Grief and loss are one of the most common issues that bring people into therapy, and yet we know little of how to cope with grief, and what the stages of grief might be. The intensity of the pain, and the almost overwhelming emotions and intensity of our thoughts come as a shock. Who are we really?In part 1, we reflected on our uncomfortable feelings of anger, relief and guilt, and the qualities of the lost one that we carry with us. Then in part 2, we sat with the experience of holding on and letting go, and the changeable day by day struggle with our grieving.
Now in the final part, we consider how long and when will it change, and consider how can we live after grief?
9. When is it over? Our grief never ends, but something changes. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said ‘Gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy’. Sometimes, I look at a photo, and I feel sad and happy at the same time. I call this exquisite melancholy, and it is the most profound feeling state I experience, a gateway to actual spiritual experience.
Exercise: Come upon an old photo, a treasured memory. Notice the joy and pleasure as much as the pain and sorrow. Both together. That is what healing looks like.
10. Inside out. In the recent Disney film, one of the discoveries of the film is that sadness is a more mature feeling than a one dimensional need to be happy. There is something profound and deepening about sadness.
Exercise: Look back on your life and notice the aspects of yourself that you have shed like an old skin. Parts that you thought you couldn’t survive without have gone, and they leave a spaciousness, an emptiness that is no longer painful, but an opening to something new. This is the beginning of a spiritual journey, and that is truly a new growth.
11. Time. Several years ago, I had a period of academic psychotherapy research, studying states of emptiness, and something that emerged from all the interviews and analysis was that change occurs over time, and that it takes a long time to move from one position to another. It was only afterwards that there was any awareness that something had changed. At the time, it was not visible. Our grief is like grit that imperceptibly, over time smooths the rocks in the river.
Exercise: Sit with your not-knowing, avoid making decisions one way or the other for a while, and allow yourself to sit in the space between choices. Don’t be pulled one way or another, but let go, and sit in that attentive state of consciousness and be aware of an expansion of space around you, a deepening emptiness. When you are ready, allow it to enter.
12. Once bitten… How do we live again without being hardened, where we are no longer touched by life again. It is natural for our emotional scar tissue to prevent us from being vulnerable. Unlike the gurus of the new age or the occasional saint, life can and does harden us. We are not invincible, and hardship can break us; it does happen.
Exercise: Can we open up to the edge of what we can tolerate? Our edge is as much as we can bear of that state of our openness and our vulnerability in the world. Can we stay on our edge, in touch with the unbearable while keeping ourself safe? As we practise this in all aspects of our lives, so our edge expands outwards, and we become stronger and more resilient, able to tolerate more.
Finally, some quotes I found useful while thinking about grief.
From The book of Job
“I sit and gnaw on my grief;
My groans pour out like water.
My worst fears have happened;
My nightmares have come to life.
Silence and peace have abandoned me,
And anguish camps in my heart”
From The black sun
“In the face of such a devastating vision, analysis stands still –shocked…the heart is wrenched. Job’s comforters are quieted, and no platitudes or new analytic techniques will do…there is no rush to cure; perhaps there is no cure at all. Silence is in the soul of patient and analyst alike, a quiet pair sitting in the grip of the black sun.”
(Marlan, 2005, p.65).
WH Auden on grief.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.