Navigating Grief and Loss

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Everyone wants to know how you’re doing. The answer can vary from day to day or minute to minute.

Most people don’t know what to do or say. They want to show concern and support, but they’re afraid that if they do, they might cause more pain. Death, dying and grief in this country is awkward. Some third world cultures are much better at it than we are. Our parents teach us to say “please” and “thank you,” but they don’t teach us the language of grief because they’ve never learned it themselves.

Sometimes the grieving person ends up comforting the visitors. I remember watching a mother who had lost a baby to crib death working the room wearing a plastic smile, comforting everyone at the wake. I didn’t know what to say to her. “I’m sorry for your loss” seems so inadequate to say to someone hemorrhaging grief.

People mean well, but other than the initial condolences and “if there’s anything I can do” offers, grief is such an uncharted process that even if they ask the survivor, “What do you need right now?” they might not get an answer because the survivor is emotionally numb. They “pay their respects” then drift back to their lives, perhaps thinking that leaving the survivor alone is a gesture of respect for privacy. They don’t realize that for someone processing a loss, talking about that loss in all its ramifications with a compassionate listener is part of the necessary, exhausting work of healing. Compassionate presence, what I call ‘holding your hand in the spiritual waiting room” can feel like a life ring tossed to someone who is drowning.

Sometimes the people left behind try to handle the pain by holding it in and denying it the expression that level of intense energy requires. They might use denial, rationalization, “It’s a blessing they’re out of their suffering,” or a substance as a form of anesthesia to stuff down the pain. Eventually, the volcano erupts.

When my family worked with Hospice Buffalo when my father was dying of cancer in 1984, my mother saw a bereavement counselor weekly for about a year and that compassionate listener helped her process the loss of her husband. I didn’t process his loss in a healthy way at the time, because I took a short term dose of an anti-anxiety medication to avoid the emotional overwhelm and didn’t sense the volcano building inside, which erupted years later. Buried emotional pain can, in the long-term, ignite illness.

Every survivor has to rearrange their life emotionally and/or physically to integrate, not close, the space that person’s loss has created. Maybe the house has to be sold. There are financial and estate issues to deal with. If there is no will, probate can be an expensive legal hassle. Greedy survivors fight over grandma’s antique table. On top of all that, we’re left to handle our broken heart and gaping hole in our life and identity.

The relationship with the person we’re grieving used to be one, or in some cases the, defining factor in our identity, our personhood—we were spouse, child, niece/nephew, grandchild, friend, business owner, even employee. Now that this important relationship has changed, who we were in that relationship and who we are now has to be redefined whether they’ve left us through divorce, death, dementia, betrayal, abandonment, bankruptcy, whatever. In some cases the shock of getting fired or job loss due to downsizing, even if we know it’s coming, can produce grief and on a less intense level, the need for identity rearrangement.

Besides having to navigate the intense grief and loss, sometimes we feel that part of us died with them. Sometimes when I do intuitive readings and there is evidence of severe childhood trauma, a broken heart or combat trauma for example, there is also an imprint of “part of me died when that happened.” In the shamanic tradition, this is “soul loss,” a loss of part of our spirit, which requires recovery and healing. When this aspect of wounding is pointed out to clients, they readily acknowledge the feeling. A combat veteran suffering from “survivor guilt,” which is a form of grief, put it this way. “Part of me is still in Iraq. My buddy died. I couldn’t save him. I can still see it.”

The journey of healing grief is unlike any other type of emotional healing. There is no roadmap, no timetable and no set of predictable steps to release the pain. It is truly a journey and a highly individual one. We all have to take it eventually, but we don’t have to take it alone.