A year ago I was sitting in bed mid-way through watching ‘Beauty and the Beast’ with my daughter when the phone rang. Through sobs and gasps I heard a very good friend utter the devastating words … “he’s dead”. Her world had shattered in a heartbeat – completely out of the blue. That morning her husband had gone out on a motorcycle ride that went horribly wrong, and he was never able to return. There was no time for last words, or to gather her soul. No chance to make plans or think about anything.
Because this friend and her husband had chosen to imbed themselves in deep community wherever they went throughout their life, she was not the only one grieving this month. In ripples and waves extending out from these dear souls the grief sat heavy on hearts and brought tears to many peoples’ eyes. It left people holding each other a little tighter, reminded them to say the things that matter to one another, encouraged them to live life a little more to the full.
In March, prominent writer Rachel Held Evans reacted catastrophically to antibiotics she was given for a routine infection. After days on life support she passed away, leaving her husband, two small children, friends, colleagues and tens of thousands of followers reeling. She was only 37.
Last month a woman I know only through her writing on Facebook – Shannon Dingle – went from happily married to her high school sweetheart to widowed in the space of a moment as her husband was hit by a wave at the ocean in just the right spot to break his neck and create instantaneous swelling, blocking his airways and making any hope of survival impossible. In her late thirties she is now independently responsible for six children and more disabilities than even our family has collected over the years.
Watching the journey of grief – not just of those immediately affected, but those who were acquaintances of those who died – has been a reminder of how poorly we know what to do with grief. We rush to find meaning and purpose where there often isn’t any. To understand what is truly incomprehensible. We want to numb the pain or hide away from it in ways that are both numerous and predictable. So today – on the 17th anniversary of my infant son’s death I thought I would talk about some of the things that I have learned about grief over the years.
You can’t go around it
There’s a board book that we read and re-read frequently when our kids were little. It was called ‘Going on a Bear Hunt’. The characters are going on a bear hunt, which is very exciting, but every time you turn the page they meet another obstacle: tall, swishy grass; an ooey, gooey mud puddle; a deep, dark forest. Each time they reach an obstacle they chant “Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, can’t go around it, gotta go through it!”
So at our house, we think of grief a little like we’re going on a bear hunt. You can’t go over it, under it or around it – you’ve gotta go through it.
But the reality is that grief is uncomfortable. It’s vulnerable. It ‘undoes us’ in ways that we never wanted to be undone. It makes us face up to fears and regrets and longings that we might not have even realized that we had. So grief is hard – and the fact that grief is hard makes us want to avoid it.
Two Ways to Avoid Grief
Over the years I’ve worked with thousands of individuals and families who were dealing with grief – it’s one of the areas I’ve done the most work on with folks over the years – and as I’ve walked with people I’ve noticed we seem to fall easily into two ways of avoiding our grief.
The first is the most obvious – we distract ourselves. We bury ourselves in our work or our other obligations. We throw ourselves into new projects. We numb ourselves with video games, Netflix, food or our substance of choice. Or we pretend that everything is fine, crafting a plastic exterior that nobody else can see through, hoping that if everyone else thinks we’re okay, maybe eventually we’ll feel okay. This option is unfortunately encouraged by many religious traditions with the equivalents of “God only gives you as much as you can handle” and other equally trite sayings. This kind of response is neither helpful, nor true, and can contribute to long term damage to both a person’s faith and their emotional healing.
The second is less obvious, but no less problematic. Some people avoid their actual grieving work by losing themselves into the grief itself. This might look like a person who has kept their child’s room exactly as it was the day they died, several years ago. It might look like the family that has launched a series of unwinable law suits against the hospital their loved one died in or against the manufacturer of the vehicle their loved one was driving at the time of the death. It might mean throwing themselves (like I did) into meaning-making activities to try to extract some sense of value and worth from this experience that seems so senseless and impossibly painful for seemingly no good reason. Although some time spent in one or more of these areas is perfectly normal, when this approach comes to define the person’s entire world by their unmoving, unrelenting status of ‘the grieving one’, it can be a problem.
Unfortunately grief – like all emotions – can’t be processed if we avoid it or repress it. The only way we can deal with grief – the only way to get through it and out the other side – is to actually experience it.
Truly experiencing grief takes intentionality. It takes showing up to the feelings, showing up for the memories, and allowing yourself to truly experience the significance of the loss. (It’s often best to do at least some of this with a trusted, safe person – especially in the first few weeks and months).
Grief has it’s own timeline, and each person’s grief follows a unique trajectory. It is incredibly important that we allow grief to ebb and flow as time goes on. It doesn’t mean we’re going backwards if there are new feelings that bubble up to the surface – it just means it’s time to navigate the next set of grief.
If you are caring for others who are grieving
It can be just as difficult to know how to respond when someone you love is grieving. But there are two things that are critical to the process.
First, don’t assume you can fix it or make it better. Our instinct in the 21st century is to assume that pain is automatically bad and should be removed at the earliest convenience. This isn’t always true – in fact, it OFTEN isn’t true! When we try to “fix” pain what we actually end up doing is diminishing or dismissing the person’s lived experience. Our words and actions can be understood to tell people their pain and grief aren’t valid, and indeed that THEY are not valid for having/still having these emotions. It’s a recipe for grief avoidance all around, and in the end no one – not the person saying it or the person hearing it – actually benefits, because it simply reinforces our grief avoidance culture.
The second piece of advice for those supporting folks who are grieving is to remember that it’s not about you (except when it is). What do I mean by that? I mean that grief shows up in all sorts of reactions and responses. It might include “ignoring” you or “lashing out” or “failing” to follow through. Most of the time, the grieving person’s response will have nothing to do with you and the most helpful thing you can do is appreciate that they are working through their own process in their own time. The best response to these realities is to be consistently available and continue to love and understand them as they go through the various phases of grief.
The only time that might not be the case is if you’ve missed point number one and are trying to control or constrain the individual’s grief. In which case, it’s time to do some self reflection. Why might I feel like I need to control this other person? Do I feel jealous of their grief? Is it possible that I am trying to control them because I control myself and I don’t think it’s fair that they get to grieve when I don’t? If so, it might be time to do some grief work of your own – but probably not with the newly bereaved!
Learning to walk the slack line of grief
A slack line is a two or three inch wide webbing strung between two trees. It pitches and vibrates, but for those who have practiced well, they can walk across it – carefully. Some – who have practiced a really long time – are even capable of crossing between cliffs, hundreds of feet above the ground.
Learning to walk the slack line requires that you don’t fight the movement of the line. You have to keep your core strong, keeping your centre of gravity balanced wherever the line is taking them. You have to adapt to the natural rhythm of the line, and like a guitar string it has a natural frequency based on the tension.
Learning to walk the slack line of grief requires that we strengthen our core values, and become more emotionally attuned. We will need to develop more robust toolkits for dealing with our emotions. The plus side of course is that good grieving practices create good living practices.
So if you’re in the midst of grieving – a diagnosis, a job loss, a move, a relationship ending or the death of a loved one – reach out. Learn the unforced rhythms of grief.
And if you’re supporting someone or connected to someone who is grieving and you feel yourself trying to control their behaviour, it might be time to reach out yourself and explore the griefs you’ve never had the chance to process.
Change is possible – contact me for more info.