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.
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