Opening to Grief
We all know grief is a natural part of life. In its narrowest sense, it is a response to a significant loss of a person, a pet, or even an object through some form of death. In its broadest sense, it refers to the coping of a variety of losses throughout one’s life, such as separation/break-up/divorce, unemployment, moving, homelessness, chronic illness, or even seemingly “good” things like marriage or a new job. Current loss often triggers past unfinished losses or wounds, so the process of grief is never too late or ever fully completed as we age.
Different people and cultures grieve differently. In general, however, what our society prescribes in coping with loss is far from normal. Our society is obsessed with happiness, as is evident in our focus of the “pursuit of happiness” in many forms. Consequently, anything involved with shedding tears and painful affect — or what we call “negative” emotions — is often avoided as much as we can.
In reality, there is no such thing as negative or positive emotions. We label them to accommodate what society would accept and not necessarily what they really are. Each emotion or feeling serves a function and purpose. Given our emotion-phobic society, we all learn to avoid those unpleasant ones (especially deep sadness but in whatever ways we can. As we avoid feeling those painful affects, we gradually become disconnected from ourselves. Indeed, unprocessed grief often leads to a plethora of physical and mental health concerns, as well as societal problems. These are often in the form of increased violence (assault, homicide, terrorism) of any form. Then we wonder why we are seeing more random violence rather than random kindness.
What most people do not know (especially those who avoid grieving) is that opening our hearts to grief not only helps us to become more whole and connected with ourselves and others, but we also become more alive. Clients often share how they learn to appreciate life more fully than they ever had before, much in the same way cancer patients talk about living more in the present after their cancer diagnosis. In his book “Meetings at the Edge,” Stephen Levine states, “But it is the pain that tears open the heart to life; allowing life to unfold, not in fear, but in a new kindness, a deeper sense of being that does not pull back from impermanence but opens to it as a way of tasting each moment in its previous essence.”
In many ways, delving into our grief teaches us to be mindful. Mindfulness teaches us to be in touch with our full experience without judgment on the experiences (without calling it positive or negative) because they are all about living. And as we live fully, we become whole, more compassionate of others and ourselves and more peaceful in general. Knowing and being with our grief teaches us all that.
As faculty and staff of UW, you may have encountered students dealing with loss or have encountered your own. Though many of us have encountered similar loss in our lives, we are often unequipped to deal with it and our society certainly doesn’t allow much room for it either. The following are some basic guidelines from our grief handout to help you in dealing with grief.
Grief: Dealing with the Death of Someone Close to You
The death of someone we care about, a close friend or family member, is an event we all have to face sometime. Learning to survive the feelings of sadness and loss is a process that is normal. The process involves both emotional and behavioral reactions. It takes us through the initial response of shock and sadness, through acceptance and understanding and eventually to the rebuilding of our lives. The process is not the same for everyone and it is a process of resolution and not closure. We continue to grieve at points of change in our lives, which we hoped to share with the deceased.
There are many ways in which people learn to adjust to the death of someone they cared about. Hopefully, the items below will give you some ideas about how you may be able to help yourself through the grieving process.
Things to Remember
- Talk to others who have experienced the loss.
- Speak of the meaning of the loss to you, the ways in which you will miss the deceased.
- Seek support directly from those that are able to give it.
- Stay with a routine, stick to a schedule, even if you feel you are just going through the motions.
- Recognize the feelings for what they are rather than why they are. Knowing what the feeling is can help in dealing with it.
- Use writing, art, and music to let out your feelings and thoughts.
- Be forgiving and patient with yourself. It is okay to make mistakes or lose your concentration.
- Be good to yourself. Take the rest you need, the walk you enjoy, the gift you would like.
- Give yourself time. Time does heal, but how long it takes is an individual thing.
- Seek guidance from a source that can offer you both wisdom and empathy.
- Try to make major life decisions too quickly.
- Numb your pain with depressive chemicals such as alcohol or other drugs.
- Deny your feelings.
- Isolate or hide out from others.
- Expect every day to get better. Accept the ups and downs.
Well, this topic and article is far from light and fun, but I hope it has been inspirational to you as those who have shared their grief with me have been to me. More importantly, do use your campus resource, UW CareLink. Last but not the least, here is an anonymous poem on grief.
Please See Me Through My Tears
You asked, “How am I doing?”
As I told you, tears came to my eyes…
and you looked away and quickly began to talk again.
All the attention you had given me drained away.
“How am I doing?”…I do better when people listen,
though I may shed a tear or two.
This pain is indescribable.
If you’ve never known it you cannot fully understand.
Yet I need you.
When you look away,
When I’m ignored,
I am again alone with it
Your attention means more than you can ever know.
Really, tears are not a bad sign, you know!
They’re nature’s way of helping me to heal…
They relieve some of the stress of sadness.
I know you fear that asking how I’m doing brings me sadness
…but you’re wrong.
The memory of my loved one’s death will always be with me,
Only a thought away.
My tears make my pain more visible to you, but you did not
give me the pain…it was already there.
When I cry, could it be that you feel helpless, not knowing
what to do?
You are not helpless,
And you don’t need to do a thing but be there.
When I feel your permission to allow my tears to flow,
you’ve helped me
You need not speak. Your silence as I cry is all I need.
Be patient…do not fear.
Listening with your heart to “how I am doing”
relieves the pain,
for when the tears can freely come and go, I feel lighter.
Talking to you releases what I’ve been wanting to say aloud,
for a touch of joy in my life.
I’ll cry for a minute or two…
and then I’ll wipe my eyes,
and sometimes you’ll even find I’m laughing later.
When I hold back the tears, my throat grows tight,
my chest aches, my stomach knots…
because I’m trying to protect you from my tears.
Then we both hurt…me, because my pain is held inside,
a shield against our closeness…and you,
because suddenly we’re distant.
So please, take my hand and see me through my tears…
then we can be close again.
Lina Pranata, Ph.D. is a new member of a caring team of therapists at the UW Counseling Center. She has lived in three countries (Indonesia, Taiwan, and the United States) and four states (UT, TX, CA, WA). Her drugs of choice are moving personal stories, great home-made food, and compassionate caring souls. Majoring in Pharmacy in her undergrad, her Prozac is definitely pomegranates.
2 Thoughts on “Opening to Grief”
On March 24, 2015 at 2:29 PM, Maureen Coffey said:
A lovely poem, thank you. “Different people and cultures grieve differently.” – Actually I feel that many differences are differences in the valuation of what is a loss in the first place. Fr example, I once heard a radio talk about a Catholic order of nuns who rejoiced every time one of their “sisters” passed away – as now she has finally been allowed to reunite with “the Lord” while all earthly strives were just a preparation for that magic moment. I would imagine that in many cultures what we can “see” is the outward expression of grief (or the lack of it), however, to really understand what we see we would need to understand the underlying “valuation” of the loss that person or group really experienced on their own terms.
On March 26, 2015 at 7:55 AM, Jean Gendreau said:
Thank you for these words. Stephen Levine is my favorite writer and teacher. Although I myself had worked through many of these feelings, my adult daughters were recently blindsided by their father’s tragic death, and it has been agony to watch them grapple with grief and pain of this magnitude. But this is their learning, so I meditate on how pain tears the heart open. An open heart is wonderful thing.
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