by Lara Liesma Wolff
"The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give."
– Francis Weller
Our Western culture has a way of valuing time, efficiency, and independence. We create schedules and timetables; we plan and fix. We multitask and we tidy up. We “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” and honor the hero and heroine on their fierce, solo journeys. We distract ourselves and avoid difficult matters compulsively. Growing up in this culture, we all absorb these messages, even if we now, individually, hold different values. So when we experience a great loss, like that of a loved one, we reach for the models we know.
Unfortunately, grief doesn’t behave within these boundaries. It is most definitely not tidy. When we ignore grief, it waits for us around the corner, when we’re out to dinner with a friend, when we’re grocery shopping, or at our desk at work. We cannot give ourselves a specific timeframe by which we expect to be “normal” again. If we have loved, we will grieve.
Grief is unpredictable, and since every person’s experience of it is different, and every loss is different, there are no clear step-by-step guidelines for working with grief. You may have a few good hours or even a good day, but then you’ll wake up the next morning unable to get out of bed, hit by waves of crying or despair. Grief challenges our need to control and fix. We cannot control grief, but we can learn how to manage it with tools and support.
Mindfulness is one of these tools. Being able to be aware of what is and to accept what is without judgment, to hold our seats, is the magic of mindfulness. We can choose to be curious about our experience, to notice how we may be feeling separate from the world around us as if under water, or like we’ve been punched in the gut. We’ll be able to notice when our minds feel jumbled or foggy or if we have difficulty breathing. When we notice these things, we can remember this is normal, this is natural, and we can allow for our difficult feelings, being present with gentleness, understanding, and self-compassion. Grief needs our attention. By giving ourselves short periods of time to think about the person we lost, we process their absence and we reflect and experience the emotions that surface.
Due to our cultural preferences for distraction and avoidance, we’re also asked, and sometimes forced, to carry grief as a solitary burden. In many traditional cultures, there are observances, traditions, and rituals to help the grieving – it was a community value. So another helpful tool is to be seen in our grief by others. Often the messages we feel from others or even tell ourselves is “Get over it. Get back to work!” If we’re lucky, we might get a week of bereavement time at work, at best, and then be expected to carry on as normal.
If we have adequate companionship in our sorrow as well as periods of solitude with our grief, it will transform into a tender melancholy. Seeing our experience valued and reflected back to us in others helps us process and normalize our pain without shame. Being with grief and experiencing our emotions is hard work but deeply important for both our physical and mental health. Grief carries many big lessons – once we’re able to stay with our own pain and sorrow, we’re better equipped to stay with others’ pain and to also respond to the suffering in the world.