Creating Space for Grief and Loss
We aren't taught how to grieve well, or how to help others grieve.
Posted Jun 16, 2016
Our society doesn’t do grief well.
I remember learning about Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief in Psych 101 at age 18, but they were little more than words at the time. My mother had battled (and survived) breast cancer the previous year, and my grandparents died around that time as well, yet on a heart level it was if these things hadn’t happened.
I never saw my mom when she was sick or in the hospital. I remember standing alone in my mother’s bedroom, taking the call from my aunt about my grandfather’s death. The call lasted less than ten seconds. It was like a piece of news was being shared, that I was simply to pass on.
At the time these events were briefly commented upon by the adults around me as facts that couldn’t be avoided, but weren’t ever discussed at length. Life (and my preparation for final exams) was expected to just continue as usual, no questions asked. I don’t remember seeing anyone cry or be upset.
I don’t share this to heap blame. My parents both came from very stoic families and they were dealing with things as they’d been taught to. I also won’t go into all the ways I similarly stuffed or avoided grief or reality over the ensuing decades. I do want to attempt to share some of what I’ve been learning about grief in the last few years.
A couple of years ago a family friend, Sandy Oshiro Rosen, sent me a copy of her book Bare: The Misplaced Art of Grieving and Dancing. I took two years to finish it, because the truly “bare” content made for such tough going. It was well timed though, because loss and grief had already started jostling for center stage in my life and in the lives of those around me.
A close friend’s husband betrayed her and left. Another friend’s child died in his sleep. Yet another friend’s husband similarly died overnight. A widowed elderly friend lost her brother, sister and dog within weeks of each other.
These are just a handful of examples from the lives of those around me, and there are so many unfathomable losses we see happening before our eyes in the news. The topic of grief and loss is so huge, so rife with potential missteps, that I feel inadequate and clumsy writing about it. I want to try, though. For now, I want to focus on the experience of grief in our lives and the lives of those close to us, the people we have the ability to impact (and support) the most.
For me, what I had expected to be a wonderful season of my life turned into a nightmare that I still don’t have words to describe. This situation pummeled and distracted me for years, until late last year when I finally came out the other side. There were all sorts of layers of loss associated with this experience, some which continue to reveal themselves.
“Throughout my life...there had been times when I had been preparing, hoping, dreaming, pregnant with vision as it were, for something only to have the whole thing miscarry just as it was about to be birthed. Across life’s hallway, someone close to me was being blessed with the very thing that had now been lost to me: relationships I hoped would endure, but fell apart; projects I poured my life into and that crashed before they were accomplished; trusted overseers who deceived or took advantage of me.”
These "miscarriages" are very real losses for people, losses we are often unaware of or insensitive about, especially if we haven’t personally faced them.
I can still be really awkward in the face of another’s grief, but I am working at being better at supporting people who face loss. One of the gifts from facing unwanted events and losses is the ability to come alongside and mourn with those who suffer and grieve.
When my grief over my various losses was particularly raw, I talked about it to a few friends but largely stopped when people didn’t seem to get it. Most people hadn't experienced it. Some told me they envied me, and one friend (who has been very supportive about other aspects of life) brushed it off with a laugh and shared some related jokes. I know she was just trying to cheer me up, but I hardly mentioned it again after that.
After that and other similar experiences, I started reading articles about “what not to say to people who are grieving” and learned that I too was guilty of making unhelpful comments a lot of the time in various situations.
I understand now why they say that the best thing you can do for a person who is grieving is not to try to make them feel better, but to just sit with them. To cry with them. To say “I’m so very sorry” with a look or touch that demonstrates that truth. I still find this hard, as my natural tendency is to want to bandage over the pain with words.
It’s not really my friend’s fault, or mine, for being clumsy and even unwittingly hurtful in the face of grief, as our society doesn’t model how to support others. The cultures that know how to grieve and support grieving do so loudly and unabashedly, wailing and howling. What might it be doing to us, all those wails and howls being suppressed, year after year after year?
My friend who lost her husband was overwhelmed with a well-intended tidal wave of food baskets and flowers, she ran out of surfaces to put things on. Months later, there is still a section of her kitchen counter that is dominated by a collection of food gifts that visitors are invited to sift through for snacks. The love and care behind all the food was appreciated, but it was obvious to those walking with her day-in and day-out that it was not that helpful of a response, despite being by far the most common one.
Rosen’s entire book is beautiful, raw and true, and hard to do justice to in one article, but I want to share some highlights from the final section with you, called “encore: pausing for grief”:
“We typically resist every physical cue that runs through the streets of our bodies like some lone town crier, declaring our emotional curfew and decreeing that it is time we close up shop, lower the lamps of activity, and settle in for a night of quiet. We don’t like its demands – after all, are we not the most important performers on the stage that is our lives?”
“Fighting against this internal resistance is like persistently shoving against a rusted gear – it does no good, it will not improve the movement, it may even cause the whole thing to seize. Slowing down, resting, restoring, lubricates the gears and renders the body functional in due time.”
According to Rosen, when grief marches into our lives we need to “STOP and...
Listen (“your bodies and emotions are speaking to you, listen to what they are saying about your current situation and circumstances”)
Breathe (“learn to take deep cleansing breaths” that trigger the healing parasympathetic nervous system)
Rest (“find a time and place where there is zero demand on you”)
Eat (“keep putting healthy food in your mouth, it fuels your cells and staves off illness”)
Be (“be present in life, as raw and real as you need to be, and embrace what is happening now. It will possibly mean slowing down...doing can be your greatest enemy”)
Weep (“there is no need to analyze why or what it is about; just let your soul vent through your tear ducts”
Enjoy (“begin to make note of the small blessings of life”)
Stop Should-ing on Yourself (“remove all expectations and be realistic...let others deal with their expectations of you”)
Dance (“Dance as though your life depended on it, because it just might.”)
Grief is so messy. People are messy and clumsy. I am a messy and clumsy griever, and a messy and clumsy supporter.
I have noticed, yet have been in denial about, the fact that during these difficult last few years, I have almost completely stopped my dancing that was once the heartbeat of my life. Maybe I’m afraid of what will emerge if I reconnect with my body again in such a powerful, honest way (Flamenco has to be one of the most honest, expressive dance forms that there is). Maybe it’s time to get back to that, even if it’s just dancing alone. Just me and the music and all that’s happened that can’t be changed, however much I wish I could go back and get a re-do.
It was worth it all, for the person I’ve become. Grief and loss makes us so much more useful to those on this planet who are suffering, those who need the ones who have been there and know what to do, however clumsily, to help them get through.
Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. is a medical doctor, health and happiness expert, life and health coach, professional speaker, flamenco dancer, and the author of Live a Life You Love: 7 Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You . She has been featured as an expert on the Today Show as well as other major media outlets, and is available for keynote presentations, workshops/retreats, media commentary, and private life and health coaching.
Copyright Dr. Susan Biali 2016