Each week as I seek out topics to write on, I find that as I move around my life, certain themes take on a certain three dimensional quality. The sign posts come in the shape of anything from phone calls, films, incidents and all manner of interactions with friends and strangers. It feels like a fun and mysterious game as I watch the pattern emerge. For the last 3 weeks however, I have watched and watched and I have seen the pattern, but I haven’t wanted to. I have turned away, hoping that something else would surface. 3 weeks ago I said to a friend, “The next one is on grief.” 3 weeks went by, and not a word was written. The problem with that kind of resistance I have discovered, is that I cannot write around a thing that wants to be written. I'm either writing the thing, or I'm writing nothing.
So you could say that death has been following me for almost a month now. It has come in the shape of imminent death, actual death, the death of eras, dreams, relationships, youth, time, old beliefs, denial and pet fish. And in lieu of my transcendence into a full acceptance of the transient nature of all things, it hurts, a reality that for me at least in this incarnation, appears to be of greater importance for me to accept. I am in short learning, that there is no true detachment without first having learned to fully and wholeheartedly attach, along with all of the vulnerability that authentic attachment requires. Because only when one is wholeheartedly attached does the inevitable loss become meaningful, and by association, painful.
Carl Jung said, “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” I later heard his quote translated as, “All mental illness is ungrieved loss,” which struck a deeper chord with me. Because by the time I came to ask myself the question ‘What is grief?’ I was in a state of almost constant anxiety and depression, and I had noticed that my anxiety, depression and inability to focus had increased in direct proportion with my having shut down my innate need to grieve. It seemed clear to me that I had been grieving on and off for most of my life in ever decreasing circles, but that now in my late 20's, I no longer grieved anything. I just got up and got on with it. I pulled up my bootstraps, I shrugged it off, I soldiered on and powered through. I spun every disappointment, loss and hurt into something positive, believing it to be a sign of strength, and yet I had never felt so fragile and afraid in my life. And I was becoming more and more afraid of my feelings, because while my positivity and powering through technique was telling me I was winning over my supposedly negative feelings, what was in fact happening was that my feelings were being bypassed and stuffed. And the backlog was getting bigger and bigger, and so my work to keep the dam from bursting and taking me out became more and more frantic. Cue panic attacks, loss of focus, fears of losing control, a need for order and togetherness, or a perpetual state of numb.
And because feelings live in the body, my body had to be controlled through food, adrenaline, productivity and activities. Or I had to ensure that I stayed in my head, compulsively thinking, analyzing, problem solving, intellectualizing, or further north still where I could be perpetually ‘spiritual.’ Anything to stay out of the body in a relaxed, surrendered state, where that reservoir of ungrieved loss was building. Hence the overload of the mind, creating depression and anxiety amongst other problems. And sometimes an overload on the body which I was over working or dieting or exercising or stuffing in order to keep it busy and controlled. I hoped beyond hope that there was a way to bypass what hadn’t been grieved, but it was of course not to be.
So when I began the long and terrifying journey back into my body and that reservoir, for a long time I felt much, much worse. This is when I discovered the Carl Jung quote, which normalized and made sense of my experience. And it helped, because I discovered that for the most part, society saw my experience as being abnormal. My coping mechanisms which would have lead me to being a thin, highly educated, super achieving workaholic were applauded. Not only that, but I was learning to esteem myself for managing to repress and control my feelings. Grief does not make for impressive resumes or Facebook posts. It does not allow for workaholism or emotional neatness. So I kept quiet about my process, because I wanted to go through it and I believed in it. I didn’t want to be medicated or labelled with a condition, or given a deadline. I intuitively knew what was happening despite the insistence of my self doubt. And every time I wanted to give up, I was sent encouragement. Pema Chodron telling me to 'Lean into the sharp edges,' or an introduction to Tonglen meditation practice where I was encouraged to breathe into pain rather than trying to transcend or fix it.
And the more I meditated, the stronger my capacity to inwardly break became. I practiced yoga, I hiked, I talked, I wrote, and I meditated some more. And I cried and raged and cried some more. And every time I came to the end of another cycle, my experience was more deeply validated. Because my anxiety and depression lifted, my thoughts slowed down and became quieter, more gentle, and more compassionate, until one day, I would start to feel that familiar feeling of anger or frustration and I would know, as if an old friend had come calling, that I was embarking on another layer of grief that would ultimately come to free me more deeply again.
Experts are now describing 7 stages of grief, but when I first started exploring the process a couple of decades ago, as far as I could tell we were still on 5. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I like the 7 stage model, but for the sake of familiarity I’ll stick with the 5.
Denial, a no-brainer, but I have learned a powerfully necessary part of our psyche. Without it we would overload. And there is no way to know when or if it is necessary for another person’s denial to break. We can only ever know that truth for our own denial, because only we know when we are ready to really know a thing that will at some level break us to be made new. Only we know when we are strong enough and ready to break. Denial I have also learned is not the absence of information. It is, at least for me, the unreadiness for information. Because you can yell the truth into the face of a person in denial as much as you like, but until they are ready to really know it, which is not I believe an issue of intellect, they cannot and will not receive it. Their mind is lovingly protecting them from something they do not yet have the tools or the strength to hold.
So my first and most difficult lesson was to learn to allow myself to be angry. Because anger I learned, like any feeling, only becomes dark and out of control when it is denied and repressed. Learning to experience anger in a healthy and appropriate way has been a journey, to say nothing of dealing with the back log of repressed anger that seemed to have a life of its own. But I learned that if I couldn’t be angry, I couldn’t grieve, because I would become eternally stuck between the denial and anger phase. If I couldn’t feel the anger all the way through, there was only one way to go and that was backwards into denial where the anger would need to become stronger and more powerful in order to break through my resistance the next time. We don’t get to skip a phase of grief because we don’t like it. And the anger we feel during a grieving period is often not rational, and yet I have also discovered that it needs to be given permission to be irrational, just so long as it’s taken to the right person or place to be expressed. Anger met with judgement, shame, denial or resistance becomes volatile, explosive, dark, passive and often cruelly punishing, which is not its natural state. This is when it gets stuck and becomes resentment, an exhaustingly repetitive energy which plays havoc with our physical and mental health. My experience of anger contained in a safe, non-judgemental and welcoming space, is that it simply runs like a powerful river of energy until it is done. Nothing happens, it just flows and allows us to move on.
And so to bargaining. And frankly, I’ll take any phase of the process over this one. This one is just the worst, because it’s where the resistance is urgent, fearful, compulsive and crazy making. This is where we try to undo what cannot be undone. Where we fight what is, try to turn back clocks, try to replace the lost loved one, or pretend it’s ok that they’re gone. Or perhaps we fight for something that doesn’t work, or try to recapture or cling to youth. We pretend it doesn’t matter, we insist that we are powerful where we are powerless, or that we’re above it all, and we come up with hundreds of plans and permutations to make what is, something that it isn’t. And again, we can’t skip it. Even though it’s all crazy, irrational, impossible and exhaustingly frustrating, we have to go through it until we give up, finally beaten, and fall to the floor in defeat. The exhaustion and futility of the bargaining period seems to facilitate surrender in a way that nothing else can. It beats us to a pulp until we become willing to let go at any cost, even if that means having to do what we least of all want to do, which is of course to let go.
So on hands and knees we crawl into the depression phase. My body often feels as if everything inside it has turned to lead durning this phase. I can’t concentrate on anything. Nothing feels good. I don’t know what to eat or what I want to do and decisions are impossible. My creative energy goes to sleep, seemingly dead, never to return. Everything feels exhausting. I feel dead inside, dry, empty, heavy and then after a while I begin to ache, and then the tears come. And the faster I am able to give into it, the sooner I wash up on the shores of acceptance, where everything that ever happened, including my need to experience this particular loss seems perfect. I feel stronger, more powerful, and infinitely more compassionate toward myself and others. I have been changed, and the loss reveals its gift. A deeper capacity for love, trust, wisdom, forgiveness, surrender, or perhaps humility. Whatever it is, my life and I are better for having gone through it.
And grief will come for any kind of loss. From the death of a loved one, to the awareness that you lost a few decades to an untrue belief system, or that you lacked the power or the clarity to make better choices on your own behalf, and are now living the consequences of those misguided choices which led you down a path that was ultimately away from love, health, joy or wellbeing. And while I do believe that there are truly no mistakes, and that all roads lead to Rome, once again, that is only a helpful truth in the acceptance phase. Because while we are always doing the best we can with what we have, sometimes that ‘best’ creates losses or injuries to ourselves and others which is painful, and in a healthy mind and heart, will result in a feeling of remorse or regret. And to truly learn from the misguided belief or the detour that brought us to that place, we must grieve the natural resulting consequences, even if it is only a loss of time, which can often be one of the most painful losses of all.
And in our resistance of this vital and irrational process, we often try to avoid it by rationalizing. “He had a good life,” “She was just old,” “It’s in the natural order of things,” “Plenty more fish in the sea,” “You’ll get another job,” “It was a terrible relationship anyway,” “Good riddance,” and on we go, as if grief was a misunderstanding of the true nature of the circumstances. The rational mind tells our feelings that they’ve got it wrong. That we must only grieve that which is perceived to be a tragedy, something out of the natural order of things, and even then we must put it behind us as quickly as possible, move on with our lives and get back to happy. But this kind of happy almost never contains authentic joy, because in truth is not a state of happiness, it is a state of avoidance.
I once read in an article that we move through the cycle of grief even if we drop a cup on the floor and break it. Denial “Oh no!” Anger “I’m such an idiot,” bargaining “Maybe I could glue it back together, or buy another,” depression “I guess it really is broken. I better sweep it up and and throw it away which is sad because I really liked that cup,” and acceptance “Oh well, it’s ok. It’s a shame, but it’s ok.” Now obviously depending on the cup and its sentimental value, in this case we go through the process quickly and without a great deal of pain. But go through it we do, and we must. Because grief is part of how we process life. If we aren't grieving, we aren't processing, growing or evolving at an emotional level; we’re living in survival mode in an attempt to transcend or bypass the natural cycle of life and the feelings associated with it. Change is certain, we can depend on it. And if that is true, then we are in a constant state of loss. The cycle of all things in nature is death and rebirth, so why should we be any different?
I believe that the greater my capacity to freely and authentically grieve, the greater my capacity and availability to love, because by association my fear of loss will be reduced, liberating anyone or anything that lives in my heart from a need to control them. And I wonder in fact if ultimately transcendence of this process is the absolute acceptance of its necessity, meeting it without resistance or fear, so that the process moves through us so freely that acceptance is at our door almost as soon as the new consciousness comes through after the denial breaks. So that we become so comfortable with the pain of loss and disappointment that it becomes barely a flinch, and death becomes nothing but a gateway to new life.