We’ve all experienced grief and loss and most certainly will again. They can be tricky times to navigate. Is there a way to cope well or are we destined to suffer? I suffered terribly when my mother died – for years. I suffered very little with my dad’s death. What was the difference? I’m beginning to see.
Today, my most adored friend lies in a hospital bed with her life in the balance. Two weeks ago, she was walking around in her typically vibrant manner. The next day, after surgery, she had a horrible stroke. Today, she may be nearing death. Needless to say, I am grieving.
As I grieve, I notice something important, something helpful. I notice that grief itself is clear and clean. I notice that it is not a problem. When I let it be, it moves through me. Quite surprisingly, I don’t find it particularly difficult - deeply sad, yes, but not so horribly difficult as I had always thought grief to be. It’s not difficult, that is, until a stressful thought enters my mind that I feel compelled to follow. The pull is strong! The rabbit hole is deep with frightening twists and turns.
Here is how it goes: I feel the raw sadness. It is rich and pure. I shed tears, sobs even. There is no problem here. Then a thought pops up – Why did she choose that dangerous surgery? Why didn’t someone stop her? Why did I put off traveling to see her before now? She’s so young and vibrant! Why her? It’s not fair! If I attach to any one of those thoughts, I begin to spin an agonizing story. I become overwhelmed. I suffer greatly. Now, the grief is no longer something that is clear and healing. It becomes much more than grief. It becomes a terrible storm of pain.
I’m beginning to see that when grief is left alone and simply felt, it is not a problem. It’s not even particularly burdensome, but once we buy into the stressful thoughts that arise, we begin to suffer as we stitch one stressful thought together with another. It’s terrible. It’s frightening. It’s agonizing.
I can watch all this happen. There is that small space between the raw grief and the stressful thoughts. If I catch myself in the space between, then I can quietly observe the thoughts or I can identify with them and fling myself down that scary rabbit hole.
“Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional.” I see it clearly right now. I do not have to suffer. As I drop the stories about what might have been, should have been, could have been, and accept what is, I’m left with the clean, raw emotions that will move through me in time. In time.
I can weep. I can mourn. I can stay present. There is nothing to fix, only something to allow. This understanding is life changing. We can learn to recognize that space between grief and stressful thoughts. We can practice paying attention and staying present. When we are present, we can see clearly what is needed in that moment, if anything.
Please understand, I know what it’s like to be lost in the tall grasses of grief. I do not take your grief and loss lightly. I do not minimize the pain those of you have felt when you’ve lost a loved one. I’m only suggesting that there is a difference between pain and suffering. I’m suggesting that grief is natural and wants to move through us. I’m suggesting that as we leave the stressful thoughts alone, the grief is free to come and go. I also understand that there will be times when we find ourselves deep in the frightening rabbit hole. At those times, all we can do is ride it out and give ourselves grace and compassion. These terrible, agonizing times shall pass, too, eventually.
A client of mine lost his wife a couple of years ago. She was young. He kept saying it wasn’t meant to be this way. This was not the future he believed would be his. He was suffering terribly. At some point, I assured him that this was always going to be his future, he just didn’t know it. It was never going to be anyway but this way. I did not say this to him in the first many months because he needed to be heard, he needed to cry, he needed to be exactly where he was with the grief. Then came the day that he was ready to hear this and it changed him. He saw something for himself that created a shift in him. He realized that it was true, this was always how it was going to be. Something in him relaxed. He cried but it was a peaceful, open, and healing cry. He dropped his story about how things should have been for him and his wife. He came to acceptance in that moment. Yes, he continued to go in and out of his stories about how things should have been, but he also begin to move forward with his life. He began finding joy again. He began to feel his resilience. He began to live the life that was before him now. It is beautiful to watch someone find their way through such loss.
I see now that the difference in my experience between my mother’s death and my father’s death were the thoughts that I stitched together and returned to repeatedly. I had a terrible story about mama’s death and I suffered it. I had acceptance about my father’s death and I didn’t suffer. Of course I wept and grieved, but I did not suffer. I believe that it is quite possible to grieve without suffering as we drop the sticky stories that would consume us.
Today, I will grieve my dear friend with as much presence as I can, allowing the stressful stories to move through as they will. It’s an important day for her. If you are so inclined, would you mind taking a moment to think of her? Send her some healing energy? Some love? Pray for her? I would be deeply grateful.
If this blog post resonates with you or if you’d like to explore a new perspective on grief, I’m opening up one session on my calendar this next week for the first person who responds, at no charge. Contact Me