What Can we Learn From Grief?
This post explores healthy ways of coping with grief and loss. It refers to skills we can learn to heal painful feelings like sadness, depression, anger and numbness and offers help, support and guidance with grief and loss
I believe that 15+ months of the global pandemic has touched us all with some level of grief and loss - whether it’s the loss of a loved one, the loss of your job, or place in the world, loss of friendships and connections, or some other kind of loss.
In addition to the pandemic, we’re unavoidably confronted with the global backdrop of climate change, ecological breakdown, endemic social injustice and widening political divisions.
In truth, there’s an awful lot to grieve for in this world, as well as in our personal lives.
What is grief?
There are numerous definitions and perspectives on what grief, or grieving is and what it means. For now I’ll keep it simple with a few definitions that have resonance with my own experience:
“Grief is alive, wild, untamed and cannot be domesticated. It resists the demands to remain passive and still. We move in jangled, unsettled, and riotous ways when grief takes hold of us. It is truly an emotion that rises from the soul.” ― Francis Weller
“Grief is not a feeling, it is a capacity. It is not something that disables you, we are not on the receiving end of grief we are on the practising end of grief.” ― Stephen Jenkinson
Joanna Macy, eco-philosopher and root teacher of the Work That Reconnects, has referred to grief for our world in this way:
“This is a dark time, filled with suffering and uncertainty. Like living cells in a larger body, it is natural that we feel the trauma of our world. So don’t be afraid of the anguish you feel, or the anger or fear, for these responses arise from the depth of your caring and the truth of your interconnectedness with all beings. To suffer with is the literal meaning of compassion.”
How do YOU cope with grief?
Do you make time and space to face your grief, to welcome and allow it?
Or do you perhaps try to avoid, manage or ‘deal with it’ in some way?
Perhaps you numb your feelings through addictive habits like overeating, drinking, distraction or keeping busy? (If so, I’ll be the last person to judge you, since that was my default way of handling repeated trauma and grief for decades)
Do you think you have the right information, tools, skills, or support for coping with grief?
Do you even know where to begin?
And why should you?
Perhaps this quote from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who devoted her life to working with, studying and writing about death, dying and grieving, points towards the gifts of working with grief:
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” ― Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
My grief story
In this article I’d like to share some of my own grief story, picking up the thread of being more authentic, which I wrote about in a previous blog post here.
There has been plenty to grieve for in my personal life. Since my late teens, I’ve experienced the deaths of many dearly loved ones, some of whom died in sudden and shocking ways (the details of which I’ll spare you). And I have only recently been fully facing and healing all of this
It’s not as though I was ignoring, or denying grief in the past. I’ve been on a journey of healing and personal and spiritual exploration for as long as I can remember. But it seemed that most of my past explorations of grief, through counselling and other therapeutic, spiritual, or ceremonial processes haven’t fully cut the ice for me. Or perhaps I wasn't ready to fully engage with them at the time.
My apprenticeship to grief for our world began in earnest around nine years ago, when I trained to facilitate the Work That Reconnects and hold spaces for our ‘honouring our pain for the world’.
Here are some of the personal and worldly things I’ve been grieving for lately:
Being single and living alone, a long way from my daughter and grandchildren, during this pandemic time when human contact has been very rare
The growing divisions, hatred and oppression among people, which social media seems to be fueling globally
The brokenness of democracy and corruption in the corridors of power
The dying Ash trees and the ongoing massacre of trees for railway lines, roads and houses, locally and throughout the UK
The continuing ‘Great Unravelling’ of both human and natural systems and how this will probably affect the future for my grandchildren and all the generations to come
The powerlessness, apathy, or despair that so many of us feel in response to all of this
A gift that the pandemic gave me was the time to focus on a healing and recovery journey from my history of repeated traumatic bereavements and losses. I’ve been engaging in a gentle somatic approach to working with trauma stored in my body and deepened my practice of welcoming and letting go of emotions, thoughts and behaviour patterns. I also belong to a group of wise grief-tending women who’ve been meeting weekly for 18 months or so now. And I’m about to begin the next stage of in-depth training in holding space for grief.
This intense period of working with grief has brought me immense relief. It has also required of me some courage and commitment to face and sit with all the uncomfortable and painful feelings, learning the skill of staying and not falling into well-worn habits of numbing, distraction or suppression.
What can we learn from grief?
When we face and work with our grief, it can bring all manner of unexpected gifts, rewards and life lessons. Here are eight key things I’ve discovered about grieving:
1 Grieving isn’t supposed to be a private and lonesome project, the process is eased and more effective with the supportive holding space of another person, group, or community.
2 Sitting with and befriending our feelings of sadness, anger, emptiness etc allows them to settle and dissolve. This is more beneficial than suppressing them or venting them at those closest to us.
3 Bodily aches, pains and tensions may be associated with ‘stuck’ or unresolved feelings, rather than simply being signs of aging, or bodily stresses and strains. As we work with grief and other frozen emotional energies, the bodily symptoms can ease, bringing more freedom of movement.
4 We can learn simple and effective ways to soothe and support those parts of us that may be afraid or wary of our strong grief emotions. Grieving can be regarded as a set of skills we can learn, which is a more empowering frame than a set of emotions that we are at the mercy of.
5 Grieving isn’t necessarily a neat or linear five-stage process, as some writers have suggested, but a highly individual experience, with no right or wrong ways about it. Societal messages such as: ‘it normally takes about two years’ or ‘you should be over it by now’ are neither helpful nor true.
6 It takes as long as it takes. Grief may be resolved in a simple healing session or ceremony, or it may take many years of revisiting, layer by layer. One way is not better than another.
7 It takes some courage and commitment to face a backlog of old unresolved grief and trauma. And this can be helped by building up our resilience through self-care practices, alongside support from and connection with others.
8 Connecting with nature, the natural world and more-than-human beings can support grieving, bringing us deep solace. Sitting with your back to a tree, being by the ocean, having your hands in the soil, or being with a beloved animal companion can be soothing and comforting beyond words.
I’m not suggesting that any of the things I’ve discovered about grieving may also be true for you, or anyone else. But I do believe we are all capable of exploring grief, learning the skills of grieving well and harvesting our own gifts or lessons from it.
I’d love to hear about your experiences with grief and what has helped you. Please feel free to drop me a line if you’d like to share.
And, if this subject of grieving really has resonance for you, I’d like to invite you to join my first ‘Sitting with Death and Choosing Life Foundation Course’ beginning in September. Further information about this can be found at the bottom of the ‘Offerings’ page on my website here
With warmest wishes,