Facing grief is never an easy task, whether it concerns a recent loss or one that occurred years in the past. The need seems to come and go on a whim and many times brings with it a staggering pain that causes many of us to recoil in despair. Though, especially early after a loss, avoidance is a natural response to that pain, we all must one day sit with our grief and do the hard work it calls for in hopes of finding joy in the future.
In my work with the bereaved I have witnessed many of the ways the human psyche vies with the heart to stave off the inevitable work of grief. Some folks throw themselves into their work as a means of feeling “normal” again after a significant loss. Others sequester themselves, choosing not to talk about their loss with anyone. Some shop excessively to relieve the anguish, while others travel, hoping to outrun their agonizing memories.
None of these activities is damaging when done in moderation. In reality they each have a specific purpose — to help us take in and work through our grief in doses — over time. I believe our human hearts, created to give and receive love, would stop beating altogether if we were to take in a significant loss all at once.
However, knowing it’s okay to avert our grief for a time, we also know there is a time to embrace the pain, work through it and move to the other side. Our hearts will know when it’s time, but we must pay close attention for that internal whisper — a deafening challenge in the best of circumstances.
I know a woman whose husband of 63 years died two years ago. Her family is concerned that as she continues to isolate herself at home, refusing any help with her grief, that she is slowly dying herself. Her anxious son laments, “Yesterday we got on the subject of grief counseling and she said, ‘If I go and talk about it, it makes it real. And if I don’t go, then it didn’t happen and I don’t have to think about it.’”
Unfortunately the reality is her loss is real and her unexpressed grief is causing much distress for her and her family. Her son understands that the need to face the reality of loss with a healthy expression of grief over time, which may include sharing it with a trusted friend or a support group, opens our hearts to hope.
I recently experienced a similar situation with my sister, Betty, whose 22-year-old son, Adam, died six years ago of leukemia. She had been putting off cleaning out his bedroom, though she and her husband had been updating the rest of their home for several months. She knew in her heart it was time to go through his things, but was avoiding the reality of her grief for fear of the returning pain.
I was surprised when, a few weeks after I offered to accompany her into his room, she sent me this email: “I finished with Adam’s room. It really looks nice. Believe it or not, when I got it done, some of the ‘Adam stuff’ went away.”
She relayed to me that she felt this was a solo endeavor and chose a day when she had plenty of alone time to face this difficult task. She worked through his room systematically, allowing herself to stop and cry several times as she sifted through his belongings, until she had had enough. After taking a needed break she resumed her task with renewed strength and anticipation. She worked on her son’s room — and her heart — over the course of several days in this manner and found an unanticipated but deeply appreciated peace when she had finished.
In short order, we spoke of this milestone on her journey through grief. My sister admitted that she understood the memories would always be there and it would be better for her to face the task of grieving as it came, but she said, “In a way it makes me feel it is over and he won’t be around anymore.”
“Change has a way of making us feel guilty or sad or mad because we think that if we change then what was, will no longer be. The truth is when we change, the past comes with us and makes us better,” I offered.
“You’re right about change, but it is just doing it that causes such grief,” she replied.
“The grief that’s caused by ‘doing it’ is just you facing what’s inside you, you know,” I said softly, adding, “I’m proud of you. It takes a lot of courage to do what you did. So many folks avoid their grief and suffer so. Then when they finally face it, it turns out not to be as bad as they anticipated — and then they are relieved.”
Facing grief is always challenging, but the peace and joy to be found afterward brings meaning to the struggle. There truly is a time for everything under heaven.
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