In our most recent Holy Ground teleconference, we explored the realm of grief through a process which I borrowed from the early Quakers.
It’s normal to experience grief as suffering, as pain, as sadness, loneliness – even as regret, resentment or fear. But that is not the only way to experience grief.
In our teleconference, we experimented with a practice that starts byfully embracing these dark emotions. With a single candle or lamp in the room, we looked into the shadow cast by that light and allowed that shadow to represent all the sadness, suffering and loneliness that our loss brought into our lives. We simply allowed that shadow – which is shaped like us and attached to us – to represent everything about our grief that causes us to suffer.
Then, while still focusing on that dark shadow, we allowed ourselves to become aware of the light that was everywhere else in the room. All around the shadow was light – indeed, a shadow cannot exist without the light that surrounds it.
This metaphor was made physical in our room by the single lamp or candle that we had lit.
Then each of us asked ourselves, “If that shadow is my grief, then what is the light?”
There are a number of ways to ask this question: You might ask, “What is the light that makes my grief so dark?” or “What is true about me that has me grieve for the loss I’ve suffered?”
It seems that the most powerful and enlightening answers come in the form of a simple sentence about oneself. Certainly, there is something to be found in a statement like “I am grieving because my husband Harold was a wonderful man.” But there is something more powerful in an answer in this form: “I am grieving because I am….”
The light that surrounds the shadow of your grief is something fundamental about you. The light is part of your essence. And the light is what you will take forward into your life beyond the loss you have experienced.
I want to thank Miriam Hawley for her partnership in creating this teleconference and the whole series that we have embarked on.
I invite you to experiment with this metaphor of shadow and light with any kind of suffering that shows up in your life, whether you call it grief, disappointment, resignation, or even anger.
And please let us know what you discover about shifting your experience of grief.
(If you haven’t read Grief Soup, Part One, please read it first)
So what are we to do with Grief Soup, the mixture of emotions that well up in us after we’ve suffered a heart-breaking and life-altering loss?
As long as the emotions are all mixed together, it’s difficult to experience grief as love. And a single fierce emotion, like anger or fear, for example, can “shout down” the softer emotions, the way too much salt overpowers all the other flavors in a soup.
Fortunately, by reflecting and by talking to a generous listener, we can begin to separate out the emotions that go along with grief. When you see what they are, you can deal with each one in a way that’s appropriate and effective.
You’ve felt fear before, and you have ways of dealing with it. You’ve also dealt with anger, regret, resentment and loneliness, haven’t you? For each of these emotions, you have one or more actions you can take to deal with them. And for any one of them, you could ask your friends what they’ve found to be effective.
For example, if you notice that you’re afraid of what the future holds, you can set to work devising strategies to deal with possible problems, and you can also ask your knowledgeable friends for advice in areas where they have expertise.
Is your experience of grief flavored with resentment or regret about things that happened or things that should have happened? Probably, resentment and regret are emotions that you’ve dealt with before; perhaps you’ve found, as many people have, that the most effective response to resentment and regret is forgiveness – forgiveness of others for actions or omissions that you’re holding against them; and forgiveness of yourself for actions or omissions for which you blame yourself.
Anger, too, is often best dealt with by forgiveness. Look carefully: you are angry because of something that should have happened differently – something that someone else should have done or should not have done. But that “should” is yours. You own it. It’s your value, your judgment; and however admirable it may be, it’s also yours to let go of with forgiveness. Forgiveness is always yours to choose.
I’m not saying that any one of the specific responses I’ve named will work for you; but you already know, or can learn, how to deal with anger, resentment, fear, loneliness, and many other emotions that may be present in your own version of Grief Soup.
So what are you to do with grief itself? I’m going to suggest that once you have dealt with these other emotions, there’s nothing you need to do about grief.
Yes, I hope you’ll find there’s nothing about grief that you need to cure or heal or fix, because grief is simply how your love for the person you’ve lost feels now. That beloved person is absent from the world, and present in your heart. By all means, deal with your anger, meet your fears head-on, forgive wherever you have resentment or regrets, fill your times of loneliness in whatever way fulfills you. And do the one thing with grief that is effective and appropriate: allow it to be a full-hearted experience of your love for the person you’ve lost.
May you be blessed in finding that your grief is your love.
If only grief were simple: sadness, tears, missing that beloved person. If only we could be alone in stillness with the absence (and the startling presence) of that dear person we’ve lost. Maybe then we could simply rest in the plain sorrow of love and let our grief be.
What you get, though, is it not just grief but grief soup – a rich and varied blend of emotions that is as unique as you are.
Grief soup is a mixture of love and sadness, fear and anger, regret and resentment, with a healthy dose of loneliness, most likely, and traces (depending on your own recipe) of hope or despair, relief, shock, shame, courage or self-consciousness. All those ingredients blend together into your particular version of grief soup, which most people simply call “grief.”
With so many emotions, judgments and expectations present, it’s tricky to speak about your grief, much less deal with it in a helpful way.
When I lost Bonnie, I was blessed to experience a grief that was largely unmixed with fear, regret, resentment and anger. Bonnie and I had had two and half months to be together, knowing that she would soon die. Her slipping away was gradual, and at the end she chose to stop taking medicine, rather than extend the misery she was feeling.
Loneliness, though, was a huge and obvious part of my grief after she died. My friends saw I was lonely, and offered their time and their homes to ease me through that empty time. It’s important to notice that such invitations are offered as remedies for loneliness, not for grief. Sometimes people are given well-meant advice like “You should get out more,” or “Why don’t you start dating again.” (I stoutly resented that one, right up to the day I suddenly fell in love with Carol.) If you see these as recommended cures for grief, you may be shocked at your friends’ insensitivity. But this is advice to deal with loneliness, not with grief. And for loneliness, it may be good medicine.
Let’s not be so simplistic with ourselves or with our grieving friends. Let’s not say, “I’m grieving,” or “He’s grieving,” and let it go at that; let’s listen for all the ingredients that are present in our grief soup or someone else’s.
If we pay close attention, we may find that we have ways to deal with the anger, ways to deal with the fear, ways to deal with regret or resentment or loneliness. And when we have noticed that we can deal with all of those, maybe we’ll find that we don’t need to deal with grief itself, that we can simply allow our grief to be, because it is, in its essence, no more or less than love.
Next, Part Two: A practice for grief — naming the ingredients in your grief soup.
For three months this winter, the mid-Atlantic was locked in a hard freeze. The ground was solid, trees bare, and the flower beds were buried under dirt-encrusted snow. Birds were mobbing the feeder out back, and I wondered how they manage to survive weather like that.
At this season, in the months after my Bonnie died, the barrenness of the landscape mirrored my inner bleakness. I described that in Loving Grief:
When we scattered the ashes, the land was bare and
brown and dry and cold. And we ourselves felt bare and
cold. We were feeling the death in us, Rebecca and I, and
hoping for spring to come, hoping for spring in us, hoping
for something to be reborn. … It was March, and there was nothing
growing, and we had no idea how beautiful this spot would become.
During my first cold winter without Bonnie, my memories of how warm and loving she was seemed like harsh reminders of my loss. In subsequent years, though, her life and her death have come to seem a part of a natural cycle, like the coming of a hard winter and the gradual revival of the world as the days grow longer and warmer.
A year after we scattered Bonnie’s ashes, there was again
nothing growing on the hillsides by the bridge. They were just
leaf-covered hillsides littered with some fallen trees that are
going back into the earth the way they’re supposed to, going
back to the earth the way Bonnie wanted to, because she saw
that it was right. She saw that going back to the earth was the
natural way of things. She saw that things begin and end, but
also that they move in cycles.
Just after New Year’s I received a message from a man named Doug, for whom the loss of his wife of 35 years seems unbearable. I wrote back, and I hope he has read the message and taken some encouragement from it. But I know that whatever the season, there’s always someone in Doug’s cold winter of grief, and there’s always someone who would want to help, if they knew the depth of that grief and if they knew what to say or do.
Usually, there’s not a lot our friends can do, because the resources that will bring us through the hard freeze of grief are within us. Friends do what they can to be helpful and comforting; sometimes that feels like a small, even futile gesture. But because life and the heart have their cycles, people who are grieving will, I trust, come through this harsh grief to a gentler, warmer time when they can look back at the life of the person they love with acceptance and love.
Somewhere in this soil, somewhere under my feet, Bonnie’s
ashes were nursing growth. The contents of that little container
of ashes, which didn’t weigh much, are back in this place,
and are part of life still, part of the living earth, part of
growing, part of dying, part of the cycle that will continue
as long as there is life.
(Excerpts are from Paul Bennett’s Loving Grief, published by Larson Publications and available from any bookseller.)
Is grief your enemy? Or is grief an upwelling of love, your soul blossoming in sorrow? Most of us, when we meet a stranger, will automatically, immediately begin treating him as a friend or as a threat. Tiny clues can tip this decision one way or the other: a smile, a scowl, body posture, tone of voice.
Is grief your friend or your enemy?
Grief makes a bad first impression – greeting us, on first acquaintance, with sorrow, heartache, confusion and fear; it’s natural for us to decide, right off, that grief is a threat, an enemy, and the sooner we escape it, the better.
But when you see that grief is an expression of your love for the one you’ve lost, you can make the choice to welcome grief as your friend. By allowing it to come into your life, you can also allow it to go when it has run its course.
When we think about grief, we usually think about grieving for the past — for a person who’s no longer with us. That kind of longing for the past has a backward-looking feel to it.
Another kind of grief is, oddly, forward-looking. It’s grief for the future that I won’t have. This grieving for the lost future can be especially uprooting. When Bonnie died, after the first few weeks that were full of memorial services and occasions that friends made for being with me, I went into a period of grief when I didn’t know what to do or didn’t know why I was doing it. When I looked ahead to my future, it was either a blank, or a prospect of routine without meaning. I was grieving for my missing future, as well as for the joy of being with Bonnie, which was in the past. Just as Bonnie’s absence left a hole in my life, so did the absence of the future I had imagined for myself, with her.
The future that Bonnie and I planned had given meaning to what we did in the present; now the future was gone, Bonnie was gone, and I was uprooted.
I was grieving, as many people do, for a future I never had.
Some people have such a powerful grief for the future that was “taken away” that they feel they’ve been cheated out of something they would have had, if the person they love had not died. They feel their future has been stolen; they look ahead and can see only that the future they’ve got is not the one they “should have had.”
Of course, that future was never real – no future is. Saying that the future “should be” a certain way is a doorway to resentment and suffering.
If you get wrapped up in the idea that you were “cheated” of your future, you’re stuck. Looking back, you see only what you lost; looking forward, you see only what was stolen from you. Is it possible to create a future you’ll love from that stuck place?
I’m not sure what you can do if you’re stuck in that place. Maybe the answer is simply to say this to yourself as often as needed:
Oh, I was mistaken. That was never going to happen.
Or maybe, we can feel gratitude for the way in which we did have that future. Bonnie and I had, in fact, imagined many futures in the twenty-three years we were in love – that’s what human beings do. Each of those futures shaped the present, even though none of them were real. (Every future is imagined, even if I later encounter a present moment that resembles what I had imagined before.) So I don’t see that our imagined futures were stolen from us – in the moments when we imagined them, we had them as fully as you can ever have a future.
I would like to hear from people who find themselves grieving for a lost future or feeling cheated. Are you stuck there, or did you find a way to shift that?
Diana Thompson shared this poem with us, which she wrote for a family who had recently suffered a loss.
Though there is life in every breath, one can hardly explain the breathless moment of such news… a child, my son, my brother, my husband, my friend has died. There is no good or right time…
And the first of it seems unthinkable; minute by minute the fullness of the news seeps into every pore, the fiber, the very essence of our being. And still there is no good or right time…
And then, when we are shaken …that person we believe we are is stirred, riveted and often pierced at the “core”…, we somehow put one foot in front of the other…, we stand…, we look inward…, then we look outward… and we walk again.
And as we trust, our footing becomes surer and in time we breathe more fully again…Moment by moment…, minute by minute…, day by day… because there is no good or right time when death calls.
So, remember there is life in every breath… take each breathe, fully,… take your time,… treasure this moment, feast upon the LOVE SHARED … because there is no good or right time when death calls!
Love is a pathway to growth. It’s not the only path, but love is unique in that it challenges us to grow both inwardly and outwardly. Love invites us to explore the inward realm of our emotions, and it also calls us outward, draws us outside our own experiences, viewpoints and habits to participate in a couple, in family, and in community.
Grief is one of our most intense experiences of love; so if love is a doorway to growth, then grief, too, is an invitation to growth.
When I lost Bonnie, seven years ago, my focus was on getting through the experience, not growing through it. But because I received grief as experience of love, I was in no hurry to get over grief, or to get rid of it. I explored my grief, writing in my journal; I spoke about grief to others, and ultimately that writing and speaking became my book, Loving Grief. That has led to countless conversations about grief, and with each conversation, the importance of grief as an opportunity for growth becomes clearer to me. It doesn’t matter if our grief is for a person who has died, for a marriage that has dissolved, for a time or place where we long to return; in grief we experience ourselves reaching for someone or something that we deeply love.
Grief challenges us to hold both ends of the spectrum of love. Grief stretches us so that we can hold the extreme sorrow of love, and in stretching that far into the shadows, we’re also able to grow and stretch toward the light, toward the ecstasy that is possible for us as loving beings.
All this growth starts with allowing grief to be, and seeing it as an expression of our love.