition. And of course, talking to a counselor or a friend can help you as well.

      Take care of yourself in this time of loss.

  8. Christie
    | Reply

    Do you have any recommendations about how to proceed with grief when you realize you haven’t properly grieved multiple things? I do have a therapist but still feel a bit overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the amount of grief there is for me to process.

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hello Christie, and welcome.

      It sounds as if a grief ritual would be very supportive for you. In DEI, we have a grief ritual process, and you can read about it in The Language of Emotions (in the Grief chapter). However, I also know a DEI Trainer and Consultant, Sherry Olander, who really understands and honors grief in her own life and in her practice. She’s a friend to grief and really understands it. It might be worth consulting with her.

      Here’s her profile page: Sherry Olander

  9. nick
    | Reply

    Thank you Karla
    I’m moving with my family to Northern Thailand soon from Australia. Your work has been really inspiring and extremely helpful for me. Its helped me process alot going on for myself and close family members. I’m actually studying all about Grief and loss care at the moment which is how I found out about you. Your words have really sunken into my soul.
    oh and if your ever in Pai (northern Thailand) come and say hi. We’ll be at Shekina Gardens…


    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Thank you Nick! I’m glad this conversation about grief has been helpful for you.

      I appreciate your invitation to Shekina Gardens, and if I’m ever there, I’ll stop in!


      • L
        | Reply

        Hi Karla,

        Your book is awesome. I love it. Thanks for introducing a sane way to feel emotions.

        I don’t know if what I’m experiencing “qualifies” as grief. As I process the trauma of my sometimes abusive upbringing, I notice so much loss: years of isolating, unemployment, self-loathing, turning down romantic experiences, retreating from city life to move back in with my parents. I feel like I squandered my 20s, and they’re not even over. Is there a role that grief plays in healing from depression? I can’t seem to figure out what I’m supposed to do to move beyond this heaviness.


        • Karla McLaren
          | Reply

          Hello L. So many emotions support us in the wake of trauma, but the mix is different for each person.

          Depression arises to stop us from moving forward, and not grieving can be a reason that we need to stop.

          The heaviness has a purpose, and there are some good books about grief that may help. Anything by Megan Devine is good, and I just got another book called The Myth of Closure which brings a matured awareness of the difficulties of life.

          I hope these books are supportive.

          Take care.

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