John Bradshaw used to say that our ability to grieve defines our mental health.
There is a lot of truth in this statement, as grief is the emotional working through of any kind of loss that we may have suffered. And ‘loss’, we all will suffer – losing out on a career opportunity, the loss of one lover to another, the loss of health and function, the unavoidable decline of youth and of course the loss of dear-ones to death, etc.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross talks about the 5 stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
1. Denial and Isolation
The first reaction to learning of terminal illness, death of a cherished loved one or the loss of something important to us, is to deny the reality of the situation. It is a normal reaction to rationalize overwhelming emotions. It is a defense mechanism that buffers the immediate shock. We block out the words and hide from the facts. This is a temporary response that carries us through the first wave of pain. If we do not allow ourselves to face whatever or who-ever we have lost, we would live in a somnambulant state of disassociation, which can lead to depression or madness.
As the masking effects of denial and isolation begin to wear off, reality and its pain re-emerge. We are not ready. The intense emotion is deflected from our vulnerable core, redirected and expressed instead as anger. The anger may be aimed at inanimate objects, complete strangers, friends or family. Anger may be directed at our dying or deceased loved one. Rationally, we know the person is not to be blamed. Emotionally, however, we may resent the person for causing us pain or for leaving us. We feel guilty for being angry and this makes us even angrier. Blame only keeps us stuck in ‘victim consciousness’, full of resentment and contempt for the perceived ‘cause’ of our loss. Instead we need to step away from the easy portioning of blame and turn to face the difficult and painful emotions of loss, even anger and the raging against that which will never return to us, as well as the true tears of a torn heart.
“Remember, grieving is a personal process that has no time limit, nor one ‘right’ way to do it.”
The normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability is often a need to regain control– If only we had sought medical attention sooner… If only we had behaved in a different way… If only we had tried to be a better person toward them… Secretly, we may make a deal with God or our higher power in an attempt to postpone the inevitable. This is a weaker line of defense to protect us from the painful reality.
Two types of depression are associated with mourning. The first one is a reaction to practical implications relating to the loss. Sadness and regret predominate this type of depression. We worry about our previous actions. We worry that, in our grief, we have spent less time with others that depend on us. This phase may be eased by simple clarification and reassurance that we can deal with and learn from our loss. The second type of depression is more subtle and, in a sense, perhaps more private. It is our quiet preparation to separate and to bid farewell to that which we have lost.
Reaching this stage of mourning is a gift not afforded to everyone. Loss may be sudden and unexpected or we may never see beyond our anger or denial. Coping with loss is ultimately a deeply personal and singular experience — nobody can help you go through it more easily or understand all the emotions that you’re going through. But others can be there for you and help comfort you through this process. The best thing you can do is to allow yourself to feel the grief as it comes over you. Only with the courage of facing whatever arises during the journey of grieving can our hearts begin to find acceptance and compassion. As grief starts to fade, inner peace can enter into one’s heart and consciously we can allow acceptance to help us move on. Resisting it will only prolong the natural process of healing.
The HP provides a safe space to help people more fully embrace grief and grieving. Particularly in finding resolution with deceased parents and other family members and friends, if we did not have the opportunity to be with them at the end of their days to find resolution and mutual understanding. The HP helps participants to recognize the strengths that our ancestors gave us along the way. It is in this sense truly authentic ‘ancestor worship’, as the HP also embraces the ‘shadow’ (the difficult, painful underbelly of life). Only then can we truly appreciate and become grateful for the life given to us.
In the words of Robert Kennedy at Martin Luther Kings funeral, “He who learns must suffer and even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God”