My doctor told me yesterday that I could no longer take a regular medication or I would be at higher risk of having a stroke. I told her I didn’t mind, as long as it was a big fatal one.
She gave me a very odd look!
No, I’m not being flippant or insensitive—a massive fatal stroke wouldn’t be a bad way to die. I guess being on my own for so long and not having any dependents, I have become a bit pragmatic about death.
As I see it, it’s going to happen (sorry to those who are in denial about this, but…) and I may as well get cool with that.
I learned about grief pretty early on. My father died when I was nine years old. As kids do, I survived. The grief kind of hung around through my teenaged years until I could do some real processing with an adult psyche and let it go. I went on to work with families affected by a fatal genetic condition and those affected by trauma. I also lost all of my grandparents by the time I was in my early 30s, then my mother just a couple of years later.
By the time my mother died (I prefer not to use fluffy euphemisms like “passed away”), I was actually pretty pragmatic about it. Don’t get me wrong, I was close to my mother and the news hit me like a proverbial truck—I literally fell to my knees when I was told—but by then I had been doing a lot of spiritual work, and, while I grieved as hard as anyone would at the loss of a beloved parent, I also let it move through me.
I have also grieved less tangible things: a marriage, several jobs, the children I didn’t have. Grief comes in many forms and is not reserved for when someone dies.
So, yes, I have danced with grief and understand how it kicks you down, takes root in your heart and colors your days. I have also seen it destroy people. I have seen people never recover from one tragedy or a series of griefs—who spend their lives trapped beneath the unfairness of it all.
Because life is always fair, right? Death only happens to some people—deserving, predictable and expected. Right? Of course not. And yet, we seem to have this visceral reaction of death being unfair, unexpected and unjustifiable.
What would happen if we changed our dialogue around death and grief?
What if we truly integrated its inevitability, and could talk more about why we grieve and what that means?
What if grief didn’t have to result in feelings of anger, isolation and helplessness?
What if grief could be beautiful, connecting and empowering?
Grief occurs around the things we value—and we don’t really value something we can never lose. Hence, as puny mortals, we can grieve just about anything! It may be a person who has died, or moved, or left us; it may be an idea or something we never even had—just ask anyone who can’t get pregnant.
So, if you are gripped by grief, swamped by sorrow or drowning in despair, here are some ideas for how to shift:
1) Accept that it’s not fair.
Life is not fair. Nor is it unfair. Life simply happens. Whether you believe in God’s plan or complete anarchy, there is no fair (or unfair). Death is completely inevitable, no matter who or what we are in life.
Appreciate when someone dies a “good” death—simple, fast, at a reasonable age. Trust me, it’s much better than the alternatives. Prolonged suffering is not living.
2) Reflect on the value of what you lost.
That which you grieve is that which you loved. Love is a good thing. It gives our lives meaning. Without love, life truly would just be something to endure. Grief reminds us of how important the feelings of love and connection are.
“The greater that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
~ Kahlil Gibran
Yes, I know this sounds like a double-edged sword, but life really wouldn’t be worth anything if we didn’t value love and connection. Think about it.
Allow yourself to fully grieve what you have lost. Sob broken-heartedly until you are finished. But know that grief doesn’t just hit once—it will smack you over and over again. And I know you can’t always give it free rein. Sobbing in the middle of the supermarket may not work. But do allow yourself time and space somewhere to cry. As many times as it takes.
4) Allow others to share your grief.
The irony of grief is that it makes you feel completely alone. Yet, everyone grieves. Often for the same reason at the same time. Share what it is that you valued, share what you will miss most, share your vulnerability in your own mortality.
5) Know that everyone copes differently.
Some people grieve publicly, some privately. We all process differently, especially men and women. As anyone working with families will tell you, if a couple loses a child, divorce is almost certain to follow, with each partner expressing extreme frustration and anger at the other party’s grief process. “He won’t talk about it,” and “she won’t let it go,” being the two most common reactions. I won’t go into a big gender thing here, but keep in mind that women often talk to relieve feelings, and men often hate feeling helpless to change things, so these two needs can clash.
Grief, like everything else important, is too big to be covered in one article. But if you are stuck in it, tiny bits are all you can probably manage anyway. If you let it, this too shall pass.
Author: Tui Anderson
Editor: Toby Israel