In Western society, we don’t like to talk much about death. It’s something we try to avoid, even though at some point in time it will touch each of our lives and the lives of those we love.
The same might be said for death’s close cousin, grief—the deep and seemingly unbearable pain caused by the death of someone close to us. Much like death, grief has no boundaries. It’s something that all of us, no matter our stature in life, will likely experience.
I was thinking about death and grief when my wife and I recently binged the After Life series featuring Ricky Gervais. There’s humor in the show but there’s also tremendous grief, as Tony, the character played by Gervais, loses his longtime wife to cancer. Tony is so bereaved, he barely has the will to go on, contemplating ending his life to relieve his pain.
The story may be fictional but it’s a real-life illustration of just how deep the pain from grief can cut. I’m acquainted with a retired Methodist minister, Mark, who writes the Dream Pray Act blog. He’s a kind-hearted, dear man. But not too long ago his wife got sick and died, and it absolutely crushed him. Mark offered the following thoughts a few months after her death:
There is no adequate consolation right now
There is no this is going to get better
There is no lessening of the sorrow
I cannot see the path forward
Only darkness, nothingness
I see no future
No home for me
Not without my beloved
Though I am told there is one
Similarly, in the book Why Religion?, Elaine Pagels writes about the unbearable grief the death of her husband had on her. At age 49, he died in a hiking accident leaving her with two young children. She continually wonders “how could he have abandoned us?” Her pain bleeds through the pages, as in this excerpt recalling the months after his death:
Throughout these nameless days, my temper exploded at slight frustrations. Trembling, starting in my stomach, would spread until my whole body was shaking. On the floor, I’d bend over involuntarily, head to the ground, emitting a strange keening sound I’d never heard before. Sometimes outbursts of sobs began uncontrollably; more often, I’d try to cry, but no tears would come.
How do we find a way out of the pain of grief?
A wise elder, Richard Rohr, writes that the great wisdom traditions teach us that “grief isn’t something to run from. It’s a time of transformation.” That may be hard to fathom when you’re in the throes of grief, but Rohr sees the grieving process as a time to simply “be here to what is.” Rohr asks us to “be present to our pain” and offers the following advice from Buddhist teacher Cuong Lu:
The way to free yourself from pain is to feel it, not to run away, as difficult as that may be. Be a mountain and be porous at the same time. Become interested in yourself, your thoughts, your emotions, your sensations. This might not make sense now, but it will.
In time, and it will take time, a sort of transformation takes place, in that you’re able to find meaning in the pain. Lu claims that “pain and suffering make life beautiful” explaining:
This might be hard to believe while you’re suffering, but the lessons you can learn from hardships are jewels to cherish. If you’re suffering, it means you have a heart. Suffering is evidence of your capacity to love, and only those who understand suffering can understand life and help others.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, columnist Elizabeth Bernstein tells us how the death of her father left her shattered and how she was “unequipped to deal with my grief.” She finds comfort in friends telling her “the acute pain of early grief will eventually lighten.” It just takes time. She offers several ideas on dealing with grief, to which I’ve added several thoughts of my own.
5 Steps to Dealing with Grief
- Embrace your grief. Bernstein tells us “The best way to deal with emotional pain is to let yourself feel it. If you try to stifle it, you’ll just feel worse later because you never tried to address it.” She points out it takes a lot of brain power to suppress our feelings. So don’t do it, let yourself flow down the river of grief. As Mirabai Starr said after the devastating loss of her teenage daughter:
By leaning into the horror and yielding to the sorrow, by standing in the fire of emptiness and saying yes to the mystery, I was honoring my child and expressing my ongoing love for her.
- Remember that grief is simply unexpressed love. If you could erase the grief, you would also be erasing the ongoing love you have for the person you lost. Love and grief go hand in hand. If you did not have the first, you would not have the second. (And who wants a world without love?) Erick Godsey, writes in his Feasting Friday newsletter:
Because we have built a culture that seeks to deny death, we have built a culture that denies grief. Grief is the echo the death of love leaves.
- Communicate. Talk to others who have also lost a parent, spouse or good friend. They will understand and can help talk you through it. Cuong Lu advises:
Don’t try to kill your pain. Share it with another, communicate it. Somebody somewhere wants to listen to your pain, to connect with you and understand you. When you find them, when you lighten your burden and discover the jewels and joy that are alive beneath the pain, later you’ll be present for others who are suffering.
- Honor the person you lost. Do something meaningful. Give to charity or volunteer in the name of the person you lost, perhaps in an area related to the cause of that person’s death. And be sure to follow their wishes which may involve you asking, “Would the person you lost want you to wallow in grief?” Or would they want you to carry on?
- Choose joy. Start small, with the things you once found pleasure in. Sit in a comfortable chair with a cup of coffee or tea. Go for a walk. Cuddle with a dog or cat. Bernstein advises us that “doing something joyful will give you relief from your sorrow, even if it’s just a little at first, and help you build back a life worth living.”
For more advice on dealing with grief, check out the Grief and Sympathy website.