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April 6, 2014 at 7:33 pm

One of the emotions I am most curious about is grief.

My dearest dog Ruthie died back in 2010 and I still haven’t recovered from the loss.  When I found out she had cancer, I was really taken aback at the depth of emotion I was experiencing.  Obviously I was sad, I was angry, I was frustrated and then there was a new one, grief.  I cried a lot, I wept.  I sobbed, I ached, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t breathe.

I came to learn that grief felt a lot like anxiety.  It felt like being out of control, it felt like anguish and rage.  I also noticed that it seemed like a fish hook in that it was constantly bringing up old grief as well as making me swallow the new grief.  I re-experienced all the sadness over people I had lost in my life, people who died unexpectedly, people who had just disappeared from sight.

There only seem to be a few books about grief that really explain what it feels like, and how mutable it is, how it can masquerade as some other feeling for a few hours, then come back dressed in another costume.  We don’t seem to talk about grief a lot in our culture, or make room for it.  We have support groups for people who want to talk about grief, but some people get really uncomfortable when you talk about death or dying or another topic that may cause grief.  Some people shut down in the face of another’s grief and leave the grieving person stricken again with how abandoned they feel.

What is it about grief that makes people close up?  Why does it feel like so many other emotions?  Why dies it open up that box full of other losses?  What has your experience of grief been like?

April 24, 2014 at 2:39 pm

Thank you for your thoughtful comments about your experience of and curiosity about grief.

I think that loss of life is perhaps the most painful experience we humans have to face because we are wired for connection. We need closeness with other living beings as much as we need things like food, water, shelter, and sense of purpose. Connection is so key to wellbeing that when it’s gone, it can be debilitating (I’m sure you’ve heard stories of a husband/wife/partner dying shortly after their spouse of many years has died; or the studies of infants in orphanages who die of “failure to thrive” because they weren’t held enough).

As humans, we’re also wired to avoid pain. Some of the time, avoiding pain is a good thing; it’s protective. But, some of the time, allowing and tolerating pain – especially if it’s emotional – is a necessary part of the healing process. Add a Western culture that’s fast paced, quick fix friendly, and not very skilled at handling emotions, and voila: you have a society that is pretty limited when it comes to relating to grief skillfully.

Everyone experiences “loss” of all kinds throughout life, as nothing is permanent, and life inevitably brings disappointment and unmet desires. Most people can notice how significant it is when a loved one dies, but we don’t have great tools for truly honoring and working through the feelings that come with a loss of such magnitude, let alone the smaller losses that happen all the time. It seems that a fear of “wallowing” or getting stuck in emotional pain pushes people away from a healthy place that allows feelings to run their natural course.

We’re taught a lot of great things in school, but dealing with our emotions is rarely one of them. Accordingly, the natural grieving process often gets cut short by things like our habitual avoidance of pain, combined with the actions of well-meaning others who may avoid bringing up the topic out of discomfort, or say things like “cheer up, at least he’s no longer suffering.”

Two of my favorite authors and thinkers about death and dying, Stephen and Ondrea Levine, speak to the tremendous value of opening up to our pain – our grief – in whatever form it may take. They have worked with the dying and their loved ones for years, and Stephen writes that “those who know their pain and their grief most intimately seem to be the lightest and most healed of the beings we have met.” (Source: Healing Into Life and Death).

Grief encompasses many different emotions, like you said. You may feel anxiety one moment, denial a few minutes later, anguish after that and then even joy from both the memories and the opening in one’s heart and soul that loss can bring. The famed psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified the 5 stages of grief as: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It’s a misnomer that you go through these stages in a linear and singular iteration; the fact is that we bounce around in all of these areas through the experience of both anticipatory grief and bereavement.

There are many theories on primary vs. secondary emotions.  For instance, Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) believes that fear, sadness, shame and joy are some of the core primary emotions, whereas anger would be considered secondary (i.e., something that arises in response to a primary emotion).  For example, feeling deep fear or intense grief can feel quite vulnerable; shifting to a place of anger can make us feel more in charge and less defenseless.  So, it’s common to feel a variety of emotions when grieving because the sadness (that comes from loss) is a primary emotion (and sadness is considered primary within virtually all schools of thought on this subject). 

A “healthy” grief process, while different for everyone, allows people to take all the time they need to feel their feelings fully, to learn to tolerate the pain of loss, find meaning from it, and integrate it into a life that continues without that loved one being with them in physical form. This process is unique to each person and is impacted by various factors like the significance and type of the relationship, the circumstances surrounding the death (e.g., sudden or expected), one’s history with past losses, other concurrent stressors, and existing coping skills.

You said it’s been 3 years since you lost your dog and you still haven’t fully recovered from it (although I imagine that the intensity and frequency of your feelings have shifted in comparison to 3 years ago). This is understandable, as there is no predictable timetable for the grief process and “recovery” is a relative term, where on some days you might feel fine, and at other times the significance of the loss really hits hard. People who have never loved a pet, or who are fairly disconnected from their feelings may have a hard time relating to your experience.

[General Note: if the intensity of the grief response persists over a year after the loss (i.e., if it still feels as strong or overwhelming as it did right after the loss on a continuous basis), OR at any time it feels hard to function, then it’s best to seek additional support, like working with a grief counselor or clergy member. As a therapist, I think that most can benefit from counseling about a loss at any time, but that is my bias.]

It’s common and normal for a recent loss to bring up memories of past losses for a variety of reasons. These powerful experiences get embedded in our psyches and accordingly, we’re sensitized for anything that is familiar. Current losses also bring up the unfinished business of past losses. And, you can pretty much assume that we all have unfinished business because we don’t live in a society that provides the “room” to fully grieve. Furthermore, I don’t think you ever really “get over” a significant loss; you just learn to live with it, and can actually use it as fuel to grow more as a person and get clearer about life’s priorities.

One of the components of grief you described involved fear, in the form of anxiety, sleeplessness and difficulty breathing. Loss can feel really scary because it’s a reminder of the uncertainty in life that we all face. It takes away some of that sense of safety and grounding that comes with a caring, loving relationship. It can also remind us of our own mortality (yikes!). Accordingly, it’s been speculated that unresolved grief may be a factor with certain presentations of “panic disorder” (i.e., episodes of intense fear).

In ours and many other cultures, it’s common (unfortunately) to feel some embarrassment or shame with regards to showing strong emotions, so feeling and showing grief is pretty uncomfortable for most. The more uncomfortable it is, the less capacity one has to witness and tolerate another’s strong emotions (hence the person who shuts down in the face of another’s grief – it touches a cord in them that’s painful and ends up “making” the other person feel abandoned, like you said).

On a personal and professional level, I try to make as much room for grief as possible (in all its concomitant forms); I’m not always successful, but that’s my intent. Since we don’t live in a culture that says, “Hey, slow down, let yourself reflect and feel your feelings”), I have to decide to carve out time for this process. At times it’s “easier” to remember to do this – like performing a healing ritual on a meaningful day related to the deceased, like their birthday, Memorial Day, or the anniversary of their death (or “spirit birthday” as one of my friends likes to put it).

At other times it takes more effort to push against the tide of “getting on with life.” Like you said, support groups for grief are available and speak to the need and value of connecting with others who can understand the depth of your experience. I also recently learned about an interesting resource called Death Café, which facilitates both in-person and online dialogue about death and dying in venues throughout the world. Their site says: “At a Death Cafe people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. Our objective is “to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives.” It’s not about morbid preoccupation, but about how to make life richer. It’s interesting how in the modern Western world, death is so hidden, whereas in ancient and indigenous cultures, it was/is brought more into the open. Entities like “Death Café” speak to the likely benefits of talking openly about one of life’s most powerful and inevitable experiences – reflecting on meaning, heightening awareness, and perhaps decreasing fear.

I don’t connect that much with organized religion per se, but that is one area where there’s more slack and openness around death and dying, understandably. When I’ve lost loved ones, I’ve found that community to be quite helpful, despite some of our philosophical differences.

Lastly, I had mentioned the authors and healers Stephen and Ondrea Levine earlier. I found their book, “Who Dies?” to be very helpful when it comes to reflecting on death, dying and grief. I highly recommend it. But, simply put, the key to working with grief is to notice: talk about it, cry about it, think about it, write about it and sometimes even laugh about it.

April 26, 2014 at 5:24 pm

Thanks, Kim, for that wonderful and thoughtful response.  I’m off to Death Cafe, it sounds like my kind of place.  Interestingly enough, I had to fly to the east coast unexpectedly to attend the memorial of a family member this week.  Reading your entry tonight made it all that more powerful.  Thanks.

May 13, 2014 at 9:11 pm

Hi Meghan,
Did you ever make it to Death Café? I’d be curious to hear about your experience. Thank you bringing up such an important topic. My ancestors on both sides were persecuted and oppressed for who they were and what they believed. And while I have lived a most privileged existence, I am a reservoir for the collective conscious and unconscious trauma passed down through the generations. As a person who feels loss very deeply and readily, my strong reactions can still catch me off guard. But they also serve to help me with connection: connecting to spoken and unspoken suffering in others and within myself.

6 months ago, I suffered the loss of my last living grandparent. I was fortunate enough to be with my nana in her final weeks as her body and soul exited this earth. She was not a religious woman, rather matter-of-fact actually. She suffered a stroke, losing her ability to talk or write, making it difficult to know what she really comprehended at the end. But, she was 90, sick with cancer, and we had some very straight forward conversations with her about end of life decisions leading up to her final days. She knew she was facing death, if not imminently. My other grandmother (who died almost ten years ago) was a very spiritual and religious person, and, when asked if she wanted any life sustaining interventions, graciously told the doctor in limited English and with a wave of her hand, “no, thank you”- like he was offering her a cup of tea.

So, it got me thinking about role models and how very lucky we are when we have loved ones who are able to teach us about death and dying by showing us how in a sense. Animals also are incredible teachers. As, you said, Kim, we are quite disconnected from death in the Western world (maybe I’d feel differently if I slaughtered my own meat?), so it is a gift to have elders, or anyone of any age, who precede us. I don’t mean that in a literal way, but for us to be able to bear witness to life ending, and aging in general, in my view, is so incredibly valuable. It helps demystify (at least partially), what death looks like and allows us to experience the incredibly complex and vast range of emotions, as you said, that are hard-wired within us when facing loss of another and the meaningful relationship it accompanies.

Which brings me to my next wondering. What happens when we aren’t prepared for the loss? Or when we are overprepared, like when the expectation of death goes on for quite a long time? My mother in-law has Alzheimer’s (especially cruel since you essentially lose the person twice-first in mind then in body), and we have been losing her for several years now. How does knowing or not knowing what to expect impact our grief reaction? Or when the loss breaks with the natural life cycle like the loss of a child or creative mind (someone with potential we will never see). I was and still am profoundly disturbed by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s passing. I’m not comparing or saying certain forms of loss trump others, but just noting how complex loss really is. It makes sense that catch all phrases or words often miss the mark since we don’t really know how another grieves or is suffering from a loss.

Loss is so painful it makes sense that we commonly avoid thinking or talking about it with others. For example, lesser losses, that are still psychological “deaths”, may happen on a daily basis. It is apparent how people often unknowingly find ways to avoid experiencing the less finite, smaller losses, even when to our own detriment. Haven’t you ever had a “frenemie”—someone you are friends with who drives you absolutely crazy, but you can’t bring yourself to break up with him or her? So the suffering continues throughout the relationship, but, hey, it’s better than total separation. Or, someone you know moves away without telling you. Or, you get broken up with over text or no communication at all. Or when clients just stop showing up without indicating they would like to end your work together. I find it particularly interesting how interconnected “endings” truly are and what is evoked when faced with an ending. Regardless of the magnitude of each particular ending, it is safe to say that just one loss may stir up many others, hence attempting to avoid any form of loss. Even when we are often unaware (or not fully present to) that we are re-experiencing past endings. This may explain, at least partially, why grief and loss is so intense.

So, back to my original thought about being with death. No one knows what’s on the other side, but, outside of one’s religious beliefs, walking through life and death together with others seems to me to be one of the most important and useful ways to acquaint ourselves with the uncertainties in life and to help prepare for when it’s our own turn.