From theologian Henri Nouwen: “Every very time we make the decision to love someone, we open ourselves to great suffering, because those we most love cause us not only great joy but also great pain. The greatest pain comes from leaving … the pain of the leaving can tear us apart … Still, if we want to avoid the suffering of leaving, we will never experience the joy of loving. And love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair. We have to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking.”
The above quote clearly shows that love and grief do not, and cannot, exist independently of each other. There’s no love without loss, and one cannot make sense of loss without the experience of grief. Because most people cherish their relationships and have an intense capacity for love, when love is transformed into grief, it has a significant impact that is sometimes hard to fathom. This article aims to help you better understand the grieving process, as it is something we all experience if we live long enough.
Any time we grieve, a host of reactions can be triggered. You might notice feeling physically drained, a change in your appetite or sleep, anger, sadness, feeling nothing at all, having a hard time concentrating, not wanting to do anything, and so much more. To complicate things further, there can be a cumulative effect to grief. This means that whenever we experience a personal loss, the scars from our previous loses can be reopened. Whether from one or multiple losses, intense reactions to loss often demand your attention — and though the intensity may gradually decrease, your reactions may continue to interfere with managing everyday tasks.
Though the intensity of grief diminishes over time, it’s possible for your grief reactions to be reawakened by places, events, people, sounds, smells or images that remind you of your loss. It’s possible that your world may seem like an almost constant reminder of the absence you’re facing. Should this happen, you may feel like you’ve gone back to the days when the loss that you suffered was new and completely overwhelming. Triggers hurt because they highlight the loneliness or void you feel. Despite the pain that accompanies them, however, triggers can also be viewed as reminders that we’re meant to be with others. Grief reminds us of the almost inherent necessity of human relationships and how important they are to our lives.
Because of this importance to all of us, relationships can often be the best fuel for giving you endurance to cope with grief. As such, it’s crucial to surround yourself with supportive, understanding people while going through this experience. With good friends and family, it’s more likely that you will not run from nor dwell in your pain, but rather trust that you’re able to travel through it to put the pieces of your life back together in a way that reflects your goals and values. The key to doing this successfully is to turn nothing away; welcome any and all of your grief reactions. Through this type of acceptance, we learn that our attitude toward the world can change, as well as how we approach our distress. This type of acceptance teaches us that the best way to overcome a perceived threat is not to look for ways to ward it off, but to change our relationship to it.
The simple act of sitting down, focusing on your breath, paying attention to your thoughts and emotions (both pleasant and unpleasant), and paying particular attention to your distractions sows the seeds of “radical acceptance.” Guess what? Despite having disturbing thoughts and feelings, as uncomfortable as they may be, you are still breathing. You are OK. Full awareness of your patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviors, especially in grief, can take you from living with misery, fear and dissatisfaction to living with openness and engagement.
If you can come to understand grief as an extension of love, you’ll see there’s nothing wrong with grieving. Rather than pointing out weakness, grief serves to highlight the depth of our capacity to love and to be loved. Ultimately, grief teaches everyone the same lesson: Value the relationships, experiences and time you have in this present moment. This lesson is also the core of mindfulness. By practicing mindfulness, you can experience grief as a purposeful, meaningful journey. To honor your grief is not self-destructive or harmful, it is life-sustaining and life-giving. It ultimately leads you back to love again. In this way, love is both the cause and the cure.
Even though we may not be able to avoid triggers of grief, the radical acceptance we can learn through the practice of mindfulness can dispel some of the suffering that accompanies it. By changing your attitude toward suffering from one of confrontation or avoidance to one of acceptance, you can soften the sharp edge of the pain.
The experience of grief impacts people in so many ways. If it is impacting you, and you would like support in learning how to manage your experience differently, please contact the Psychological Services Bureau at (213) 738-3500 to schedule an appointment. Appointments and all consultations are confidential. To obtain additional information, visit our intranet site (http://intranet/intranet/ESS/Index.htm).