Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post a reflection on grief as I continue to explore its landscape and listen to you. In the sharing of our stories with each other, we find encouragement and build a community of support.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Metabolism of Grief

Grief is an organic, biological process.

Someone on Twitter used the phrase “metabolize grief.” I think. I haven’t been able to find who said it. Maybe my brain just took a leap. Whatever. I like the possibilities, as if I’m cracking open something important open and peeking inside.

When we hear the word “metabolism,” we may think first about weight loss — as in, someone has gained weight because they have a slow metabolism. 

Metabolism is the chemical process that converts food into energy for our bodies. It also fosters cellular respiration through oxidation, waste elimination, and helps the body adapt to changes in its environment. The process occurs in the mitochondria in our cells, those tiny internal combustion engines. Curious creatures, mitochondria originated outside the human body but now live inside us in a symbiotic relationship. 

“Metabolism” is a Greek word for “change,” which is fitting because everything living is constantly changing, including us.

As the body metabolizes food and converts it into energy, so the heart metabolizes grief.

The experience of grief is so enormous that it can seem like nothing is happening for a long time. Six weeks after my wife died, I felt that I wasn’t getting a handle on the grief thing, so I headed to Yosemite to shake things up and get grief moving. Hiking in the wilderness where you can die will do this. 

One morning I stood by a river trying to determine if snow melting in the highlands was making the water rise. I stared at the water but could not tell. I put a stick into the sand at the edge of the water and watched. In 15 minutes, the water had moved an inch past the stick. There was movement. I simply couldn’t see it. Just like grief.

We can also think of grief as the wood for a campfire. As we deal with grief, we burn it up and generate energy and power that we can use to cook a meal and keep warm. Later, when the fire has died down, we poke the coals and become reflective. We look at the forest around us and at the stars above and think about life, relationships, and the deep heartache when someone we love dies. We think about our personal cosmos and begin to see the web of connections between our constellations.

Metabolism is cause for optimism. When we metabolize grief, we break it down into its elements. We take what nourishes us and leave behind the husks of the rest.

There is also a social metabolism to grief, although it’s currently more of a sluggish inertia. If we were able to share our grief in public, we would process grief faster because other people would act as catalysts. Instead of struggling to get them to listen, they would help us work our way through grief. And if we saw the different ways that people grieve, then we wouldn’t feel like the rhino at every dinner party and social event.

Metabolize grief as it comes. 

Today’s grief is today’s grief. Make no judgment about it. It is what it is. Work with it.

Breathe into the grief you feel in this moment (oxidize it), and exhale. Breathe in fresh energy and breathe out what is burned up. With each breath, we are changing our bodies. 

When we breathe life into our grief, we breathe death out.

Share stories of your loved ones with others who knew them. Breathe life back into your memories. Let them bring you joy again. Even though progress may seem agonizingly slow, each day we are breathing our way through grief. 

When today is over, let it go. Tomorrow will have enough grief of its own.