Dealing With Grief and Loss

The Landscape of Grief

When someone we love dies, a part of us dies too. Everyone has his or her own way of grieving. Anyone who’s ever lost a parent, child, lover, spouse, or close friend, knows that grief is one of the most powerful emotional forces there is – powerful enough to shatter the self we’ve carefully constructed. We become present to our lives in a new way. There is a simultaneous shattering of ego and expansion of consciousness that is a common experience for people who are grieving. The normal ego maintains its illusion of control and invulnerability until disaster strikes and it all begins to unravel. This ego dissolution is the first phase of extraordinary healing process we call grief.

In grief’s alchemy, however, the first phase is not about moving on but about being broken, a searing experience that cannot be pacified by all the compassionate counsel in the world. Healing through grief doesn’t start when we give up felling bad: it begins with the agony of loss. The merciful numbing shock must wear off and the reality of death takes hold. Grief must sink in. In the alchemy of grief, going down always precedes coming up. Understandable but misguided attempts to speed up the process tend to derail it. Generally, a grief deferred is a grief prolonged. There are no short cuts in the alchemy of the dark emotions. Grief is a universal response to death and loss, built into our neurological systems. Whatever the nature and extent of the loss, we grieve because we are not alone, because we are interconnected: and what connects us to one another also breaks our hearts.

What people in grief need most is to be compassionately accompanied, to feel that those who care about them are willing and able to tolerate the pain that they are in, to be there with them, to be present. A touch, a simple expression of caring, and the ability to sit with the grief goes a long way. Because emotions are contagious, however, grief is hard not only for the mourner but also for those who care about her/him. This is why many people who are grieving at some point come up against the judgments, inhibitions, and unsolicited advice of well-meaning others. Grief, like despair, is an emotion that asks up to depart form the “normal” – to be still, like a pool of frozen water in the winter. From out of this apparent stillness, an imperceptible movement occurs, from sorrow for what has been lost to gratitude for what remains. The trick is to let go and descend into grief’s cold waters. Gratitude comes from seeing through the eyes of grief. We can stop clinging to life and just live it gratefully.

Emotional Exercises to Deal With Grief

Step 1
Intention: To Grieve Is to Heal

If your ‘re grieving the death of a loved one, bring a clear intention to this process. Let this be a time that you trust your heart to guide you. What is your best or highest intention with regard to the grief in your life? How can you grieve this loss and honor it, while still nurturing yourself?

Step 2
Affirmation: The Value Of Grief

Affirming the value of grief may seem counterproductive of counterintuitive in a culture that values “moving on” form loss as quickly as possible. On one side of a page write down every “negative” thought you have about grief and sorrow, about grieving too much or too little, or about how you express your grief. On the other side of the page, write a set of affirmations in your own words, about the value of grieving. Example: Mourning is a universal expression of interconnection and loss. It is wise to feel sorrow and express it. My grief is a measure of my love. Repeat these affirmations as needed, as a reminder to give yourself permission to grieve.

Step 3
Bodily Sensation

Grief can be a very depleting emotion – physically and mentally. Soothing is much needed. Start with a deep soothing breath. This form of conscious breathing will bring you sustenance when you are faltering or feeling anguished, empty or fatigued.

Step 4
Conceptualization: Widening Your Story of Grief

In the alchemy of the dark emotions, finding the larger context of your pain is an essential step. But it may be very hard for you to see the “larger picture” at this time. You may be hurting too much. Perhaps all you feel is longing and anguish. Perhaps you’re just numb. Perhaps the meaning of this death or loss is absolutely incomprehensible to you at this time. Perhaps it just feels senseless and tragic. Give yourself time, and trust that you will find some way to make meaning of this loss. Mentally place yourself in a wider circle of those who grieve and contemplate grief as a universal emotion. At the same time, find a way to get support from others who have endured or are in the process of grieving similar losses. Such support has been shown to be literally life-saving.

Step 5
The Way of Non-Action: Mindful Grieving

The way of non-action is allowing sorrow to be sorrow. “Medicate, distract, and avoid” is not a recipe for alchemy. But be kind to yourself is you need to do any of these things. Distraction is an important balance to grief’s cruel shattering. Find simple, soothing ways to distract yourself: Call friends. Watch an innocuous, non-violent or humorous movie. Take a walk with someone you trust.

Step 6
The Way Of Action: Don’t Let Your Grief Stop You

Grief, like despair, invites stillness. One would think that “action” is either irrelevant or impossible. But certain kinds of actions can help, if they are done authentically and when you are ready.

One kind of action is to not let tears or visible signs of grief stop you from going where you want to go, doing what you need to do, or talking to whomever you need to talk to. Give yourself the permission to break trough your conventional patterns of relationship and take some risks to connect.

Exerpts from: Healing Though the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear & Despair. by Miriam Greenspan, Shambhala Publications Inc. Boston, Ma, 2003.