HEALTHWISE - August 1995
Everyday life brings most of us a lot of grief. Due to modern media coverage, we are aware of a staggering amount of painful and tragic information. Our contemporary plagues - racism, sexism, poverty and war - fill our lives. Added to this are the losses that accompany everyday life such as death, divorce, moving, illness and aging.
When a young woman's beloved cat dies unexpectedly and she and her friends hold a funeral in the backyard, accompanied by a harmonica rendition of Taps and the sobs of the mourners, grief is actively acknowledged. It is clear and manageable. Much of our grief, however, is not as easily known or acknowledged; it is deep within us.
We are subjected to constant change. With change comes loss, which affects us and influences our moods, yet we are often unaware of this connection. Change, for better or worse, is stressful. We harden ourselves to it, we hope to just move on. Grief is cumulative, it builds upon itself, layer upon layer. When we grieve over the loss of a job or a dream, we tap into all our losses. If we feel that we are responding inappropriately to what should be a minor loss, it is probably because we have not dealt effectively with other losses.
Grief opens us up to other emotions: anger, pain, guilt, resentment and abandonment. Mourning involves risk as we relinquish control of our emotions and let them follow their course. It is not surprising that we are not good at grieving.
The suppression of grief is all too common, but it is dangerous. When grief catches up with us, it can completely overwhelm us.
About a year and a half after my father's death, I was at the mall. I don't like the mall, so I treated myself to a capuccino and took a break for some people-watching. I noticed a gray-haired, bearded man coming towards me. For a brief moment I thought it was my father, and as suddenly, I was overcome with immense sadness and grief, so severe that I abandoned my coffee and fled.
Grief is like that, unpredictable, coming in waves that are sometimes violent, sometimes gentle. Grief paid me a visit and I knew it. Frequently, however, grief is less obvious, gradually gnawing away at our mood until we feel washed out and depressed.
The acknowledgement of loss is the first step. Allowing the feelings to emerge and be expressed will enable us to move on, unencumbered by old feelings. Grief can be expressed in many ways. Talking to friends and family is a good start. Writing about it, making music, art, or any other acknowledgement will help to process it. Writing a letter, whether it be to someone long dead or the dog you tripped over when you broke your leg, is a good way to work out your feelings.
As a community,we can create rituals that do help: flying flags at half mast, roadside memorials, the AIDS Quilt, the Vietnam Wall. These are all public forms of mourning. We experience them as individuals and as a community. They help us begin to accept our pain and to move though it.
Grieving takes time. Give yourself time and space to grieve when you need it. Remember the wavelike quality of grief, that it comes in stages. There is no absolute end to it, but there can be closure, a feeling of moving on. When we resolve our grief we make room for joy.
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