October 26, 2009

Just because grief and loss hold the seeds for a glorious flowering of spirit, does not mean that it is okay that someone we love has died.

It is natural to go through periods of anger during the grieving process.  Our whole being roars its objection to what has happened, crying out against the reality in which we find ourselves.  Who would choose to lose of a loved one?  A primal “No!” rises from the depths of our souls.  As well it should.

This kind of anger has many faces.  It may manifest as an irrational irritability about the way your partner chews his food or your mother strokes your cheek.  I may be triggered when my friend is afraid that if she speaks about my daughter I will get upset, while all I want is for other people to share their memories and feelings so that I don’t feel like I am carrying this loss alone.  It can be righteous indignation directed at the doctors who misdiagnosed or mistreated or carelessly communicated with our loved one.  When well-meaning acquaintances stop you in the grocery store to express their sympathy and assure you that your loved one is in a better place, we may want to throw a vegetable at them.  Our feelings may boil down to simple rage against a God who could allow such a thing to happen.  And in the secret depths of the heart, we find ourselves blaming our loved one for leaving us, for being reckless with their precious life, for making us suffer.

My friend Ted Wiard is widely considered to be the Grief Guru around here, as a result of the multiple tragic losses he has endured and the transformational effect they have had on him.  Ted says that the anger many of us feel when we lose someone we love is a form of protest.  It is not a sign of weakness or evidence of a bad attitude.  Rather, it’s a natural response to circumstances we cannot yet bring ourselves to accept.

And even when we have already experienced moments of acceptance and peace, the anger still rises from time to time.  Grief is a dynamic, ever-changing reality.  There is no check-list to get through, ticking off each task as we complete it, at the end of which we are all better.  It is a life-long dance, a constant opportunity to open and grow.  The trick is to approach our grief with as much awareness and compassion as we can muster.

Sometimes still when I think of my vibrant daughter, of her desire to be a doctor, of her environmental passion and concern for human rights, about her quirky sense of humor and love of baking, I am felled by a tidal wave of fury.  As I kneel gasping on the shore of my wrecked heart, a silent stream of epithets flows from my lips.  I hate this situation, that my beautiful, talented, compassionate girl is gone.  These rage-attacks have happened often enough over the past eight years that I no longer criticize myself for them.  I know they will pass, and that there is nothing wrong with me for protesting against this loss.

The danger seems to come with unconsciousness.  When we do not recognize anger as a natural response to an untenable situation, we may lash out against someone we care about and rupture a relationship, which creates more grief.  We may be so busy accusing everyone else of wrong-doing that we do not give ourselves the space we need to fully feel our feelings, allowing them to move through and transform us.  Or we may be so conditioned by society that anger is a bad thing and we are bad for feeling and expressing it that we double our pain with harsh self-judgment.

I still find myself behaving badly sometimes when a wave of grief comes dressed in anger.  I become resentful and defensive, and then, because I am a “nice person,” I find myself over-apologizing and over-explaining, hoping that I will receive the compassionate response I am yearning for.  But no one seems to be able to make me feel better in these moments.  I am pissed off, and it will pass.  I offer myself whatever self-soothing thoughts I can come up with, and trust that I will be forgiven for any uncomfortable moments I may have imposed on others.  Usually, absorbed in dramas of their own, they forget about these exchanges long before I do.

Be kind to yourself.  Grief is a hard job, and you are doing the best you can.

Sacred Solitude

October 1, 2009

Grieving requires tremendous energy.  That’s why we sometimes find ourselves inexplicably exhausted during the grief process.  It takes everything in us to lean into the wind of loss.  But what choice do we have?  If we are approaching our grief consciously, all we can do is show up for the experience and do the work.

Because of the demands of grieving, most of us find ourselves craving solitude at various times.  We have this sense that if we could just be alone, we could concentrate on what’s happening inside us, and honor our loved ones with our undivided attention.  Even those who are otherwise extroverted may sometimes need to withdraw from all distractions to grapple with their loss.  It is like the instinct an injured animal has to find a cave and tend to its wounds.

The literature on grief used to refer to this impulse as “isolation” – the companion to “denial” – but both terms are misleadingly negative.  “Isolation” makes it sound like the need to be alone is delusional and dangerous.  I would assert that the attraction toward solitude is a healthy response to grief and loss.  As long as we don’t get lost in that wilderness and forget our way back to the circle of humanity, time by ourselves is essential for integrating our loss into the whole of our lives.

When my daughter Jenny died in 2001, I was struck by the conviction that I did not want to miss a minute of the experience.  I had this sense that I would be wasting a precious opportunity if I were to distract myself or focus exclusively on finding relief for my pain.  I could not articulate what that “opportunity” was, but I knew that my task was to show up for it, as completely and as consciously as I was able.

This fierce need for solitude does not always present itself in clear and responsible ways.  Sometimes, as it did for me, it manifests as irritability with the ones we love, who may want only to take away our pain.  Starved for time alone, we may lash out at the people closest to us, in an unconscious effort to push them away so that we can get on with the difficult and solitary task at hand: coming to grips with the extraordinary magnitude of our loss, and the radical way it is transforming who we are.  We intuitively understand that no one else can do this work for us.

The grief process is ever changing.  All kinds of people will have all kinds of opinions on the way you are grieving.  In my community, someone would ask someone else how Mirabai was doing, and that person would answer, “She’s having a terrible time.  Just terrible.”  Maybe the person who was presuming to report on the matter had said something trite and insensitive to me in the grocery store — like Jenny was now “in a better place” — and I had responded by walking away without a word.

When someone else asked yet another person how I was, this self-appointed expert on MY grief might answer that I was amazing, that my daughter’s death had brought out the deepest wisdom and compassion in me.  Perhaps this second authority on the matter had encountered me in a moment in which my heart was blown open by the rush of grace that sometimes accompanies profound sorrow.  Both people were well meaning, but neither realized that grief shatters the container of our former self, and that in this newly vast space, there is room for everything.

Solitude is sacred.  It is an appropriate response to the awesome significance of what has happened to you when someone you love dies.  If you get caught in isolation, the benefits of being alone become diluted.  Maybe the best approach is to reassure the people who care about you that you feel strongly about the rightness of being by yourself sometimes.  Then, ask them to check in with you if they start to feel that you are drifting too far from the shores of human contact, and to throw you a life-line if it seems you are in danger of getting lost.