Grieving transfigures our sense of meaning and purpose in life. In the aftermath of a significant loss, we find ourselves in a painful and unfamiliar emotional terrain; every breath we take is imbued with the felt-meaning of impermanence. The profound feelings of sadness that emerge while we are grieving inhabits our soul and changes the very feeling of being alive. And we are reminded just how much loss every human being must endure.
The Spiritual Landscape of Grieving
Aging is a powerful mentors and trusted advisors. require us to inhabit the essence of our own fears and insecurities. One of the natural consequences of an aging population will be an increase experience of grief and bereavement.
Many of us have elderly parents and will have the honor as well as the painful challenge of being intimate with their passing. Being fully present while a loved one dies is a primary spiritual threshold and a merciless point of no return.
It is not easy to turn directly into the experiences that frighten us. But turning away and attempting to hide from our suffering only serves to intensify its presence. Grieving requires a courageous conversation at the very edge of our insecurities.
How can we embrace the grieving process as a means to deepen and enhance the experience of being alive?
In The Way: A Portrait of Bereavement I shared a core belief I have about grieving – once we are touched by the death of a loved one our entire sense of identity, meaning, and purpose are catapulted into the raging fires of personal transformation. Bereavement requires us to pass through a definitive point of no return in our lives.
In other words, the essence of grief and bereavement is spiritual, not psychological; grief is an endeavor of the soul, not just an affliction of the mind. It is a horrifically ignorant idea to classify grief as a form of mental illness.
In the midst of grief, we are completely enveloped by an immense feeling of permanent absence. The moments immediately following my mother’s death ushered in a sense of silence I had never known existed. As I held her hand, I was overwhelmed by her stillness. She had given me life, and now I sat with her as she departed.
The Searing Touch of Absence
The searing touch of absence is a threshold into the fierce crucible of loss. Grieving ushers in a primal sense of loneliness that overwhelms our awareness. When someone we love dies we are placed into spiritual exile. We feel abandoned and lonely, even though we are surrounded by caring people who provide meaningful support.
The grieving process moves each one of us into a crucible of personal transformation. The death of a loved one teaches us humility and reminds us of the extreme fragility of life. Grief causes our identity to lose its footing.
This does not mean that we fall apart and are unable to meaningfully navigate our own course of life. It does mean that our sense of identity, the “I” within, is permanently transfigured when a loved one has been taken away from us. In the aftermath of a loss, grieving becomes a constant companion and mentor; grief is an essential and permanent element in our spiritual development.
Grief is reaching out for someone who’s always been there, only to find when you need them the most, one last time, they’re gone.
Grieving firmly places us in the midst of a mysterious and unfamiliar interior terrain. The loss of my parents has indeed taught me that I know far less about myself than I realize. In conversation with my soul, grief has weakened that stubborn sense of the “I” within. I am finding myself in a different space now.
The Nature of Grieving
Grief and bereavement are perfectly normal and natural reactions to loss.
Nature and the natural world seem far more vibrant now than it ever has; the world of social routine and material pursuits seem even more feeble and unconvincing now. Grieving invites us back into the midst of nature as a means to heal, repair and renew ourselves. To fully inhabit our grief is to reconnect with the earth.
Grief clarifies the fragile and temporary nature of our existence here.
The grieving process never ends. Once we are touched by grief our task is to accept and integrate its presence in our life. To heal from a devastating loss does not simply mean we “get over” it or that the feelings associated with that loss come to an end at some point.
The suffering embedded within grief, as strikingly painful as it may be, is here to remind us about living in the here and now. It demands our presence, awareness, and attention.
Deep within the secret interior of our loss we eventually discover gratitude. Within the painful sensory images of grief that flow through our body, we are visited with glimpses of beauty. Embracing grief requires authentic creativity, that is to say, creativity that reaches deep into the flow of opposing forces in life and brings them together in order to seek a sense of unity and consilience.
Without gratitude, beauty, and love, grief could not exist.
In On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross proposed that a person confronting his or her own death passes through five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
I experienced each of the five emotions, but I did not move through them in a linear manner; the stages are qualities of experience. I prefer to think of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance as being interactive elements of the grieving process. How these qualities specifically express themselves is unique to each individual.
Grieving is more of an improvisatory and emergent process than it is a model with defined stages.
But it certainly seems time to move beyond our current habit of using untested theories to create unnecessarily lengthy — and agonizing — models for coping with grief that have created more anxiety about the experience instead of alleviating it. Losing someone is hard enough as it is.
– New York Times: New Ways to Think About Grief
Kubler-Ross’ work remains important. I believe that the most valuable aspect of her work is in helping us to participate in a meaningful conversation about death, dying, grief, and bereavement. Her contribution in this regard is unique. Although psychological interpretations and applications of her work have created contrarian views (see also: MacLean’s Magazine: We’ve Been Misled about How to Grieve, and Time Magazine: New Ways to Think about Grief), advancing our ability to hold a meaningful dialogue about grieving remains crucial.
Tana Dineen in her landmark book Manufacturing Victims outlines the ways in which the psychology industry invents mental illnesses, markets them to the public, and then positions itself as having a solution. Recently, serious attempts have been made to pathologize grief and bereavement. Emeritus Professor and former chair of Psychiatry at Duke University Dr. Allen Frances notes:
This would be a wholesale medicalization of normal emotion, and it would result in the overdiagnosis and overtreatment of people who would do just fine if left alone to grieve with family and friends, as people always have. It is also a safe bet that the drug companies would quickly and greedily pounce on the opportunity to mount a marketing blitz targeted to the bereaved and a campaign to “teach” physicians how to treat mourning with a magic pill.
– New York Times
Grief is not an illness, it is a normal human reaction to loss. Allowing grief to become medicalized and a target market for business is a clear sign that we live in a virulent economic system.
The Grieving Process
There are many different perspectives on the nature of grieving. In the end, we will all experience a significant loss and have to find our way through it. The process of grieving is a spiritual endeavor that requires awareness, intuition, acceptance and creative expression. There is far more to grief than sadness. Through grief, we enter into a period of deep personal transformation.
Healing from a loss does not mean that grief at some point in the future “goes away” or that we “get over it.” Time heals nothing. When we lose a loved one, we lose them forever and the grief that accompanies that loss is permanently etched into our body, mind, and spirit.
The feeling of grief accompanies us for life, but our relationship to it evolves. Perhaps we are not supposed to forget the pain of losing a loved one. Although we can learn to remember, we cannot learn to forget.
Our spiritual task is to find a way to accept and integrate our grief into our life, and to allow those mercurial and extremely uncomfortable feelings to help us grow into what our life has become in the painful absence of another.