Unexpected: Living with the effects of (personal and global) grief
A few days ago I attended a drop-in online grief support group. I liked the feeling of this particular group; they were a bit further along in the grieving process than I—my long time husband died six weeks ago today. Some were months into the journey, others a year or more. It was comforting to me that they were all wise enough to continue seeking support for their journey.
The facilitator sent attendants excerpts of an essay to read before the group meeting, suggesting we note what stood out for us. After introductions that included how our week went, we discussed what stood out for us in the essay. (*see below, Broken Promises, by Stephanie Ericsson).
For me it was: “Loss is life’s nonnegotiable side. It is the time when we learn, unconditionally, that we are powerless over things we thought we had a grip on.”
This is so obvious a truth: Most of us will experience a significant loss of some kind. Yet none of us will be as prepared for it as we think we might be. Today, massive fires are raging all over the west coast of our country. Today, people are isolated and have put their lives on hold or, worse, had their lives, security, homes, and mental and physical health destroyed by the effects of the Covid19 Pandemic. I don’t think we could anticipate this much devastation– and even the most optimistic amongst us are struggling with the aftermath.
This also stood out: “Loss is often a blessing in disguise. I can look back on the losses of my life…..(and) that each one of these losses brought a blessing that would only be understood as I learned to live with the grief….. But there are times when this is a cruel message.”
One group participant mentioned a term I am quite familiar with: Post Traumatic Growth. My husband Jim used the term in his work as a counselor and author of his book: Crisis to Creation. It points to the fact that some people experience mental and emotional growth, post-trauma. In other words, they discovered blessings that only the trauma and loss could bring them.
As for me, I’m still in the “cruel message” phase of revealing the blessings. And I think the majority of our world is there too: It’s hard to suss out the blessings inherent in so much destruction, chaos and loss. Yet perhaps we can all find at least a modicum of relief and blessing by finding something everyday to be grateful for. I am currently grateful for my family, my supportive and caring friends, and for the wonderful home I live in. I realize that many people might not have that abundance of blessings to be thankful for. Yet, I hope that all of us will support our greater community by being the blessing as we offer our support in varying ways: through kindness, monetary support, food, ideas, skills, and so much more.
One more article standout: “There are few experiences of death to prepare us for the inevitable. As a culture we are ill-prepared to see death as a natural experience, rich with potential for transformation and change.”
I basically agree with the above—our culture lacks the healthy expression of death as an inevitable fact. Yet, I feel that, to my knowledge, I had been prepared for the death of my beloved: I had resuscitated him after he died. I had been with him at several near-death or almost-dying events. I have also been with people in their dying days and their last moments on earth. Plus, I have a rich spiritual life that views death as a transition to another realm of experience. Yet what I was not prepared for was best expressed by one of the group participants who said: “No matter how much I anticipated my loved one’s death, I was not prepared for the grief that followed. It really is about the grief.”
I couldn’t agree more. What I am and what most of us are experiencing isn’t just the shock of so much loss, it is about the grief we are feeling. And it’s about not knowing how to navigate this journey through grief.
As I start to emerge from my personal deep sadness, I still feel the overwhelming sadness of what I call The Situation: the pandemic, the weather and fire events, the senseless loss of life, the racial injustice, the cruelty and division, and more. This deep collective grief is ambient: it’s as thick in the air as today’s dense smoke-smog from devastating fires tearing through our communities and wild-lands. I am inside to avoid the physical health consequences of the smoke—but there is no such shielding from the mental, emotional and psychic consequences of the grief smog.
So, now what? Good question for which there is no one good answer. That said, though we are living in cruel times of collective trauma, we might at least experience post traumatic growth through our gratitude for what we do have. Post traumatic growth can come through our kind actions and words, as well as our standing—and kneeling—for social and racial justice.
There are still things we can do for ourselves too: self care opportunities abound. Yet it would do well for all of us to acknowledge: We are each very individual in our grief process. Some might completely collapse under the weight of it: I know I have—several times in the last few weeks. Some of us might emerge from those collapses, stronger and wiser and grateful for lessons learned.
Others though, might not emerge, or emerge severely wounded and scarred for life. We need to acknowledge that, and try our best to not further the pain, but act with as much patience and compassion as we can muster. This might be hard to do at times. I’m not sure how many times I have grouched at someone because I was not in a mood to put up with, well, anything, dammit! I wish I had a t-shirt on that explains my situation, so people would understand to not take any weird thing I say personally, and to treat me with a bit more respect and courtesy: “My husband died. I am in grief. Be nice to me.”
Let’s assume that we all have on a variation of that t-shirt: “I lost my home/job/health/loved one/mind/joy… I am in grief. Be nice to me.”
We might just see each other through the eyes of compassion, which will carry us through this crazy Situation, and the collective grief we share.
I send you my deepest condolences for whatever and whoever you’ve lost, and I send you kindness.
Love and blessings,
By – Stephanie Ericsson
From: Companion Through the Darkness: Inner Dialogues on Grief. Harper Collins, 1993
Loss is life’s nonnegotiable side. It is the time when we learn, unconditionally, that we are powerless over things we thought we had a grip on. But it doesn’t stop there, because every ending brings a new beginning. Loss is often a blessing in disguise. I can look back on the losses of my life, the loss of my father, my family, the loss of my mother, the loss of boyfriends, a divorce, friends, the loss of years of my life to alcoholism, the loss of my ability to be a mother, the loss of my second husband, and the loss of many, many unfulfilled dreams, and I can see, in retrospect, that each one of these losses brought a blessing that would only be understood as I learned to live with the grief.
But there are times when this is a cruel message. In the penumbra of death, a widow doesn’t – can’t – hear: “Perhaps there is a reason behind this.” In our minds there is no good reason. God deserted us. God is cruel. Even the comforting words of friends, meant in kindness, meant to ease our grief become thorns thrust into an already bleeding wound.
Every love song, every fairy tale, every myth that promised us happy endings, lied to us. Every plan made together was a plan made with the full intention of its coming to fruition. No one told us to make contingency plans. Nor would we have carried out our dreams if we had constantly lived in fear. If we had always made escape plans, how could we have thrown conviction into our dreams?
Our world does not always make sense. And this is painfully clear to us when our dreams are crushed by forces outside our control.
I have a ninety-year-old friend who told me once that the trouble with my generation is that we expect to be happy. She said of her generation:
“…In my day people died. You dressed the dead. Every family lost someone – a child to the flu, a mother in childbirth, a father to TB. It was a simple fact of life. The antibiotic changed all that. Now people don’t die just as often but when they do, it is a shock to you.”
There are few experiences of death to prepare us for the inevitable. As a culture we are ill-prepared to see death as a natural experience, rich with potential for transformation and change. When we learn to reintegrate death into our growing-up experiences, we will not feel so betrayed by happily-ever-after lies.