Today is my older brother’s birthday. He would be 59 but he died just over four years ago. Tomorrow is the nineteenth anniversary of my sweet cousin’s tragic death at 27 years old. I’ve just pulled out of a year-long, low-level fog following a cherished colleague’s sudden and untimely death at 45 just before Thanksgiving last year. I am not unique in the experience of these losses. If you make it long enough in this world, you will share a similar story.
No one in this life is untouched by grief. There is a Buddhist story that briefly goes like this:
A young mother was overwhelmed with grief at the death of her only baby son. She was advised to go visit the Buddha in her search of the village for a cure for the already dead child. She carried her lifeless baby to the Buddha and laid his body at the feet of the master imploring him to heal her child. The Buddha told her to search the village and bring him a mustard seed from a home that has never experienced such a tremendous grief. She left and went from house to house frantically seeking such a household. Of course, she found no home untouched by such a grief and returned to the Buddha with the acceptance that suffering is a part of life and death comes to us all.
No one in this life is untouched by grief.
Are you still reading? It’s tempting to stop now, I know, but please continue on. We simply don’t like to deal with these messes. We give folks three days off from their jobs in the event of the death of a family member. Then it’s back to work. We have a cultural allergic reaction to death, loss, and grief.
I have a friend from graduate school who has done most of her research in the area of grief and, over twenty years ago, said to me that grief is a paradigm for life. I found myself really mulling this from such a young person but over the years have come to believe exactly that: grief is a template for learning how to live life to the fullest. We often hear stories of transformation by someone who has squarely faced death—either their own or that of someone they love. The choices are to either let the experience of grief transform you and to help you grow or to run, hide, and revisit it over and over because loss will invariably return. Facing your grief is a life skill.
We all experience grief: Big grief or lesser grief from tangible losses or intangible losses; sometimes permanent, sometimes temporary. It can come predictably and fully anticipated or unexpected and blindsiding. There are times that the real and tangible loss is less difficult to face than the intangible losses: the hopes, the dreams, the possibilities. We tend to ignore these and feel that they are not worthy of our grieving but they are sometimes more important. Loss and grief will come and go—it is the circle of life.
Loss and grief will come and go—it is the circle of life.
The third chapter of Ecclesiastes in the Bible starts with this reminder: For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace. Made famous for secular consumption, Pete Seeger borrowed this message in the 1965 song, “Turn, turn, turn” made famous by the Byrds. The song concludes with “a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late” and distinctly points to the need for change in the hope for redemption in the experience of this cycle of life.
The lengthy Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone highlights the circular nature of love and loss in the changing of the seasons: the rebirth of spring and the life of summer followed predictably by death in winter. Demeter’s love for her daughter could not save her from the fate of residing in the underworld but the deal was made that it would only be half of the time: Persephone would grace the land of the living but inevitably return to the underworld. As Goddess of Agriculture, Demeter’s grief and subsequent retribution is the death of flora during that period. Like the mother in the Buddhist tale, her overwhelming grief highlights the depth of her love for her child. Love and Loss are inextricable. You must have the courage to suffer loss if you are to fully love.Love and Loss are inextricable. You must have the courage to suffer loss if you are to fully love. Click To Tweet
Learning to grieve is rather simple but not easy:
- Allow the experience of your emotions–ALL of your emotions–is an imperative. There will be many, in waves and often. There are times the emotions will bring you to your knees. Unexpectedly. It is the nature of grief.
- Accept the loss and the subsequent changes that will be inevitable. This may take a practice of considerable mindfulness.
- Take Time: Time to mourn. Time to remember. Time to honor.
- Make Meaning of the loss. Transform it into new life.
- Finally, I always remind people that “grief gloms onto grief“. One grief will give rise to old griefs. It can be a mess.
Life is messy and life is risky. Sometimes we lose. Especially if we are fully engaged. But it is the engaging in the experience and love that make it marvelous. And we can survive even the greatest, most tragic losses. It’s how we face our grief. It’s how we transform. And then we learn to live in a new reality—a new normal.
So Learn to Grieve because Life is Messy and Life is Marvelous.
This blog is dedicated to the memories of Mark, Sean, and Kendra and all who are grieving.