You might think that grieving is not an uplifting topic. But there are ways in which that is precisely what it is.
We start with the pain of loss, specifically a loss of something of value. If you lose a penny, you won’t much care. But if the loss is of something of great importance to you, you will care greatly. The pain of loss points to the value of the thing that you have lost; and the value you place on a thing points, at least potentially, to the pain to which you are vulnerable.
What are the things we value? A job, a relationship, friends and family, a promotion; our physical-self, which can be defaced or damaged… many things: money, status, a good name, a pet, and power, too. Take your pick. You decide what is important and whatever is inside the basket in which you put your emotional pain or your vulnerability to such pain — that item has value.
Grieving involves opening yourself to the pain. Now, you might think, “It must be only a recent loss that causes the hurt.” But the heart has no clock attached to it, no timer reading off the digits of distance between you and the loss; so, if you had a difficult childhood, you might still be holding the pain inside even though it is decades old.
Not only must you open yourself to the pain, but you must do it with a witness, a listener, someone who cares and who is present, who is “there for you.” This is necessary to reattach you to human contact — to life, to intimacy — rather than closing off and pulling away from people. And in this sharing — this openness, this talk and tears and gnashing of teeth — the pain eventually subsides. It’s a little bit like kneading dough — you continue to work it until it changes. The story of your feelings will be repeated by you, if necessary, dozens of times in different ways, until the emotions are changed and the excruciating intensity of the loss passes.
How long does this process take? Six months to a year would not be unusual, although it can be longer. The first anniversary of the loss is often especially hard; so are birthdays and holidays in the first year and sometimes beyond. But if you do not do the grieving “work,” the process can be extended and a sense of melancholy or a lack of vitality can follow you relentlessly.
To grieve doesn’t mean you will forget what you have lost. And, indeed, if it is a loved one, certainly you will never forget and you will never be untouched by the memory. There is a dignity in this. We honor the loved ones who are lost in this way and perhaps they live, metaphorically speaking, inside of us. As the Danes say, “to live in the hearts that you leave behind is not to die.”
But “how” to do this grieving — that is the problem. If you have lived your life trying to be tough, you will find that the toughness might prevent you from doing the emotional work that will allow the grief to end. If you maintain that “toughness,” you might find yourself living as if you are numb, or displaying a sunny disposition totally at odds with what is felt deep inside, in the place where you have buried your hurt. And if you have deadened yourself enough, you will have a hard time “living,” since you will be closed-off to feelings. Joy, abandon, and spontaneity will be harder to achieve. Instead, the time ahead of you would be better called “existence” than “life.”
But perhaps you are afraid that if you allow all the pain to come out, you will be overwhelmed to the point of being unable to function. And, indeed, this can happen, at least temporarily. Or perhaps you are afraid of what others might think of you if they see you without your typical emotional control, and you are afraid of their negative judgments.
And so, grieving involves having the emotions without the emotions having you; accepting them and not struggling with them; metaphorically speaking, it is like driving a car with the radio on, but not so loudly that you are overcome by it. In other words, you will have the emotions but still be able to drive — still be able to lead your life.
To do this you must open the pain in a place that is safe and in a way that it is neither deadened or perpetually out-of-control. You must hold the hurt not too tightly and not too loosely, but gently, since it is precious; not walling the emotions off or letting them carry you away from active life for days at a time. Part of this is simply allowing yourself to be human, to honor the injury, not judging or trying to change what you feel (the change will happen by itself if you allow it), but permitting yourself to do what our mammal relatives do — to lick your wounds (metaphorically speaking) and accept the support of others, whether they are friends, lovers, relatives, or therapists.
And, in the end, if you have grieved and have the courage, good luck, and time to continue the human project that we all have been given, you are likely to heal enough to venture forth into the world, again putting yourself into the things and people you hold dear, risking injury once more, not hiding from the dangers that life brings, but also experiencing what is good in life — all the things you still value.
You will be alive again, and the grieving process will have led you there.
The above image is The Grieving Parents, Kathe Kollwitz’s 1932 memorial to her son Peter, who died in World War I.