Grief and Healing
Grief is a trip in every sense of the word. It transforms our memories of the deceased into an abstract crux. They become an essence—an idea that distorts who they were with what we feel in their absence. At times, we yearn for them like a drug, pining and ruminating (researchers have tentatively started experimenting with an addiction medicine called Naltrexone as an effective treatment for prolonged grief disorder); at other times, we resent them for having us experience such deprivation upon losing them. Several religious and cultural traditions view death as something bad or unclean, something to be pushed away. For decades we believed it was the unconscious association we make between death and something painful (i.e. the idea that it must be due to an agonizing illness or blunt trauma). Sociologists are now beginning to theorize that these traditions stem from an underlying sense of anger we hold toward the deceased for having left us to persist on an earth without them.
It is normal to fear death; we’re biologically wired to persevere. Medicine has advanced to a degree where humans have the potential to live long past their “natural” span. Still, that fear has not changed; our lives are never long enough. We are scared of the unfathomable, and of those who exist within it. This is represented in our culture through tombstones, which are meant to keep the evil spirits underground away from the living realm, or how the U.S. Army mimics (or mocks) the Native American tradition of launching arrows into the sky to ward off ghostly threats with our military's customary last salute, wherein rifles are fired in similar fashion. But why do we fear death so miserably? What is really to fear of the unknown? It is not pain, or at least, we have no reason to believe that it is pain. In fact, Alan Watts (1951) wrote, “If [death] feels like anything at all, I imagine it feels a lot like it felt before we were born.”
So, if it is not death that causes pain, it must only be grief. The age-old adage: Death is harder for the people left behind reigns true. Grief is one of the most powerful things we can feel, and it is when we most want our grief to subside that we face our biggest challenges. We may feel lost for a while as the fast-paced, ever-changing world around us keeps on moving. We may feel disconnected from the world, or angry at it. We may say, “How dare it keep moving without them!” because how could the world continue moving without them? We may be so hesitant to accept change because to accept it means to leave behind the past, leave behind the loved ones we’ve lost, and face the world alone for the first time without their strength to guide us.
Either way, change happens. It's up to us to decide if we can go along with it or not. There will be days where we cannot; there will be days where we will not. There will be many, many days where we will fight change, and curse its name for stripping us of our beloveds. And then there will be days, where despite how impossibly wrong it feels, we’ll tire of wallowing in our grief; we’ll get bored of sitting in our sadness and we’ll emerge to accept the change, maybe even embrace the change, even if only for moments at a time. It is important to acknowledge those moments when they occur because they are the moments that evoke hope. These moments inspire new moments, longer moments until eventually, we find a way to live with the fact that those who have passed, have indeed passed.
Ultimately, the void can either be the birth of our innermost creativities, or it can be a black hole that breaks us. My grief caused me many months of pain and sorrow, but it also inspired me to become a counselor. If, in the face of tragedy, we can invite new life to exist (growth, change, and healing), then we have gained the strength to stare into the unknown and not be afraid.
Watts, A. (1951). The Wisdom of Insecurity. New York: Vintage Books.