Running From Grief
Losing someone you love can be one of the most difficult experiences in life. It can feel as if a part of you is literally being ripped away despite your greatest protests. The hole left behind can be excruciatingly painful and leave you feeling empty and utterly alone.
Because of how challenging grief is and the fear that accompanies the intense feelings surrounding the grieving process, it makes good sense that loss is difficult for many to face. Without the caring support and encouragement of loved ones, grieving can feel too difficult to endure, and so we run from our feelings.
In a way, we are all experts in protecting our hearts and hiding our pain from ourselves and the world. We are also afraid of the pain of grief, perhaps because it feels never ending and we believe that feeling it will take us nowhere. However, in the running and hiding from grief we lose out on the great gifts that this natural and healthy process has to offer.
Is There a Timeline to Grief?
The acute grieving process often unfolds within a 3-6 month period. This is a time where you may have great difficulty with everyday tasks and may need to take time away from certain obligations. However, this does not mean the process is over after 6 months. In my practice I find that the grieving process for something like the death of a very close loved one often takes 1-2 years, with the regular revisiting of intense feelings in cycles and on anniversaries and important dates.
Sometimes however, the grieving process becomes stuck, which is then called complex grief. This blockage in the grieving process may result from a lack of adequate support or any number of complicating factors, such as a difficult and confusing relationship with the person that has been lost. If you find yourself struggling with the grieving process and feeling very overwhelmed or strangely numb and disconnected for long periods of time, a therapist who specializes in grief can be very helpful in supporting this natural process unfold.
What I Have Learned Through Loss
When I was 17 my mother went into end stage kidney failure. This was the beginning of a 9 year struggle that ultimately ended in her passing away. During those 9 years there were many losses along the way as her mental function deteriorated and I found myself becoming a parent to my own mother.
Through this protracted experience with grief and loss I slowly came to understand that the gifts of grief can only be harvested by allowing myself to go to the heart of the most difficult feelings and truly experiencing the pain to its depth. I have found that if the heart of the pain can be touched then the heart opens. Though I may forget this and struggle again and again against the tides of grief, I always find that by being willing to face the loss and let the grieving process unfold that I am transformed and healed. This is far easier said than done, though it can be done. And not only can it be done, but it wants to happen if we simply allow it. Grief pulls you through the pain and hurt like a wild river to brighter shore.
What is Grief?
I like to think of grief as both a totally ordinary and utterly sacred thing. It is ordinary because everyone’s heart has been hurt and everyone’s love wounded. We all know this experience. The sacred shows up in how grief teaches us that the heart can never truly be broken. Our hearts feel the pain of loss, and at times it feels as if it will break, but our capacity for feeling deeply is far greater than we thought and in choosing to feel the pain we learn that it is ok to allow our heart to be “broken” and that in the cracking there arises room for so much more love.
Grief can be seen as one side of a coin, where the other is love. Without love there is no grief. You can see this relationship between love and grief at work when you see that to the degree that you loved something or someone you experience the same intensity of grief when it is lost. This is the real gift of grief; it’s ability to show us how much we have loved and to expand that capacity even more. Grief is one of the most incredible doorways into the heart and into what is true and real for every human.
Helping the Grief Process Along
Though we may aspire to bravely follow the grieving process as it unfolds, walking the path of grief is always full of twists and turns and requires great trust and faith to keep going when the going gets rough. Along the way it can be very helpful to both have a guide as well as helpful tools at your disposal that support your grieving process.
The Tibetan Buddhist practice of Tonglen is a very powerful tool used in shifting one’s relationship to pain and suffering. Most people’s reaction to pain and suffering is one of aversion and avoidance. However, in Tonglen you get the chance to practice being with suffering, holding it kindly with compassion, and allowing it to transform.
Here are instructions for Tonglen practice. Remember to start slow with the little losses.
- Find a comfortable place to site on the floor or a chair.
- Take a moment to simply sit and notice your breath.
- Now breath in and imagine you are at the same time breathing in and welcoming your own suffering into your heart. Notice of this energy has a shape, color, texture etc.
- When the suffering enters imagine transforming it into light, love, or whatever you may need in that moment. Again, notice the color, shape, etc of this transformed energy.
- On the outbreath send that feeling of light, love, compassion, back to yourself. Really imagine it entering areas of pain in your body and spreading a soothing balm throughout.
- Do this for 5-10 minutes and allow whatever feelings that may arise to simply be, without judgment.
- You can eventually expand to breathing in the pain and suffering of a friend, or even a group of people, and breathing out whatever form of compassion may be needed.
This process of embracing pain and suffering, or what we often perceive as “bad,” and freely giving our love, can be quite powerful. Practicing Tonglen over the years has helped me to learn how to be with my own painful feelings and to embrace instead of ignore them. In doing so I have in moments been utterly transformed and suddenly found myself able to let go of a great weight on my shoulders and in the midst of the pain experience great joy and peace.
Who we are, why we are here, and what happens after our body dies are essential human mysteries that connect us all and it is often loss that points us back towards these questions once again. Fully experiencing our grief helps us find greater and greater capacity for compassion because in grieving we connect with an essential part of the human experience and what it means to have loved and lost.
Letting Go Everyday
Though everyone will experience great loss in their lives, it is also important to remember that things come and go everyday and we can practice for these big losses by honoring the little ones. If we look carefully we find that everything is constantly in motion and that nothing is permanent. Jobs come and go, lovers come and go, children grow up, your favorite TV show will be canceled, and even your morning coffee ritual will soon have to give way to going to work. The present moment and all the feelings that may arise there are fluid and ever changing. This inherent impermanence can be difficult to face because it means constantly letting go of what is to make room for what will be, but it is also a blessing. Can you imagine if something in your life was permanent, if for instance you had to put up with your cranky co-worker complaining about something unimportant for all eternity? That would truly be something to worry about.
Luckily we don’t have to worry about this because impermanence seems to be a law of nature; it is as the saying goes, “the only thing that doesn’t change is change itself.” So, if this is true then why not practice letting go everyday? Letting go and being with whatever emotions arise in the act of letting go, are essential to the grieving process. Each time you notice your reaction to a small loss, say your partner not living up to your expectations, try and examine your response to this. Do you lash out in anger? Do you shut down and get depressed? Start by simply observing your reaction to loss. Then slowly begin to introduce a curiosity about your reaction and even practicing pausing before you react in a habitual way and taking some time to allow yourself to feel the feelings that arise without acting out. If you watch closely you will notice that the feelings are in motion and transform quickly. If you have a few minutes this can be a good time to practice Tonglen, to breath in your suffering or the suffering of another, hold it with compassion, and allow it to be transformed.
As you practice grieving the little losses you will become familiar with grief itself and not so scared of the intense feelings when a large loss occurs. As you are increasingly able to embrace your own grief, and lovingly hold the small losses and face the “mini deaths,” the more you are able to live fully in each moment, knowing that nothing is yours forever and that the more you can let go the more you can love.