All too frequently I am shoving something in a cupboard only to have trouble closing the door. I buy groceries and not everything fits on the shelves. I try to put shampoo bottles in the bathroom cabinet and other things fall over. “This is ridiculous,” I say to myself. It is ridiculous because I know there should be plenty of room to fit what I am currently using. So what is the problem?
The problem is that I neglect to organize my cupboards and then proceed to jam everything I need in the margins of those shelves. There is unused, unneeded, or expired items taking up precious shelf space. When I fail to take the time to sort through the cabinets and remove what I no longer need, the shelves get clogged up. What should be space for things that I need becomes storage for stuff I am not using.
Sometimes that same problem happens with our hearts and minds. We carry around so many emotions, memories, thoughts, and fears from the past that we do not have enough room to think and feel in the present moment. Too often we are living in the margins.
I am not suggesting we need to forget past pain and memories. No “closure” is needed. (See my TEDx talk where I explain how we can carry joy and grief together without closure.) We have enough room to carry important things from the past, but sometimes we need to reorganize our mental and emotional shelves in order to create that space.
Grieving helps organize our emotional shelves. I understand if that sounds strange. Some people think grieving adds “junk.” Rather, grieving helps us identify what we are missing. It gives voice to our pain and helps us understand the depth of loss. Grieving helps organize what we are feeling in a way that gives us more room to live.
When we do not take time to identify loss and express grief, our emotions fall out in ways we do not understand. We have less patience with family, friends and coworkers and may come across as angry with them when more likely we are just having trouble carrying too much. How then do you organize your emotional shelves?
Talk. Find a trusted friend, family member, pastor, or counselor who knows how to listen. Listening is crucial. Stay away from those who want to jump right in and tell you exactly how to clean up your shelves. That short-circuits the process and leaves you not knowing where anything is! (Think about the time someone else reorganized your kitchen.) You need to be the one to sort through your emotional and mental cabinets, but it can be helpful to have someone listen, ask questions, and give feedback.
Take time. It may be enough to spend time alone thinking, singing, praying, painting, writing, or walking. Give yourself time to remember, vent, love, hurt, scream, cry, or laugh. Become familiar with your emotions rather than afraid of them. See my post on The Write Way to Heal for ideas about writing.
Give yourself freedom to grieve. We live in a culture that tells us to end our grief as soon as possible. But when we do not allow ourselves time and freedom to grieve, our emotional shelves get clogged up. We do not need to “throw out” our grief to have room for joy, but it helps to sort through our emotions. When we take time to grieve, we find ways to carry our loss and still have room for the present.
There are times when grief and pain overflow and there is little space for anything else. When encountering raw pain and intense grief, it is understandable that other things get shoved around in your life. You may be just hanging on in the margins, overcome with grief. During these times, reach out and let other people support you.
I always feel better when I clean out my kitchen and bathroom cupboards. It is even more important, and more difficult, to sort through our mental and emotional shelves. But the payoff is worth it. We were created to live beyond the margins of our lives.
Nancy Berns is the author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us.