Facing Grief: Whose Death and Whose Loss?

A Sunny September Day at DBG

This post is about naming the unrecognized grief and respecting the grief experience as an individual human experience.  How do we respond to loss?  I recently borrowed from my  local library “The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss,” by George Bonanno.  I enjoyed looking at this book because it challenges the recognized notions of what is expected about one’s experience of grief and how the experience of many of us simply doesn’t conform to those recognized expectations.  Let’s face it, none of us likes to be told how to feel – but we so often do that to each other in our child-rearing and in our lack of listening skills.   The chapters of Bonanno’s book cover a range of grief of people who are very resilient and grieve in a relatively short space of time to those who experience an entrenched and seemingly intractable grief.  He writes about the sadness that is part of grief.  I have to marvel that it is no wonder that our happy and PMA (positive mental attitude) obsessed American culture has a hard time with grief’s sadness and despair.  We spend so much energy trying to avoid, to pull ourselves away from discomfort and out of any pain that we often simply become numb – to both joy and sorrow.  But sorrow, like grief, is also a teacher.

“We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love.” 

Sigmund Freud

Bonanno writes about the “function of sadness” – which he came to consider in working with Dacher Keltner (author of “Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life” and like Bonanno a psychology professor).  Turns out, sadness helps us remember more accurately.  He notes that “sadness helps us focus and promotes deeper and more effective reflection.” (Bonanno at 31).

In many ways, grief is the proof that we have loved another and that we have engaged our heart in the activity of living.  In this way the grief and the sorrow in our lives, the evidence if you will of our aliveness and participation in the world, along with our own vulnerability – this is what makes us stronger.  Leo Tolstoy wrote “only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.”  The human psyche, like that human body, has the innate ability to heal itself.

In a blog post from 11/8/12 I asked “Should Anyone Practice Grieving?”   I think I would open that question a bit wider here.   What is grief if we consider that every day of our lives we might lose something –  someone or something that we became accustomed to, counted on, held dear or loved deeply?  What if we looked at the continuum of grief as part of our life in an experiential way.  Starting with the more mundane expectations, the details around which we plan our day and extending to the devastating or catastrophic loss that some will experience.  If we consider that our lives are inherently fragile and subject to constant change – would this make us stronger or weaker as people?   To this question I can respond in a lawyerlike way . . .  “it depends.”

What we grieve and how we grieve may be determined largely by us or we can be at its mercy.  How do we respond to our own weakness?  This is where grief can be a very effective teacher.  A first step may be to honor one’s own feelings, even if they include pain, sorrow and loss of identity.  I often advise clients who are grieving to be more gentle on themselves.  This is especially important when we are dealing with grief that is complicated – such as when a person takes his or her own life, even if it was “expected” – because we just can’t ever gauge how we will respond to such an event.  And what about the grief that is not typically recognized, an “under the radar” kind of grief like when a former spouse dies or an estranged partner or friend passes away?  For a person who hasn’t been married to a former spouse for a number of years, the survivor, along with the decedent’s family and friends, may simply not recognize the feeling or the loss.  Until this type of grief is named, it can behave like an anonymous marauder.

Sometimes grief helps us remember where we came from, where we were at a particular time- fixing, however improbably, an ephemeral recollection with a kind of “date and time stamp.”  Perhaps our true nature as people is to remember, to simply remember who we are.  Isn’t that difficult enough?  What if the experience of grief and sorrow could help reveal that to us?  In fact it often does, sometimes in surprising ways.

A fish cannot drown in water.

A bird does not fall in air.

Each creature God made

must live in its own true nature.

   Mechthild of Magdeburg

Consider the Blackfoot saying: Life is not separate from death.  It only looks that way.

So what is grief then?  Love is attachment, as we know from human development – bonding is a crucial step in an infant’s brain development, and we each form attachments of love with others in our own unique ways.  Grief is like a tear of that fabric of attachment that we can experience in any number of ways.  A tragedy on the other side of the globe, a person whom you have never met, a community affected by violence, a child or a family member.  Grief comes in so many forms and we, as experiencers of grief in our life experiences are even more diverse in its expression.  Listening with one’s heart is a way of sharing grief.  If you haven’t yet lost a dear one or felt the pain of grief’s unmoored emptiness, perhaps you can listen with compassion to another’s story of their loss and their grief.  This –  in the hope that when you have an experience of that nature, someone will be there to listen to you.

©Barbara Cashman 2013     www.DenverElderLaw.org

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2 Comments
  1. Dear Barb,
    this latest blog has gone through me like a lightning bolt. Not only is it a wonderful article, it is so relevant in my life now that it leaves me numb.

    Steve has been in and out of hospital since the end of August and as of three days ago, he is in a rehabilitation facility in University Heights.

    After over a year of medical exams and of Steve “just not feeling well”, a recent (last Sunday) rush to the emergency room revealed that he had a massive blood clot in the heart/lung artery as well as smaller clots throughout his lungs. ALSO, they found a growth in his right lung which has been guardedly diagnosed as “perhaps not malignant”. All this revelation after over a year of medical visits, including one to a pulmonary specialist not even five months ago,who saw nothing!!! It also seems that there might be the initial stages of dementia as well as Parkinson’s in the mix. Steve seems to be getting a little better every day and the hope is that he might be able to return home in a couple of months, God willing.

    Whatever it is that God has had in mind for Steve, I am a total physical wreck, But for the FIRST time in my life, I know what it is to feel pain and happiness, even in the slightest mitigation of that pain from God’s will. I always denied the feeling of pain in my life, I was too strong and in control to let it affect me. I know better now, I am a different, better ( I hope) person for this experience. I have said the “L” word for the first time and really know what it means. Live and learn, indeed !!!

    I hope you are well in all things and I look forward someday to speak to you about all these “great” things that living ( and dying) are all about.

    Peter V

  2. Peter – thank you for writing. I am so sorry to hear about Steve’s health challenges and I wish him a speedy and complete recovery. He is so fortunate to have you in his life at this time. We can travel many places in a relationship and one of those places goes through what John O’Donohue called the “dark valley of despair.” The journey takes us to a new destination, and our soul recognizes the geography. Take good care Peter!

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