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Must We Suffer When We Grieve?

Grieving often involves a tremendous amount of suffering. But lately, I seem to be running across a great many people who have lost someone or something to which they were deeply deeply attached: a soulmate, a child, a best friend – even an animal. These folks are not just in pain, they are clinging to that pain and do not seem to be able to let go of it.

The numbness and frustration that follow a loss are there for a reason – to protect you from the avalanche of emotional chaos that descends afterwards. But that chaos, grasping and floundering is not only unhealthy – it prolongs the pain.

But folks rationalize and contextualize this suffering in ways that make them stay stuck and broken – sometimes for years. This messaging comes from deep fears and deep pain.

I had no idea who I was after the loss of my mother. My whole (fragile) identity was constructed around fighting with her, blaming her, being angry at her…. She had reached out to me several times in the previous few years – I could not hear her. Too angry, too broken and too lost. I had no way of knowing she would suddenly be gone, of course – a single moment that ripped my world in two and changed the universe. I was adrift for months – I couldn’t work or even think. I drank – I watched TV all day long – I screamed – I went to therapy twice a week. But it wasn’t only about missing Mom – it was that I had no idea who I was without that battle I had been waging inside. The battle had changed and I didn’t understand how or why. And I knew that going out into the real world would force me to face those questions – and to say that that was terrifying doesn’t even begin to cover it.

So that was my main fear – who am I now? I looked within and saw a massive gaping blackness – there was no There there. But it was only by stepping over that threshold of fear that I learned and healed and grew.

And people have many rationales for not pursuing their healing, some of which can be very tricky to pin down. But there are counterarguments, and real world solutions, to all of them – here is what I have found:

  • FEAR: If I heal, I am going to forget him/her.

  • FACT: You cannot possibly forget them – EVER.

  • SOLUTION: Create things that remember her – memorial, plant a tree, make art, annual gathering or personal remembrance – there are many possibilities.

  • FEAR: If I heal, I am disrespecting his/her memory.

  • FACT: Actually, it’s the opposite – it disrespects yourself and the precious life you now have that your loved one no longer has.

  • SOLUTION: Don’t let his/her legacy be your destruction…. Be the one who creates triumph over tragedy, instead of the one who never recovered.

  • FEAR: If I am NOT suffering, it means I am not grieving.

  • FACT: Grieving takes many forms – mourning – honoring – memorializing.

  • SOLUTION: Dig deeply into your heartache and let it fully out, but put a time limit on it – say, six months or a year and a day. Then reassess and refocus, knowing that you have shown proper reverence.

  • FEAR: If I heal, it means accepting he/she is gone and I desperately need that not to be true….

  • I hear you – I get that – I went through that, too, with Mom. – it was at the heart of my meltdown – the loss of the one thing I needed the most.

  • FACT: You may not be ready to face the truth and the reality yet…

  • SOLUTION: Keep feeling, keep telling your story, keep shining light on it – Only in truth can we truly heal.

A major loss often creates a thick black line through your life – it is a seminal moment – a permanent part of your story and history. There is everything that happened before that loss, and everything after – and they are totally different. That can be utterly terrifying – ungrounding – breathtaking, even.

When the loss is of someone close, who has been pivotal in your life and whom you cannot imagine being without, I hear these expressions of heartsick agony all too often. And it is not to be dismissed or taken lightly. I do counsel grievers that their emotions have to be honored and acknowledged. But…. The corner can be turned. Weaving that loss into something new may be the best way to actually honor your loved one, so their memory has meaning.

Heartache, doubt, fear, shock and so many emotions collide and clash in a volatile cocktail of woe. And that doesn’t even cover when the loss is complex – then we mix in anger, resentment, guilt, relief and a thousand more confusing elements. These take time to untangle – it has taken me years, and many more losses, to reshape and rediscover my Self. Is that process “done?” Nope. But my heart is calmer now and when I think of Mom, it doesn’t wreck me anymore. It has a tinge of sadness – probably always will. But she didn’t get a full and happy life – I insist on doing the best I can to make the best of mine.

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