Grief and Loss
We encounter loss in every aspect of our lives – at work, within our families, and in community. Our lives are defined, in part, by an unending ebb and flow of gain and loss. Some losses are minor. Others bring us to the limit of our reserve. This year, I have been reminded of both how universal and, simultaneously, how deeply personal loss can be.
As I have made my way through the emotional and mental landscape of grief, I have been reminded of how my mind works. In clearer moments, I am struck by how much my mind does all it can to avoid the unpleasantness and pain of losing what is loved. I don’t believe I’m particularly unique in this regard. At times, I deny and compartmentalize. At others, I fantasize about what could have been and distort what was. I’ve even taken to negotiating (with what, I'm unsure) for the restoration of what is gone. Some of these strategies are necessary defenses against emotional flooding. And sometimes I just argue with hard reality.
The fact that our culture rejects loss only complicates things. It seems to be some kind of mark of failure. This, despite the fact, that everything that arises also falls. All that we cling to in this life is impermanent. As one of my meditation teachers put it, we have no argument with impermanence when we want something to end. We are devoted fans of impermanence during the root canal. However, we seem to forget that it also applies to the things we love most. In these instances we apparently think impermanence is something only other people experience.
Our culture is also deeply uncomfortable with the intensity of grief. When we speak of our grief with colleagues and friends, many would simply prefer that we keep it hidden – buried and, ideally, repressed. Colleagues may (silently, of course) prefer that we get back to work and be our usual productive selves. Friends avoid their own discomfort by ignoring the elephant in the room. No wonder we are incredibly grateful to those who show up for us amidst the sorrow. The crowd thins when the starring emotion is grief. The truth is, closure is a myth and wounds heal on their own timetable.
In charting a course through loss this year, there are some things I’ve worked to keep in mind.
- My feelings will change. This is certain. No matter how deeply felt any particular moment is, I know I will feel differently in the future. Sometimes I’ll feel differently by the time I walk into the next room. My relationship to my loss will shift because my grief is in constant flux.
- I trust my capacity to make meaning of my loss. Though I don’t know what this grief will signify in the future, I know that it will mean something. I believe in my ability to hold and integrate the pain I experience, even if that possibility feels very far away.
- I try to recognize and allow my feelings. In my work with others - and in my own self-care - I strive to really understand what is felt. I try to experience my feelings in the body, to know my mind’s relationship to them, and to see the thoughts and stories that surround them. I’ve increasingly said to myself in moments of mourning: “This is the nature of grief. This is how grief feels. This is grief in my body. This is the story of my grief.”
- Finally, I try to honestly acknowledge what I've lost. No relationship is without complexity. To truly hold those we love, we must recognize their contradictions by seeing the ways they brought us joy as well as the ways they disappointed us. Doing anything else would deny the humanity of those we mourn and the depth of our experience of them.