As a new blogger for Psychology Today, I am immediately struck by the editorial admonition to be funny. People like humor—we know that. It triggers sparkling little endorphins that make us feel better in the midst of break-ups, lay-offs, traffic jams, debt crises, and a general malaise that seems to cover too much of daily life.
But I'm writing about the grief journey. (Quick, send in the clowns!) Not exactly the subject of stand-up comedy. In fact, when I read much of what I have recorded in my personal grief journal, it's a bit maudlin.
So, a deeper question may be: Is it even appropriate to be humorous when speaking of grief? I think the answer is a qualified "yes"—if we're gentle with ourselves and others. Personally, a sense of humor has seen me through some pretty rough patches—especially when I didn't take myself too seriously.
That is easier to do in person when I'm presenting a workshop; much harder, it seems, to accomplish in print. But it's worth a try as I share my ruminations about creating a new life from the ashes of an old one that disappeared much too soon for my liking.
I've always been a happy person. Someone who can usually find the positive in a difficult situation. A re-framer, my therapist says; I'm good at making sweet tarts from sour fruit. Or perhaps I merely dissociate well. If something unpleasant is going on, I can easily vanish into books or the dream world of my own imagination.
But when my husband, Stephen, was diagnosed in early 2006 with terminal metastatic colon cancer in the liver, this Pollyanna fell out of her happy tree. It had taken me so long to find this wonderful man, how could I now be losing him?
They say the first stage of grief is denial, but I think it's really disbelief. I simply couldn't wrap my mind around the idea that my soul mate was going to disappear from the life we were still actively building together after 15 years of marriage.
It was unfathomable and undeniable, and I had to face it. Not only because life was rubbing my nose in its awful reality, but also because Stephen had squared his shoulders and was walking straight into the fact of his mortality. I couldn't let him go there alone. So I did what most people do: I pulled myself together and got on with life—and, ultimately, of course, with the death of my beloved.
But this time I did something I had never done very well in the past: I gave myself permission to feel whatever I was feeling. To not judge what was going on inside me or Stephen as he worked through his own dying process. To stay with the painful emotions of anger, grief, sadness, frustration, and abandonment that rose in me like a riot.
Most of all, I determined to not run away from the "unpleasantness" of losing the love of my life and then going on without him. And it worked.
In many ways it was easier to stay present when Stephen was alive because I had to be attentive to his needs. We lived in the moments we still had together and sometimes we even laughed at the irony of my having to become the strong, clear-thinking one. We had never seen that one coming!
I found that processing my own experience through journaling was a lifesaver. Writing down the whole wild stream of consciousness that rushed through me like a torrent allowed me to look at my psychological stuff and choose a healthier response. That kept me out of Stephen's way as he dealt with the complex journey of dying to this world and preparing for what he perceived as the next.
When it got really hard was after he was gone. Nothing was funny, and I had to stay out of my own way so the underlying wisdom of bereavement could guide, carry, cajole, and push me into the new life I had to learn to want.
Along the way, I made a fantastic discovery. I had eventually tapped into a sense of serenity and peace in Stephen's passing. We had worked hard at that—and, in the end, we shared some exquisite moments of connection that made the experience deeply transformative. But now I found a gift on the far side of grief (and even at some threshold points within it): a surprising form of beauty.
This tender loveliness is an ephemeral thing. It comes and goes—just as waves of sorrow, despair, and loneliness still wash over me at the strangest, least predictable of times. It's a poetic force in a way. Hard to see when you look straight at it, but cunningly there along the edges, deep within, behind the doorway of awareness, and then sometimes brilliantly present as a twinkle of mirth or a powerful insight in the heart.
My hope is that this blog and our ensuing dialogue will shed some light on the unconventional beauty of grief—without ever losing the mystery at the heart of this process that both sears and saves if we allow it to work its magic within us.
And, who knows, we may even laugh at ourselves—simple humans that we are.
Copyright 2011 Cheryl Eckl Communications, Inc.