He not busy being born is busy dying - Bob Dylan
Death, separation, and loss are part and parcel of living and loving. Beginning and endings are always simultaneous natural occurrences. Every forest is a dynamic chaos of dead trees, plants, and creatures, alongside tiny new buds, births, and bursts of aliveness. To face dying may be what it means to be fully alive, may in fact, be the central spiritual task of being humans who know with absolute certainty that each birth will end in the ultimate loss of life. Birth itself engenders loss as we are exiled from the safe self-feeding womb into a world presenting a continuum of losses, beginnings, and endings, accompanied by various degrees of grief, sorrow and letting go of grief and sorrow, individually, interpersonally and collectively.
Most recently, we have endured large scale communal losses, on the global scale, a pandemic eradicating our life of the ‘before times,” and for many; the lives of loved ones, while the whole of humanity must confront the staggering enormity of fifteen million dead so far. Last week we were assaulted by the the slaughter of innocent children in a Texas school and before that, shoppers in a Buffalo supermarket targeted and murdered for their skin color, with so many other senseless shootings and violent acts against innocents in the US preceding that. This alongside daily perpetration of war crimes depicted in photos from Ukraine is much to endure. Also last week our very own FTH community was stunned by a very personal loss in the death of 32 year therapist, David Reichman, who made it to the finish line in the Brooklyn half marathon and then lost his life.
Even in the face of such horrific losses, we humans tend to power on. Life requires us to show up and this is quite natural despite these shocks to the system. We are there for family, friends, jobs, obligations, facing each day with choice; to succumb to grief or despair or engage in the tasks of living. Some bodies cannot bear the grief and will fall, as we saw Joe Garcia in Uvalde, Texas die of a heart attack within hours of his wife’s slaughter in the shooting, his heart literally broken by the loss. Most people do however, summon the will to get up the next day, brush their teeth, pour a cup of coffee, make breakfast for someone else, show up for a memorial and eventually go back to work. And someday they will smile again.
How do we do this? What are the forces of mind, body, spirit which enable us to harness this kind of resilience? What are the internal and also, external resources we might access that enable us to keep on keeping on, even in the face of such grief? And what is the toll to the soul when we fall short of our own self-care, fail to access the support we need to process, manage, and heal? In other words, what does it mean to properly care for grief, to ensure as we would in a flesh wound, the best possible chances for healing?
Caring for Grief
The psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kubler Ross, writing about death, delineated five stages through which we process loss as, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. In 1969 she posited that the successful resolution of each stage was necessary to reach the final stage of acceptance; however, these stages are now viewed as overlapping and non-linear in their progression, so that we might experience any of these reactions in response to loss at any time. From this perspective, what matters is not resolving stages of grief reaction in a particular order, but how we manage the plethora of feelings in response to loss.
From most contemporary psychological, psychodynamic, and existential perspectives, we are emotionally, psychologically, and spiritual healthiest when we allow our feelings to surface as they are, acknowledging and accepting them with kindness and self-compassion so that whatever we are feeling is integrated within mind, body and spirit. For emotional health to thrive we need community, the company of loved ones, spiritual groups, and in some cases, a trained psychotherapist to support the range of feelings, reactions, memories which may arise.
The good news is that processing grief requires an opening of our hearts, an expansion of our souls, a deeper connection to the self and can engender an enriched perspective on living. If we can recognize the natural interconnectedness of all beings and processes, the bookends of life – including life and death and love and heartbreak – we can open ourselves more fully to the experience of grieving. As the poet David Whyte says, “You cannot love without experiencing heartbreak.” If we understand this, we recognize that when we open ourselves to love, we are also opening to heartbreak. It is this very opening whether to love or to the pain of losing love, which is the source of healing. While this prescription for healing may appear straightforward it is so very difficult to practice. Why is that?
Open to Heartbreak
One initial hurdle is that our evolutionary instinct is to resist danger as we are naturally wired towards fight, flight, or freeze. That means that when something terrible happens our instinct is to attack (or deny), run from or block ourselves off. This is why some victims of trauma dissociate from and cannot recall the event. We deny our own access to the feelings to protect ourselves from being overwhelmed but the consequence is that we deprive ourselves of the capacity to process and manage loss and grief. The result is that instead of managing the feeling, it takes root, subsequently controlling our bodies, our actions, and our lives. We become reactive. Processing grief in a way that generates healing requires however, the exact opposite. That is, we need to recognize and be open to allowing these feelings to be fully absorbed, not to resist or fight them, so that they may be processed
Knowing this can help us be preventative so that we are mindful in noticing, accepting and even embracing our pain, our sorrow, our anger, rather than allowing our instinctive defensive pattern to block or flee. Processing loss and grief requires courage. It is the best and perhaps only way to prevent long term suffering or debilitation, as Carl Jung posed “the source of all of our suffering are the unfaced and unfelt parts of the psyche.” We must feel the pain, to allow for the healing. It is hard however, to bear deep pain alone, and this is one reason to seek support and to access professional help, especially in cases of severe trauma and vulnerability, where feelings, reactions and memories are experienced as dangerous. The processing of deep grief requires guided access to those feelings, compassionate support which facilitates self-compassion, nurturance, and a sense of being safely held, among other things.
Building on Top to Move Forward
If we then subscribe to the simple truth that the pathway towards healing from loss involves awareness and allowing challenging feelings to surface and be processed, what then is the best way forward?
First, we must recognize the uniqueness of each person’s trauma, experience, strengths and limitations within a systemic context of family, friends, community, environment, culture, race, religion, ethnicity etc. These are all deep aspects of our human interdependence in the world and merit significant attention. Alongside all of these considerations, we hold the premise that readiness to manage the pain has no set timeline and is entirely individualized, so that every bereaved person knows best what they are ready to lean into and when as well as what they might need to psychologically keep at bay at any particular time. There is no standard timeline for grieving loss.
Second, grief is best managed in the presence of an “other “or “others” insofar as witnesses to the grief and connection to other beings serve as an antidote to loss and separation. We see this happening organically over and over again, as traumatized communities turn to group prayer, memorials, rituals and markers and other forms of communal engagement and mourning processes. Community provides a space in which sorrow is held by the collective allowing for the feelings of missing and mourning what was lost and which can transform sorrow. Indeed, we can “transform,” sorrow, however, we do not actually fully “recover,” from all losses. Time does heal insofar as the initial excruciating pain of loss may be softened, but we don’t actually “recover” from loss. It is perhaps more accurate to suggest that we build on top of our losses, renewing our lives on top of what has occurred. If we can recognize and compassionately accept what has happened and what is, we can open to the paradox of living in a world bookended by Spring and Winter with a deepened connection to ourselves and to others throughout our living, loving, losing, grieving lives.