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4 Lessons Learned from Long-Term Grief

Relentlessness, compassion, and more.

In 1979, my mother lost her eight-year-long battle with lymphoma at the age of 43, leaving me, a shy and sensitive 9-year-old, reeling, grief-stricken, angry, and suddenly living in a confusing new reality.

Fast forward 43 years to today (11/2), the anniversary of her death—she has been deceased about as long as she had been alive. Both private journaling and, in recent years, public pieces—speaking from personal and professional experience—have become a part of how I memorialize her, the latter in the hope that others may benefit.

Especially when children lose parents—something one in 20 people experience, on average—their needs are often unrecognized and unmet, as discussed here. Shame and stigma beget silence (not the good kind) and isolation, impeding recovery on many levels.

Each year brings fresh reflections, renewed connection with my younger experiences, the conversion of bereavement to sadness, trauma to growth and recovery, and greater joy and beauty in relation to the less savory aspects of the human condition. Along with recognition and acceptance of both light and darkness comes more nuance; sometimes, darkness is uplifting; sometimes, light is blinding.

Coming to Terms

While I don’t ever expect to “get over” a loss that has been so formative for my sense of self and view of life, over the years I’ve come to terms with this experience, accompanied by the slow recovery of many missing or jumbled memories, organized between before and after, very different self-states, or ways of being. And many dark nights of the soul spent in reflection, tumult, and, sometimes, peace. Reconciling the different versions of ourselves, different ways of moving through the world, is a key part of psychological health–regardless of the circumstances.

This year, as usual, I've been learning from the experience, as well as simply being present. It’s immeasurably complex (particularly as her death was the crown jewel of several adverse experiences), comprising aspects of individual identity, experiences of health and the body, relationships, work aspirations, and personal identity. If I ask myself this year what stands out, a few themes emerge, dearly held values as well as operating principles.

Four Ideas

Compassion. While meditation, Eastern philosophy, and related disciplines have been familiar since I was a youngster, it’s only in the last 10 years that I found specific work related to compassion-based and loving-kindness practices, now familiar in Western psychological translation, grounded respectively in Tonglen and Metta meditations. For a long time, I had resistance to such practices, feeling self-conscious and vulnerable. It took some time in psychoanalysis, and good friends, to overcome the avoidance and embarrassment and get started. Integrating research on fears of compassion provided additional insights into common obstacles.

Self-compassion, and compassion more generally for oneself and others, helps reconstitute a positive sense of self when strategies grounded in blame, self-criticism, and feeling bad about oneself fail to operate adequately. It’s a more secure, psychologically safe operating system and involves gently approaching vulnerability with openness and acceptance.

Unity. While this word has many connotations, I am using it in reference to the theory of self-organizing systems, also known as “autopoiesis” (“self-making”, same root as the word “poetry”), for example, in Bateson’s Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (Advances in Systems Theory, Complexity, and the Human Sciences; 1979). As a branch of complexity theory, the study of systems that generate and maintain themselves is crucial for understanding vitality and the drive to thrive, as opposed to focusing on the best-case solution of day-to-day survival, often associated with feelings of emptiness or devitalization. These are also called "complex adaptive systems."

Systems theories incorporate a sense of wonder and mystery to life along with mathematical rigor, working well with experiences of meaning and spirituality often core to what is called “post-traumatic growth” and resilience. In contrast to closed systems, which tend to stagnate and get locked down in equifinality (ending up in the same place no matter what), open systems allow for multiple unanticipated, or emergent possibilities, paving the way for novel developmental pathways. A generative concept from pioneer systems theorist Von Bertalanffy (1968) eloquently captures the essence: fliessgleichgewicht, or “flowing balance.”1

Relentlessness. The terms “resilience” and “grit” are familiar and used in research, along with "persistence" as an aspect of conscientiousness in understanding personality traits, but the word that recently came to mind in thinking about my own process was “relentlessness.” Collins' Online Dictionary serves up this definition: “Someone who is relentless is determined to do something and refuses to give up, even if what they are doing is unpleasant or cruel.

Healing is wonderful, especially in retrospect; along the way, it can be grueling—the word “relentless” captures years of struggling against strong emotional headwinds, even at times in the face of despair, powerlessness, frustration, pain, and loss of meaning. This is true with both physical and emotional recovery. Perhaps resoluteness.

Equanimity. I’ve come to value equanimity more and more, as much as I believe that there is a time and a place to express more turbulent emotions, sometimes required to move things along. When I was younger, being told to calm down, having anger pathologized rather than grief recognized, made equanimity hard to embrace. Sometimes, disgruntled outspokenness, backed by strong emotion, is the only thing that works, even in the face of strong resistance. Still, it works better when done well, requiring both expressivity and inhibitory control (paradoxically, required for creative process).

Equanimity does not mean being falsely calm, numb, disconnected, or even dissociated from core emotional states. Quite the opposite: Equanimity more often than not is a necessary precondition for being able to really listen to and recognize oneself, for reconnecting to the juice.2

Final Thoughts

Unintentional on any conscious level, it occurred to me almost immediately upon articulating these lessons learned that the letters spell out “cure.”3

While I wish there were a cure for terrible loss (let alone cancer and other terminal illnesses), since mortality is the rule, or wish even for simply broader adoption of destigmatized and effective societal ways of framing grief, I have seen that getting into a better groove is possible and is tantamount to arriving at a better place. Grief responds to both somber reverence and, sometimes, an element of cathartic, hopefully relatable humor.

While there is controversy over the psychiatric definition of pathological grief, as I see it, grief can (in some situations) be traumatic, interfering with health and well-being and leading to PTSD-like symptoms. Achieving a secure relationship with the lost person is critical to developing a good sense of self, regardless of whether grief becomes so prolonged and complex as to require clinical attention.

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1. In personality theory, in trauma and dissociation-informed approaches to therapy, integration of self is an important marker of coherent identity, effectiveness and satisfaction in work and relationships, and in developing a generative philosophy of life. Addressing fragmentation, and perhaps more accurately creating a context within different facets or "parts" of oneself make sense together, is a big part of security. Attachment security, in turn, involves developing a coherent autobiographical narrative, a story of oneself in the world which makes sense and works.

2. When the brain’s resting state, or “default mode network” is freed from the twin distractions of intrusive thoughts and disaffectation, it’s much easier to find mutuality with oneself and develop the particularly useful habit of compassionate curiosity in the face of challenge.

3. The “e” eluded me at first, but a good friend helped me identify what was on the tip of my tongue.

Bateson, G. (2002) [First published 1979]. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. Hampton Press. ISBN 9781572734340.

Ludwig Von Bertalanffy (1968). General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, New York: George Braziller, revised edition 1976: ISBN 0-8076-0453-4

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