“Grief changes us. The pain sculpts us into someone who understands more deeply, hurts more often, appreciates more quickly, cries more easily, hopes more desperately, loves more openly.” —Author Unknown
Grief is a beast.
It’s a beast I know well. Despite our intimate relationship, it refuses to befriend me. I’ve learned to accept that this is just how it is. Grief is not the BFF type. Instead, it’s a formidable teacher designed to inspire wholeness through wisdom, purpose, compassion, and love – but not without a whole lot of pain first.
Grief is relentless in its desire to awaken. It repeatedly exposes the permanence of impermanence, and therein lies the pain. Just when I think I’ve mastered non-attachment, I’m flattened by my humanity once again.
Grief has a way of wearing me down and stopping me in my tracks – a total inertia – longing for what I once knew as reality – grasping for answers that never appear. It cripples me with its unpredictable nature, reducing me to a puddle of tears as my heart desperately aches for the physical love I once knew. There are days when I have bandwidth for little more than tears, sleep, and more tears.
In grief I feel spaced out, agitated, angry, disoriented, ungrounded, claustrophobic, lost, broken…often a little crazy. What I once knew as “my world” has been permanently altered. Who I knew myself to be, is no more. What was once my “normal” is gone. Forever. It’s a heavy burden to bear. I’m vulnerable, lost in the fog of my own confusion.
This is not who I a … and yet it is. I’m a lover, which means I’m a griever – opposite sides of the same coin. I love, love. I can’t say that I feel the same way about grief however. In times of grief, I’m grateful for the times in my life when the beast is not such a dominant force. As much as grief hurts, I’m grateful for my willingness to allow its humbling presence into my life. For me, there can be no other way. Grief can be an excuse to resign from life or it can be used to re-design life. I choose the latter.
In the past two months, I’ve said goodbye to two of the most beautiful beings to grace my life. On November 30, 2014, my canine soul mate Jessie left the physical world. On January 16, 2015, Lucy, the most inspiring soul in the bodysuit of a cat also left the physical world. Within six short weeks, my partner and I buried two significant family members—our children—gone. Their souls may be free, but the vacancy left behind is unbearable. It’s surreal.
Of course it all transpired at at time of year when memories of loss are in the forefront of my consciousness. January 28 marked the 5 year anniversary of my mother’s premature departure from this world. When it rains, it pours. In my world that means tears—lots of them.
I’m the type of person who turns inward with my pain—seeking solitude—withdrawing from the world to be present with the pain in my heart. I don’t run from pain, I run into it. I don’t numb it with drugs or alcohol. I am fully present with it all, even when it sucks the life out of me. I know the only way to heal is to feel everything for as long as it takes. I find it tragic that there are so few who understand this. I know that the external world will not support me, but my soul will never let me down.
In our pain phobic culture, we’ve collectively lost our connection to love, truth, and each another. Ironically, it is our denial of pain that traps us in addiction, anxiety, fear, depression, and a steady-state of low-grade unease. The emotional immaturity at the root of this disconnect reveals itself with clarity with the things we say to one another during painful times.
I’ve experienced a lot of loss in my life which means I’ve been on the receiving end of many different words—allegedly to make me feel better. Perhaps these offerings are well meaning, but in a pain phobic, emotionally immature culture, they just don’t cut it. Well meaning is a form of “faux compassion” that causes more harm than good. Pain is a natural part of life. When we embrace this simple fact, we’re inspired to live more fully and love more openly. We also mature in a way that allows us to be present with pain in a way that reveals the deepest compassion in our hearts: for ourselves and for others.
With the recent events in my life, I’ve been inspired to write this post about the things that people say that just don’t work (and yes, I’ve been on the receiving end of all of it). From the rolodex of antiquated clichés, what follows is a list of offerings that harm and offerings that heal.
OFFERINGS THAT HARM:
1. “Everything happens for a reason.”
There’s only one way to describe this cliché: it hurts. At a time when compassion is needed most, this throwaway line provides everything but. Whatever “reason” prompted the upchuck of this tired old cliché, it’s time to discard it. Ditch reason. Choose compassion.
Note: Everything does NOT happen for a reason.
2. “You can always get another dog, cat, bird, etc.”
This is the ultimate statement of ignorance for anyone who is grieving an animal companion. It is callous and insensitive. This trivialization of life is at the root of everything that separates us from love. How tragic that we live in a culture that diminishes the sacredness of life. Toasters are replaceable. Life is not.
Every living being has it’s own unique energetic fingerprint (soul). This energy imprints itself on our hearts. It makes no difference whether the energetic fingerprint is human or non-human. Every living being incarnates to live and love in a way that is unique for that soul. When we love a soul and it no longer animates flesh, we grieve the absence.
By identifying with archaic beliefs that devalue life, we perpetuate the separation that ensures that we will never live in peace with one another.
Do not ever say these words. This callous lack of compassion creates more anguish, pain, and a whole lot of resentment.
3. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
This hackneyed old saying elicits nothing but pain. I’ve not met one person who feels understood with this response and quite frankly, it causes a divide between the giver and the receiver. The words are mechanical and show a profound lack of caring. Enough.
4. “At least she/he didn’t suffer.”
Perhaps that’s the case but I’m suffering, and these words just cause more suffering. Where’s the compassion?
5. “She’s still around you. She never leaves you know.”
I don’t deny that there may be truth to this statement, but here’s the deal, I want to hug her, kiss her, feel her, and look directly into her beautiful loving eyes and tell her how much I love her…and I can’t. Her body is dead. The force that animated that body is somewhere else and I no longer have access to what I once had. I ache for her. This sad attempt to pacify my grief only highlights what I no longer have.
6. “She lived a long life and is in a better place now.”
This one is usually spoken with the conviction of an afterlife authority. We live in a death phobic culture – a serious spiritual flaw. How can anyone with this spiritual limitation expound such certainty that she’s “in a better place now”? There’s another problem too. Is this “better place” better than here with me right now? Is this supposed to make me feel better when I ache so desperately to just hold her one more time?
Unless you’re a self-realized enlightened being, don’t touch this one.
7. “Now she’s with all of her friends.”
This one runs along the same lines as #6. It’s an awkward attempt to pacify the pain with an illusory story about what we know nothing about. Don’t bother.
8. “I know exactly how you feel. When I lost so and so…(blah, blah, blah…)”
To which I respond: “I’m in pain. I don’t want to hear your stories of loss right now. You don’t know how I feel because you’re not me and you didn’t have the relationship that I had. The end.”
Comparison based responses are isolating, subliminally competitive, and show a profound lack of compassion. Making another’s grief about oneself is selfish and robs the griever of their dignity. Comparison minimize loss and is just plain hurtful. At a time when caring and connection is needed most, the blade of comparison cuts deep. Ouch!
9. “Time heals all wounds”
Grief changes shape, but it never ends. – Keanu Reeves
Let me clear this one up once and for all. Time does not heal wounds. The pain does not go away. Instead, we learn to live with it by accepting that loss is an integral part of life. Loss is forever and memories fade. Love is the changeless constant. The gut wrenching gaping wound will soften over time, but the pain of missing never leaves. In many cases the wound gets worse over time long before there’s any indication of improvement. There are many layers to grief and rebuilding life after loss is often a lengthy process that requires an abundant supply of compassion.
Disclaimer: Not all wounds heal, no matter how much time passes.
10. “You’ve got to be happy. Embrace all of the memories and move on.”
My response: “Let me tell you how I’ve got to be. I’ve got to be me and if me happens to ache from what I no longer have, then I honor that. If me happens to break down into heaving sobs because I cannot bear the pain, then I honor that. I don’t have to be anything except authentically me – moment by moment by moment.”
I refuse to conform to a false persona for others to feel more comfortable around my pain. The repercussions of this cultural belief are all around us. The collective denial of grief has caused the masses to choose pills over pain and the results are ugly. I choose the pain so it can lead me towards wholeness. I choose the pain to expand my consciousness. I choose the pain so I can heal completely.
Grief is the result of an injury to our spirits and if we are forced to “be happy and embrace the memories”, odds are, we repress the pain and it ends up hurting us more.
11. “You’re STILL not over it?”
Grief doesn’t have a plot. It isn’t smooth. There is no beginning and middle and end. – Ann Hood
Our quick fix, life-hack obsessed culture of speed has created a population of unfeeling mutants who have lost their capacity to care. Sadly, the repercussions of our lack of caring are easy to identify with the accelerated breakdown of our global civilization.
We were born to feel. There seems to be a collective amnesia around this truth however. Feeling everything that grief offers is what brings us to wholeness.
“Grief is an emotional abyss that swallows us whole. By blocking our experience of that abyss, we block access to the depths of who we really are and the energy that it takes to move us forward.” (Paraphrased from Dr Geoff Warburton’s Ted talk titled “The Adventure of Grief”. See video below).
Time is irrelevant when it comes to healing a broken heart. Grief never leaves. It takes on a different quality over time, but it becomes an integral part of who we are. If we “get over grief”, we get over love. Observing the state of today’s world, it’s obvious that we need to stay with our pain, shed far more tears, and display a lot more compassion so that we remember what it means to embody love. I would rather stay in my grief for as long as it needs me so that I can love more expansively when the clouds begin to part.
Do not impose a timeline on healing. There is no timeline for grief. Grief is a process to be honored, not an event to be rushed.
In the end, the canned cliché’s we say to those who grieve are better left unsaid.
Here’s the reality with grief: nothing will make the pain go away. Nothing will make a griever feel better. With that in mind, all attempts to pacify or fix the pain are useless. If you really care about someone in pain, here’s what works.
OFFERINGS THAT HEAL:
1. A hug.
I was at the pool the other day preparing to swim when a friend I hadn’t seen for a while entered the locker room. She asked how I was. I told her. She looked at me with pure compassion in her eyes and asked if she could give me a hug. I graciously accepted. We held one another in silence as tears streamed down my face. No words were needed. The acknowledgement of my pain combined with her pure presence were the greatest gifts of all.
Instead of worrying about what to say to someone in pain, just listen to what they have to say. No stories, opinions, judgements, or advice. What pain needs is presence: from ourselves by not running away from it, and from others who accept us exactly where we are.
As you can see, there’s a repetitive theme here.
One of my dear friends on the other side of the country sent me the following words in a recent email:
“I am in tears. With you for your loss. I wish I could come for the day and just sit and be with you. Share space in silence and be with the loss. For now, I will do it from here. Sending you love, light and immense gratitude.”
I cried when I read those words. I felt seen, heard, validated, and understood. Her willingness to be present with my pain softened it in those beautiful moments.
If you feel uncomfortable because you don’t know what to say or do, just say so. Speak your truth. Through your honesty we can be present together with what is real for each of us. This is what compassion is all about.
Last week an email arrived from a wonderful friend who rhymed off the silly antics of my departed animal companions. My sisters and I shared emails this week with enjoyable memories about our mother. We honored both the losses and their lives. As a culture, we often avoid speaking about the dead because we think that it will cause more pain. It’s actually the opposite. Sharing memories is a beautiful way to connect with those we’ve lost as well as with one another.
6. Three words: “I love you”.
There’s nothing more powerful than these three words to heal absolutely anything. An open heart is the greatest gift of all.
Ultimately, the more comfortable you are with your own feelings around pain, death, and grief, the more supportive you can be for others. Can you hold space and be present in the pain of another? Can you accept someone when they hurt? Can you love someone exactly as they are without trying to change what is authentic in each moment? Can you be understanding with kindness and grace?
Love, acceptance, compassion, and presence – these are the offerings that heal. This is who we authentically are at our core. When we act from our hearts, we step into love, and we express the healer from within.