“Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted,” Elizabeth Gilbert reflected in the wake of losing the love of her life. “Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes. Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to. In that regard, Grief has a lot in common with Love.”
Like love, grief swells into an entire inner universe that comes to color the whole of the outside world. Like love — that rapturous raw material for most of the songs and poems and paintings our species has produced — grief lives itself through the grieving and can’t but speak its truth. Unlike love, our culture meets the voice of grief with an alloy of disquiet and denial. We want to make the sadness go away, to lift the sorrowing heart out of its sorrow immediately. Often, we mistake for personal failure our inability to salve another’s grief or mistake for their failure the inability to snap out of it on the timeline of our wishes.
When psychotherapist Megan Devine — creator of the excellent resource Refuge in Grief and author of its portable counterpart, It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand (public library) — watched her young, healthy partner drown, the sudden and senseless loss suspended her world. As it slowly regained the motive force of life, she set out to redirect her professional experience of studying emotional intelligence and resilience toward better understanding the confounding, all-consuming process of grief — the process by which, as Abraham Lincoln wrote in his immensely insightful letter of consolation to a bereaved friend, the agony of loss is slowly transmuted into “a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before”; a transmutation in which skillful loving support can make a world of difference — support very different from what we instinctively imagine helps.
In studying how people navigate intense grief — the loss of loved ones to violent crime, suicide, disaster, infant death, and other abrupt catastrophic traumas — Devine arrived at an arresting insight. Again and again, she observed that our most intuitive impulses about helping those whose suffering we yearn to allay — by cheering them up, by reorienting them toward the lighthouses in their lives amid the darkness — tend to only deepen their helpless anguish and broaden the abyss between us and them. And so she began to wonder what does salve the immense sorrow we encounter in the world and experience in our own lives.
This is what she learned:
Syndicated from The Marginalian. Maria Popova is a cultural curator and curious mind at large, who also writes for Wired UK, The Atlantic and Design Observer, and is the founder and editor in chief of The Marginalian (which offers a free weekly newsletter).
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7 Past Reflections
On Aug 15, 2023Carter wrote:
This brief skit on grief brings me back to one key aspect that always resonates with me: to listen; to listen to someone no matter what the circumstances are: someone hurt, mourning a loved one, indecisive, etc. We don't need to solve everyone's issues or problem: just listen.
This is hard for me to practice. My brain has been patterned to fix it. It takes awareness & energy to let it be, ro accompany the other in pain. Thanks for your study & this insight that you reframed for me.
Acknowledging grief and pain as a way to ease them seems totally counter-intuitive. However, just like other emotion such as anger and frustration, denying grief and pain of loss usually do not get rid of them. On the contrary, feeling and emotions that were not allowed expression tend to grow and intensify even more. The body and the psyche seem to know what is essential for us at the moment of grief and pain of loss - a quiet time to be in and really allow the moment to work with us internally. The recollection of shared memories. The altered future expectations and dreams and aspirations. The contemplation of what could be in the afterlife. Reconsideration of our priorities and essentials. Eventually, acceptance of what we could no longer change. And the gratitude of what we‘ve shared and what we still have.
Thank you for this reminder that it is definitely OK to not be OK. And for those supporting someone grieving to sit in the not ok with that person too. <3 As a Narrative Therapist, 1000% agree with honoring and acknowledging the many layers of grief and that it takes the time it takes. One aspect of Narrative Practices I particularly think is helpful is the idea of 're-membering' rather than 'moving on or forgetting.' Re-membering provides opportunities for the person grieving to speak about the person (or pet) that died and to choose how to keep them alive in their life rather than 'moving on' which US culture seems to push hard on people. An example of Re-membering is: a man keeps the photograph of his wife to whom he was married 50 years at her spot at their kitchen table and each morning he has coffee with her. This is beautiful and healthy. Many people are far too quick to say to someone grieving 'oh, you must move on.'
It is a challenge to our own heart to step into our sadness --which we need to do before we can sit quietly with another's. It is an acknowledgement that there is much outside our control; that this loss was not within our power to prevent or change, And feeling powerless drives us to try and fix, fill the hole with platitudes or bravado. Instead, the void waits for us to discover our strength to face the shadows.Walking with the darkness of loss and grief is the way, the only way to fully exist in this bittersweet world of both life and death.