Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Grief Breaks Us, Deepens Us, Or Sets Us Free

As I was getting ready for my podcast interview with Linda Schreyer from Writers Talks at Studio West in Los Angeles (http://t.co/9OWGGScNds), Linda said she liked the line that appeared at the end of my blog post, “The First Death.” (That line is the title of this post.) She thought grief did all three. I agreed, although we both knew that some people get stuck in the first arena.

Grief Breaks Us
Besides the brutal impact of death, grief also breaks something important in us. Perhaps we thought that life was supposed to be a happy place, but now all we see is chaos, destruction, and pain. Or maybe it’s an illusion about life that we’ve always believed, like, if we lead good lives and help others, then we will die peacefully in old age. Perhaps our new view of reality is now so stark that it makes us wonder if enough is left.

Or maybe it’s that, with one stroke, death has destroyed the home we carefully built up over the years, and taken our hope with it. Whatever broke, whatever has been smashed, it was a big part of who we were, and it may feel like this is lost forever. And yet, because of dealing with grief, we shift from sympathy to empathy when we see other people suffering.

Danger — The danger is getting stuck here, believing that the only one who could make life worthwhile and exciting for us is gone. But if we stay here, death will conquer us, too.

Questions — Who will replace the person we lost? Is this even possible? What direction do we now head? What do we have left that is strong enough to get us through this trauma?

Grief Deepens Us
We understand a new dimension of human life because of grief, and that is the world of sorrow. We see human existence with more depth. This understanding takes away some of our pain and confusion, although not as much as we’d like.

We reassemble our lives and begin to interact with friends on deeper levels. We accept death as part of life, and acknowledge that people we love will die without any reason or purpose we can see. We see the suffering going on around us, but we also notice people taking care of each other. One way out of our grief is to help others who are suffering. We move from empathy to compassion.

Challenge — We understand more about life, but what do we do with our new insights? One of my dear friends said that CS Lewis didn’t change after his wife died of a terrible illness. He understood more about grief, and he wrote great words about his suffering, words that have guided other grievers for decades, but she didn’t think he had personally changed. He was still as closed in as he was before, and lost an opportunity to broaden his life.

Grief Sets Us Free
Surviving grief and taking the risk of loving others again is a huge accomplishment because we know the terrible cost that loving someone can bring. One of the great insights that comes from surviving grief is that we are crystal clear that much of what people get so riled up about really doesn’t matter. Grief frees us to do what is important. Grief frees us to say “no” to busy work and “yes” to what brings life.

Question —Do we respond to the suffering we happen to see each day, or do we feel called to go further and make compassion our life’s work?

Danger — In many religions, followers are encouraged to care for others without attachment. The danger here is that we can spend so much time taking care of others that we ignore our own needs and we collapse from exhaustion. There is more pain in the world than we have time to comfort. How do we find the balance so that we don’t wear out?

When we’re grieving, our challenge is also to celebrate what is still good, noble, and loving in the world. The heart is wide enough to hold both.

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