When I’ve previously considered writing a blog post about grief, I felt like letting out a long, slow sigh. “Grief,” I’d tell myself, “is a topic with such gravity, how can I ever offer anything helpful in the short form of a blog post.” So, I avoided writing about it at all. None of my blog posts presume to be a “one-size-fits-all” kind of solution for any topic–they are just intended to be food for thought. Still, there are some topics that are so troubling to the human spirit, I just shy away from writing directly about them. I presume there are some topics, grief being one of them, that are best left to the much longer, in-depth format of therapy for their exploration and understanding. On the other hand, I felt the same way about “Racism” as a topic, and then a cop murdered George Floyd, all hell broke loose in my neighborhood and across the Country and planet, so I decided to write a blog post about it anyway. So, here comes an attempt, which will in some ways surely fail, at capturing in the form of a blog post some essence of grief and its “recovery” that might actually provide enough unique insight to be valuable to someone experiencing grief.
Grief is really two different things. Grief is a feeling, something we experience in the moment, like any feeling. Grief is also a process, a way of getting through a transition in our lives. The common element between the feeling and process is that grief relates to the loss of something important. I will first give my thoughts about the experience and feeling of grief and then will offer some thoughts about the process of grief and how to move through it. Not to move through it to get to the other side though. Because there is no other side. There is just now, and what that means for the future. More on this later.
We lose things all the time without feeling much if any grief. We lose material possessions. We lose jobs. We lose contacts with acquaintances. And in many of these cases, we feel no grief at all. There are other losses though that cause us so much grief we might not think we will ever be able to face our lives again. Like almost anything in the variety of human experiences, we could map grief across a continuum, where there is relatively unimportant loss at one end, and at the other end there is loss that is so deep, grave, and seemingly impenetrable, it is almost impossible to describe its magnitude. Grief hits us at different points along the spectrum, depending on what we’ve lost, who we are, what other kinds of grief we might have experienced to help us prepare for this loss, and what else might be happening in our lives at that time.
In all cases of grief, what we lose is an important attachment. A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post on Love and Relationships. In that post, I related how I’d come to define (with the help of a particular client) “love” as “attachment.” If you’ve read my most recent blog post on Attachment Theory, you know how important I consider the way we humans experience attachment from the moment of our birth to the last breath we take. We seek attachments, we find them, we build them, we hang onto our attachments as much as we can, and then, inevitably, we lose whatever we were attached to. So, in very simple (but not at all easy) terms, we experience love when we create attachments and we experience grief when we lose those attachments. The amount of grief we experience is directly related to the amount of love and investment we had with the “object” (person, pet, time, situation) of our attachment. Attachments give us security, warmth, meaning, direction, fulfillment and validity. The loss of our attachments strips all of that away, at least for a time.
It might seem strange to say this, but as terrible as the experience of grief almost always is, there is also a beauty to it, because it reminds us of how deeply we cared for or cherished the thing we’ve lost. It reminds us how valuable it was to us to have that in our lives for a time. I often tell clients (when they are in a place to hear this) that in addition to being incredibly difficult, “grief is a gift.” The very tears you might shed for a family member who has died is a token of your appreciation for what they meant for you.
Probably my favorite book of all time, one which changed my life, and one I have now read many times over the course of my life, is the book “Dune” (the same book they just made a movie about). Strangely, they left out of the (recent) movie version part of a scene I consider the most powerful part of the book. In the book, the leading character, Paul, is a stranger on a planet, whose indigenous people have survived bitter conditions and along with it, have created some fairly ruthless cultural norms. At one point, someone challenges Paul to a duel, which he doesn’t want to fight. He’s 18, he’s never killed anyone. He doesn’t even at first comprehend that this is a fight to the death. Eventually, with great reluctance, he kills his challenger. And then, he cries. So what. Well, on this desert planet (remember, the book is called “Dune”), every drop of water is precious to its people. When they die, they cremate your body immediately, to recapture all the water in your body. When you walk outside you have to wear a special kind of suit that recaptures sweat and urine so you can reuse it. So, the fact that he sheds tears (water) in the open desert for someone who is already dead seems almost pathologically wasteful, and yet he does it. This is noticed by the crowd watching the fight, who are shocked by it, and they start to whisper to each other and themselves, “he gives water to the dead.”
Years after we have come to terms with a loss that causes a great deal of pain, pain we might not think we will ever “get through,” we look back at that loss with “bittersweet” reminiscence, with melancholic nostalgia, with a both a warm regard and a still stinging regret that it continues to be gone. By then, we know, what we have lost hurt so much because it was so worth having before it was lost.
The painful feeling of grief is often made more difficult by the experience of “cognitive dissonance.” My son, Kalvin, used to have a rock band called “Cognitive Dissonance” (I was very proud to tell my friends at that time that I came up with the name he chose for his band). Kalvin liked the way “cognitive dissonance” sounded, but was about 16 at the time, and didn’t know what it meant. When he asked, I encouraged him to do his own research. Later, when he told me he’d decided to use it as the name of his band, I asked, “what did you figure out it means?” He said, “it’s like when you come to a new situation, and you expect it to be a certain way, but when you get there, its really different and you are thinking “what the hell (he used a different word) is going on here, what the hell is this?” I smiled, and said, “yup, that pretty much captures it perfectly!”
Grief can also be a very confusing experience because it is often difficult to separate the feeling of grief from feelings of remorse, regret, or guilt. We often blame ourselves for losing what we have lost, whether or not we have any real part in the reasons for it. I think the confusion we often have between grief (loss) on the one hand, and guilt, remorse and regret (moral responsibility) on the other hand is due to cognitive dissonance. The experience of grief often carries with it a feeling of “wrongness.” As in, “this (death, departure, breakup) should not have happened, or should not be happening” and yet, it is. So, we want to find someone to affix blame or moral responsibility for something that we think should never have happened—we might choose God, ourselves, the other person, a doctor, a veterinarian, or in the case of a breakup, sometimes the couples therapist. What we really want is to find a way to reconcile the cognitive dissonance we feel. We had a life with an attachment to something important. Now we have a life without that attachment. How can this be?
There’s a scene in a movie that captures really well this sense of “wrongness” that so often accompanies grief. The movie is called “Reminiscence.” The movie is near-future science fiction, about a guy who has a machine that will allow you to go back in your life and relive memories as vividly as if they are still happening—a very useful tool if you happen to be struggling with accepting the loss of someone or something very important to you. In it, Hugh Jackman (if you care) is on a date, spending time in a beautiful park with his lover. She asks him, “tell me a story with a happy ending.” He says, “there are no such things, no stories have happy endings, eventually there is a parting, or a death, and the story is no longer happy.” She says, “okay, then tell me a happy story and then end it in the middle.” What I take this to mean is that the experience of grief can be a kind of shock. The happier you are with whatever you’ve lost, the worse you feel once it is gone. I know this is obvious, yet it so frequently catches us completely off guard we are not at all prepared for the magnitude, depth and difficulty coming to terms with the massive cognitive dissonance such a loss might cause. “This cannot be happening….” Some studies say that the first stage of a grief process is denial. That might be true, but I also think what looks like denial from the outside feels like shock to the person experiencing it.
When we lose something important, especially if the loss might have been preventable, we will often want to find a way to blame ourselves for the loss, no matter how irrational that may seem objectively. I’ve often thought this was due to our desire to have control, predictability, to remove the uncertainty that comes with the sudden or even not-so-sudden loss of things and people we consider important. If we can convince ourselves that, “if only I had done X, Y, or Z, I might have avoided losing this person (or pet, or job, or whatever we are grieving),” we can then continue to believe that we have control over our lives, the kind of control that will allow us to avoid future losses of the same kind in our future. We humans greatly value predictability, and will go to extraordinary lengths to continue believing in it.
Sometimes we did play a part in the loss, and these kinds of questions are a worthwhile exploration. When we lose an important relationship, a spouse, life partner, good friend, it is a good idea to take a close look at the decisions we’ve made in choosing that person, and then investing in a relationship with that person, in sustaining the relationship, and possibly also contributing to its end. We can learn from these decisions, so we can make better choices in the future. Whenever I am working with a client who is going through a divorce or ending an important life-partnership, I universally encourage them to ask these sorts of questions so they can learn, grow, and emerge from the breakup with a better sense of themselves and where they want to take their lives.
There are other times when it is not worthwhile to spend too much time asking whether we are responsible for what we have lost—when we really had little or no control over the loss, but we wish we had, so we tell ourselves we did. A sudden death of a family member, a spouse, a friend, or a pet can bring these feelings into play. We will scour every detail leading up to the death, and with each decision-tree point, we will ask, “what if I had done something else, made a different choice, might they still be alive today?” This kind of hand-wringing is almost always not only not helpful, but is harmful, causing us to become stuck in our grief process, and causing needless additional pain and anguish along the way. In reality, these kinds of questions, and the feelings of self-doubt, remorse and regret that come with them, are really ways of putting off the inevitable conclusion that, whatever else you might have done, this person or pet or whatever is gone, and you will need to accept that fact, no matter what else might have happened differently in the end.
The process of grief is how we come to terms with what we have lost. When talking to clients about grief, I almost always say something like, “the opposite of grief is not the absence of grief, but is grief with acceptance.”
The well-known statement about the “five stages of grief” kind of say the same thing. According to that theory, people who have to face a significant loss (the study originally followed the emotional trajectory of people who’d been told they had a terminal illness) went through stages of grief that included: “denial, anger, bargaining, grief and acceptance.” While some have raised question about the validity or value of this way of looking at grief, including whether it applies to grief outside the specific circumstances of the original study, I find it a valuable tool for getting a handle on why people can find it so difficult to move through their grief. I also like that it gives people permission to be confused, to get stuck, to not be sure where they are with their grief. It explains grief as a process, in addition to an experience, which is probably the main reason I offer it as a way to think about grief to clients who are suffering from grief they aren’t sure how to handle. Everyone goes through these and other stages of grief in their own way, and not necessarily in the order noted above—they might jump forward, then back, then forward. It all depends on the person and whatever kind of loss they are experiencing.
Getting back to my earlier statement (“the opposite of grief is not the absence of grief, but is grief with acceptance”), I think the most helpful way to think about grief as a process is that we are trying to come to terms with what we have lost, and what it means to now be forced to live with what we have lost. There is an old saying, “time heals all wounds.” This is mostly not true at all when it comes to grief, especially profound grief. The feeling of grief can stay with us for the rest of lives after some kinds of losses. What time does do, though, is give us the space and the distance from the event of the loss to gain a better understanding of exactly what we have lost, and how to cope with the meaning of that loss. This can, of course, be very difficult, and in some cases, depending on the magnitude of our loss, can require a lifetime of understanding. The following poem, called Grief, by Gwen Flowers, is something a friend recently sent to me about grief, something that had helped her move through her own grief process and touches on this theme of how grief doesn’t completely go away but becomes a new way of being (my friend couldn’t remember who wrote it but a client clued me in on that after reading an earlier version of this blog post). Ms. Flowers has kindly given me permission to include her poem in this blog post:
I had my own notion of grief. I thought it was a sad
time that followed the death of someone you love.
And you had to push through it
to get to the other side.
But I’m learning there is no other side.
There is no pushing through.
But rather, there is absorption. Adjustment. Acceptance.
And grief is not something that you complete. But rather you endure.
Grief is not a task to finish, and move on,
But an element of yourself – An alteration of your being.
A new way of seeing, A new definition of self.
I like how this poem captures grief as a process, and one in which you are not trying to rid yourself of the experience or feeling of grief, but are instead trying to get to a place in which that experience of grief is a new addition to the way you experience your life and yourself. A client recently experienced a loss of such great painfulness, she found herself looking at others and asking herself, “do you know what it is like to have this kind of loss within yourself?” She thought of it as a kind of shocking loss of innocence.
Anyone who has experienced significant loss in their lives will know that the process of grief is not linear. This is one of the most troubling aspects about grief as a process, in addition to an experience or feeling—just when you think you have made progress away from the paralyzing pain of loss, when life seems to be getting better, when the loss you have suffered seems to have receded a little from your every thought, it comes rushing back in, and you feel like you have made no progress at all, like you are right back where you started, which can lead to feelings of deep despair and resignation, along with confusion and deep frustration.
The first time in my life I experienced this kind of nonlinear and devastating grief, I was in my early twenties, just after losing my first love. I came up with the metaphor of standing on a beach, right at the water’s edge, with waves crashing into me, again, again, again. The first wave of grief hit me with such force, it knocked me down onto the ground, swept me up, pulled me out into the ocean—I thought I would forever be consumed in its wake, that I would surely drown, that I would never again be able to stand on the shore, that I was finished, that I would never be able to get “through it.” Then, a day or two later, I was back on the shore, and lying there, gaining my strength. I tried to get up, and just as I was about to stand again, another wave hit me, and again I was drowning in pain, in my grief, ready to give up. This continued for weeks (and even months if I am being honest with myself). Many times, just as I was beginning to think I was making “progress” (no more waves coming to knock me down), that I was “drying off” and moving away from the shore of that grief, another wave would come in, come at me, wash over me, and knock me flat. Eventually, though, two things did happen. The waves came less frequently and with less force and I was becoming stronger in resisting their capacity to knock me to the ground and pull me away from the shore.
One of the more difficult cases of grief I have seen with a client came after Carla’s husband killed himself in his vehicle not long after their final conversation. Carla was so stricken with grief, she could not even bring herself to arrange a therapy appointment with me. Instead, a good friend found my name on the internet, contacted me, and then encouraged Carla to come with her to an appointment with me. Months had passed since Carla’s husband had died by the time we first met, and during that time, she was barely able to leave her house for anything, having taken a leave of absence from work. She was barely able to make herself “presentable” to the public, including taking showers, doing laundry—and was embarrassed by this when coming to therapy. I assured her I didn’t care, and was only glad she had forced herself to come, even if at first it was with her friend. Carla taught me so much about how the grief process does not go along a straight line. Just when we’d both begun to think she was making significant progress in coming to terms with her husband’s death, she’d come to an appointment unable to do much more than cry through the entire session, barely able to speak about anything at all. At first, there was little to no observable progress, then maybe one step forward, and two steps back, then one forward and one back, then two steps forward and one step back, Eventually, after a couple of months, she managed to come to a session on her own, without her friend, and we celebrated this as a significant milestone in her grief process.
After maybe a year, Carla was moving mostly forward, with setbacks in her process on certain anniversaries (day of the month, and then annual anniversaries of her husband’s death). Like I do with all clients, I reminded her regularly, “there is no timeline, there is just you and what you need.” She would often apologize for her difficulties, and seemed to often need my encouragement to take whatever time she needed to move through her grief process in whatever way she needed to do that.
Carla also asked many times, often while crying and desperately seeking relief from her grief: “when will the pain end?” I would only say something like, “it will get easier with time and continued work toward understanding how you want to live your new life without your husband.” I could not lie. I could not tell her it will come to an end. I wasn’t at all sure or confident that it ever would. That’s just not how profound grief usually works. Remember what I said earlier? The goal is not the end of grief, or it’s absence. You will not get back to a place you were before you lost whatever you lost. This is how it is now. The goal of the grief process is two things: understanding what you have lost, and accepting what it means for how you can live your life without what you have lost.
I want to go back for a minute to that movie Reminiscence I mentioned before and tie it in with the Grief Poem I recited in this blog post. Part of what changes within us when we experience grief, especially if we were really unprepared for how much it hurts is a kind of loss of innocence, or naivety. We might have been going through life without having experienced much loss, the destruction of any significant attachments in our lives. Then something happens, a family member dies, you lose a pet, or as in my case, a breakup I had no idea would hurt so much. Now that it’s happened, you will never be quite the same anymore. You will never trust in the permanence of attachments the way you did. You might even find yourself, for a time, and maybe for the rest of your life, wondering whether you will ever be able to trust attachments at all anymore.
Part of moving through the process of grief is understanding what you have lost, what it means to you, to your life now and how it will be going forward without having in your life whatever it is that you have lost, even when that means that you will never stop missing what you have lost. “The opposite of grief is not the absence of grief, but is grief with acceptance.” Another part of the process of grief is learning your own resilience to the kind of loss you have experienced, your capacity to pick yourself back up after waves of grief knocked you down time and again, and then, slowly, eventually, you were able to stand against the waves, not be swept away, and in that process become stronger, more resolved, if also less innocent, less unprepared, for the next loss, because you have learned that surely, inevitably, there will be other losses. Now that you have been knocked down, and then got up, you know you can do this. You know how strong you are. You know you will be able to survive the next loss, and still be able to want your life, even now that your life will no longer have in it the thing whose loss you’ve just experienced with such gravity.
I don’t think I’ve ever ended a blog post with a song lyric before, but having just written that last paragraph, I find myself compelled to do so, with these lyrics from a 1983 song by Big Country, called “In a Big Country.” I cannot tell you how many times I listened to this song back in my early twenties when I was trying to get up after those waves of grief hit me so hard (and still do sometimes) after losing that relationship.
“So take that look out of here it doesn’t fit you
Because it’s happened doesn’t mean you’ve been discarded
Pull up your head off the floor, come up screaming
Cry out for everything you ever might have wanted
I thought that pain and truth were things that really mattered
But you can’t stay here with every single hope you’ve had shattered
I’m not expecting to grow flowers in the desert
But I can live and breathe
And see the sun in wintertime.”
Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a qualified mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.