Grief is a natural healing process that takes place as we are affected by all the changes that touch our lives. It is about these changes as well as the losses in our lives. Before I worked for a hospice organization for eleven years, I had believed that we only grieved when people we loved died. And this is generally true. But what I came to discover was that we grieve around the changes that come into our lives as well. And this of course
happens all of the time. In which case, we would be grieving all the time! And indeed I believe that we are largely out of touch with the grief in our life
While there are many changes that affect us minimally, there are those other kinds of events that have a much deeper impact. These can be events like the loss of a relationship, the loss of a job, a separation or divorce, or the loss of our health. And yet how much do we allow ourselves to feel what we are going through. There is so much pressure in our society to move on and not feel our grief. Allowing ourselves to feel any kind of discomfort is generally not supported in our culture. Even with the death of an immediate family member, we are still expected to be back to work in about a
week. Two weeks at the most. And if we are still grieving several months later, we may be questioned about what our problem is and again urged to pull ourselves together and get on with our lives. This pushing us along does not recognize the pace and timing of our grief. We may not even recognize it ourselves. Or if we do, we may discount it and ignore it. But the truth is that when our hearts are broken, we need time and space to mend. We need to connect with the deeply compassionate understanding of our heart and meet whatever it is that is touching our life.
It can be difficult enough for us to grieve when our grief is recognized by others after a loved one dies. It is far more difficult when our grief isn’t understood or validated by others. I was made aware of this when I worked with a group of young couples who were coming to a support group. They had each experienced a miscarriage or still birth. And they had all shared the experience of having their family and friends not understand their grief. Usually said with the best of intentions, what they heard were comments like, “But the baby hadn’t even been born (so they shouldn’t be feeling so bad)” and “Thank goodness you are young and can easily have other kids.” But in fact they did have a child. They had already begun to wonder (or had already found out) if the child was a girl or boy. They may have started picking out names and buying furniture. In listening to these couples, it was clear to me that a baby is very much present to a couple long before the moment of birth. The terrible ache of losing a child may not be understood and may end up leaving a couple in painful isolation. They need to be supported in grieving the loss of their children. The support group offered these couples this kind of support. A place they could share their stories and be heard and understood.
There are other kinds of circumstances where our grief is not so apparent or is covered up by other feelings. For instance, moving to another home. This can be a time of happiness and celebration. But what may then go unnoticed are the feelings of leaving the old home. All the memories of times shared, of kids growing up, of challenges faced and of quiet, loving moments are somehow held in that home. And leaving it also brings up our sadness. Not that we would not want to move to the newer home. But recognizing our grief honors those feelings and experiences that made that first place a home and not just a house.
I was reminded of this when my boys were young and our car was falling apart. The boys were excited about looking for a newer car and couldn’t wait to bring one home. But when they saw the old car being driven off they cried! It had been like a member of the family and they were going to miss it. Beging able to show their feeling and talk about the car and what they would miss was so helpful
There is room in our hearts to hold all of our feelings. The wonderful and the sad and everything in between. We are asked to be as loving with all that we feel, excluding nothing. As Stephen and Ondrea Levine describe in their book, Healing Into Life and Death, our hearts have that kind of spaciousness to lovingly hold it all. It is our task to trust our hearts, trust our grief, and to trust our healing.
Healing can only come from within us. Our healing can be supported and nurtured in the most important and endearing ways by family, friends and therapists but can only be brought about by ourselves. Our healing is about attending to our own woundedness. We heal ourselves when we attend to our woundedness in a deeply compassionate way, the way we would attend to a dear friend who is hurting. In the very act of bringing our loving attention, rather than our judgment, to our woundedness, we have and continue our healing. This is an ongoing and lifelong process for each one of us. It is about becoming more fully ourselves in mind, body, heart and spirit. It is how we grow and how we heal.
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Nicole was feeling overwhelmed. Work was becoming busier than ever. She was committed to her non-profit organization and the way it served people. Much of her work was volunteer as the fledgling organization was getting underway and beginning to do well. Along with this, her partner’s health was poor due to ongoing illness. He was her soulmate. If there was to be less time for the two of them, she wanted to spend it together and cherish it. Being away from him and involved with other activities was difficult. She was already feeling her sadness and grief as his health was changing. Both her mother and mother-in-law were elderly and needing more help and support than before. Nicole and her mother had always shared a close relationship. As her mother’s health ebbed, her mother wished that they too could spend more time together. That was Nicole’s wish as well. Nicole’s mother-in-law not only needed more help but looked for companionship as well. As Nicole’s partner was less able to assist his mother, this increasingly fell to Nicole. Nicole was left feeling that she couldn’t even begin to do everything that was needed.
Nicole tried to balance things out as best she could. Nevertheless, she usually ended up feeling she wasn’t doing nearly enough in any of these areas all of which were really important to her. She began to feel more and more out of control each day. Nicole wanted to find a way to say “no” to some of the demands in her life so that she could carve out some badly needed time. That of course made a lot of sense. Yet there was also the clear difficulty of trying to choose between needs and wants all of which she valued
As Nicole continued to explore her feelings and frustrations, it seemed as if there was another “part” of herself that she was avoiding and keeping under control. As we talked, it was also clear that this was a part of herself that Nicole did not want to get in touch with at all. In looking closer, this was the part of her that could be wild, rebellious and acting out. The part of herself that could and had gotten her into trouble. I encouraged her to get in touch with this part of her to see what was going on. It was difficult to do. As Nicole explored this part, what emerged was anger, criticism and hostility directed towards herself for doing everything else and ignoring this part of her. Nicole’s first reaction was to pull back. She didn’t like that kind of anger and criticism being directed at her. This was a very real conflict going on within Nicole between these two parts of her. Rather than just pull back, I encouraged Nicole to continue “dialoguing” with this part of herself. What emerged behind this angry part was an image of a five year old girl, alone in a long, empty hallway, curled up in a corner. This five year old was scared and feeling confused and abandoned. When Nicole had become so involved in so many things, there was this part of her that felt terrifyingly alone. Nicole became aware that it was whenever she’d feel overwhelmed by so much activity that this other part of her would emerge in a rebellious and critical way. Yet behind all the acting out was this frightened five year old girl lying curled up in a corner who needed to be seen, needed to be heard and needed attention. It was when this five year old part of herself wasn’t seen or heard that the five year old would come out of her corner with a vengeance.
Nicole began to realize that even though she couldn’t immediately work out all the demands of her present circumstances, what she could do was to recognize that very scared part of her that was feeling so abandoned and ignored. It was that part of her calling for attention and recognition. In trying her best to attend to everyone and everything else, Nicole had been ignoring herself. She needed to step back and take time to recognize her own fears, her own grief, her own need to be attended to as well. Nicole came to see that she couldn’t bring a balance into her own life unless that balance also included caring for herself. Only then could she begin to weigh what needed to be done, do her best with the time she had and then let go of what could not be done. The part of herself that was at first so scary and abrasive turned out to be a deeply needed reminder that Nicole needed to be loving with herself as well. But in order to discover this, Nicole needed to be willing to face that dark, scary part of herself to bring it to light.