How do we grieve well? And what does it mean to do that? Should I accept my grief and sit in it, or push my way through? Are there techniques for grieving, and can I fast-track it? What do I do about the rumination, the anger, the despair?
When it comes to thinking about how we grieve and what we should do about it, people often make the mistake of going to an extreme. They divide into opposing camps. On the side is the Acceptance crowd. They talk a lot about compassion. They often take offence if it is suggested that a grieving person needs to push themselves in any way. Indeed they go so far in this direction, that they give license to arsehole behaviour if the person is grieving. “I guess that’s just their way of getting by.”
At the other extreme is the Resilience camp. They seem to think that loss is no different to a physical challenge at the gym. They may see life as a trajectory that should always be onward and upward. To such people, grief is an obstacle to real living. Alternatively there are people with less such ideology, and more simple callousness. They might direct that callousness at themselves, deciding that they are weak or flawed for giving into it. Or they might see their own pain as important, but other people's pain as something to just get over and stop whining about.
Both camps go to extremes because they do’t properly understand grief, or resilience, and a range of other aspects of life. This is part of a bigger problem: not knowing how to suffer. They lack the knowledge, insight, and know-how to suffer well, so to speak. So they become passive in one of these extreme ways. In the first camp people become passive by radically giving into their emotions, while the second they become passive by dismissing and running away from their emotions. In a sense, these two camps represent half-truths which need to be integrated if we are to grieve well. To grieve well we have to accept what we cannot change (in ourselves), and to change what we can. We need courage, and we need wisdom to know this difference.
Loss often happens to us. It is often out of our hands. We are helpless. Grammatically, we are in a passive position, of having something done to us. The word passive comes from the Latin passio, meaning "to suffer" or "to undergo." We have to accept that as human beings we are vulnerable and cannot control many things. As people who love, we will lose. Therefore we will suffer. We must learn how to undergo something which we don’t want, and have no choice about, in ways that are helpful, that are healing, kind, patient, nourishing, which give a sense of meaning in that time, which help us to hold on when it's dark, which enable us to endure while time does its work on our wounds.
People sometimes get angry when you say that. "Don't fucking tell me that time heals all wounds!" Well the idea that it does, and the angry rejection of that, are again both half-truths. As I say, we need to live well with what we cannot change, accepting that life happens to us (both life as suffering, and life as healing). But at the same time we need the courage to change the things we can, whether that be things outside ourselves, or the world within.
Grief is a dual process, of loss, and of regaining. We are uprooted, but we also slowly put down new roots, create a new order. This may take a long time, but (especially in the second half) it can be a creative time of personal growth and new possibilities in life. Either way, throughout the journey there is much to do. We need for example to draw on certain friends rather than losing ourselves in loneliness, even if they're not so good at knowing how to help. We need, perhaps after an initial time of numbing, and for some people a longer time of being to exhausted to even contemplate it, to get our bodies into a better place, to get fit, strong, to eat and sleep well. We need to reduce our life to the essentials and to try to keep them in order, especially because so much of life may have become chaotic. And we need to find the better part of ourselves and to stand in it, to feed it, rather than the worse part where we would give into despair or hate. Sometimes this last challenge looks like a fork in the road - the hard work of love of life, versus the apparently easier road of emotional revenge - and sometimes it is more like a well into which we have plunged: we have been thrown into the worse part of ourselves, the pain has simply made that so, and the decision is whether to climb out - a slow journey up walls that are slippery, cold, and painful.
Grief is a balancing act, between accepting things as they are, and pushing forward. There are no techniques to fast-track your grief, at least not in the way people usually hope. Often when somebody asks me for such things, without realising it they are really saying “Give me a life-hack, to remove the pain of love.” There are no such life-hacks, and The Verve got it right when they sang that "the drugs don't work, they just make you worse." There is no way around the pain, there is only through it. The pain is worse, however, when we don't know how to bear it, or when we simply won't bear it - we refuse to accept this burden and to do what we can.
Grief is a pendulum swing between passivity - suffering, exhaustion - and activity - seeking to move through the loss, to integrate it into your life so as to live well again. The cinema gives us stereotyped images of grief which are not true. According to the movies people who grieve are always sad. But in reality they are sad one moment and laughing the next. According to the movies people grieve intensely for a few months and then "move on." In reality grief can take weeks, months, and in fact often years, depending on the relationship and the nature of the death. It is common to grieve a partner or child or parent, or anybody who is deeply important to you, for the rest of your life. And why should it be otherwise? After all a meaningful life is one in which we faithfully hold the people and things that matter most. Yet when people grieve they are often harassed by well-meaning but naïve friends and family who want them to hurry up and “move on.” That;s often about others not knowing how to hold their own pain - the pain of seeing you in pain, so they put the burden of change on you rather than accepting their own burden and leaving you to deal with yours. So I often remind people of that song by The Byrds. “To everything there is a season.” A rich life includes grief, it undergoes seasons of grief. To quote another musician, the Melbourne jazz singer Vince Jones, "Without love how peaceful life would be. How safe. How sad." We have to accept the profound sorrow of grief if we want a life that includes the profound joy of love. Of course, time does heal. This is a way of saying that our minds know how to grieve, and the world slowly draws us forth. Your devastation will diminish in time and you will feel more connected with life. You will be motivated again and take pleasure in things. You will look forward to things, you will become excited again about things. You will be glad that you are still alive. Your life will become bigger than the loss. And then, when you think of the one you have lost you will remember the good times too, and feel gratitude and joy, rather than always remaining in the current blanket of dark sorrow. The healthy person is one who can experience both sorrow and joy. Each makes the other more authentic.
Passive and active, acceptance and pushing, sorrow and joy. Grief has a dual-nature, follows a dual-process, and requires a dual response of acceptance and effort. Grief hurts. It can hurt like hell and for a long time. But it is a natural part of a richer life. And it is a season among many others, in a life of constant changes.