Transformative Grief

Grief is our natural emotional response to a loss of something or someone with which or with whom we had a bond. We grieve when someone we love passes. We grieve when we are separated from someone important to us or from a job that is no longer ours or from a lifestyle in which we can no longer participate perhaps due to illness or misfortune.

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Grief is one of the five emotions (the others being joy/sadness, worry, fear, and anger) described by the ancient Chinese Five Element Theory. Grieving is a process; it moves like the seasons, like summer into autumn. Summer’s creative action culminates with the harvest while autumn’s energy strips the leaves from the trees and makes everything bare. The leaves fall to the earth giving nourishment for new growth in the spring. Grief moves like the active energy of summer falling away into the inward-turning and letting go of autumn.

Grief’s living forward energy cleanses and purifies as it distills creative, active bonds into their essence, this most precious thing that carries us forward with natural resilience to new creative action. Just like the resilience of nature as it sprouts, blooms, and withers in continuous cycle. S. A. Berger, in his 2009 book Five Ways We Grieve, identifies four paths of creative action which may come from grieving.  These include preserving the memory of the loved one or lost thing, recreating a sense of family or community, helping others dealing with the same illness or issue of the loved one or lost bond, and creating meaning through religion, philosophy, or spiritual quest. In each of these there is a life-forward movement. Think of the grieving parents of a young Leland Stanford Jr. who after losing him to typhoid fever when he was only 15 decided that because they could not do any longer for their own son that they would do for the children of California. Out of this they built Stanford University, now one of the world’s most prestigious. Think of those who have rebuilt families after losing one of their own to war, illness or accident or towns that after losing many of their inhabitants to earthquake, tornado, or flood have built again never losing the memory from which they have come. Think of those who through the grieving process have given themselves to healing others, providing solace, or seeking the spiritual–reaching out, touching, transforming suffering into the sweetness of the moment.

Grieving is not all sadness. It can also bring forth moments of delight and laughter when we remember something joyous, something funny, something wonderful about our loved one or loss. I remember a family story about my father’s remembering his Aunt Bertha after her death.  The story goes that Aunt Bertha was a no nonsense women, who worked in an airplane factory as a welder during the war. Once at the dinner table, and much to my father’s delight, she took a big piece of cherry pie even though she had not yet finished her meal.  When my grandmother, her sister, admonished her  she matter-of-factly said, “You never know if there will be any left the next time round. I’ll just have mine now.” The story then goes that my father, grieving the loss of his dear aunt, laughed so hard telling this story that tears came to his eyes, happy tears for his Aunt Bertha.

What happens when grief gets stuck? Unable to process, to transform, it hunkers down. Its energy unable to move becomes oppressive rendering us unable to function. We may become lost in sadness or depressed for a prolonged period of time. Or, we may disassociate from our grief. Unable to sense it in our bodies we think it isn’t there. Perhaps we hold a belief that grieving is just something we don’t do, that we just have to get on with life, so we push it away.  Or, we exile it because another part of us thinks that it’s too much to bear. But, it isn’t. There is room for all to come.

When we allow our grief to come to us like autumn comes in nature, when we are present with it, acknowledge it, keep it company, and sit with it with interest and curiosity, it will show us its life-forward energy and we will be transformed.

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