“Meaninglessness inhibits fullness of life and is therefore equivalent to illness. Meaning makes a great many things endurable– perhaps everything.” – C.G. Jung
One year ago this month, just after Spring began, my heart was broken when my own mother’s heart stopped beating. She passed away after reaching her 91st year on earth. No matter how prepared I may have thought I was for grieving, what I soon realized was that there was no way to predict how it would feel. Grief as a process has been studied, written about, allowed, avoided, sometimes embraced, and inevitable. Some people consider grief a word that describes a type of sadness over loss. Another way to see it is as a process of letting go. That’s why, sometimes, we even grieve what we choose to lose. Certainly, grieving something we experience as taken from us has a particular heaviness that can be hard to bear. I’ve discovered grief to be a journey, a road to travel that runs parallel to every other experience we will have in our lives.
People grieve in different ways and from what I’ve observed can embrace the process by finding meaning in the loss and in how the loss has affected them. Even while grieving a loss other than through death, perhaps a job termination, failed opportunity, or even divorce, people will frequently find comfort in the belief that one loss occurred so a more profound gain could be realized. When my father died his 2nd wife grieved by holding tight to most of his possessions, leaving my brothers and I with very little physical evidence of his life – short of a few photos and our DNA. Because I had nothing concrete to grasp as I grieved his passing, I then searched for a meaning to it all – his life, his death, the sorrow I felt. For me, that meant frantically searching for a way to hold on to his memory. My version of holding on was to delve into our ancestry. When our mother died, though she had no significant amount of worldly possessions to will to anyone, my brother with whom she’d lived for some years graciously opened up the home and those possessions to us for gathering and remembrance. The canisters in my kitchen, her “mother’s ring” we bought her when we were kids, a few photos and an embroidered cloth of scripture have now become my most precious belongings. Seeing them in my home means she lived and that we had a relationship. These items remind me of lessons she taught me, of gifts I inherited from her. I could tolerate and even embrace that meaning allowing it to ground me more firmly in who I am supposed to be.
Grief is surprisingly and purposefully patient.
Grief is such a natural and necessary part of life that it will wait it’s turn to be acknowledged. Countless clients have entered my office seeking support for what they thought was a totally different concern, only to discover that the issue was a matter of grief that had never been tended – grief that had remained silent for many years while they went about the business of living. Some years ago, I saw a client who had suffered many losses as a child, leaving her stranded without a family who could love her. She amazingly finished college, joined the military, survived the Iraq war, got married, and started a family of her own. When her daughter reached the age my client had been when her losses began, life seemed to unravel. She originally came to me to learn stress management skills. Quickly, we both realized her unresolved grief was finally taking its turn – after decades. She said, prior to her visits with me, she’d never shared her story with anyone. I believe her grief, having “a mind of its own”, waited for her to be firmly grounded so that she could stand strong while she faced so many devastating losses. Facing them as an accomplished and grown woman seemed more bearable than as a 10 year old girl.
Grief can wait decades, finally rising to speak and say, “Now. Acknowledge me now so we can let go. So we can move on”.
My client found profound meaning in realizing that her resilience and ability to live despite her losses had given her gifts she used to help others – her own children, the soldiers in her care. I know that what helped me embrace the grieving process and hold it within myself was finding meaning for my mother’s life. Sometimes the journey of grief is one we can’t walk alone. There are feelings, meanings, and messages that must be spoken. Whether you see it as an event, a process, or a journey, know that grief is also a story – part of your story – that may need to be spoken. If you believe you’re burdened by an untold grief, there are those equipped to hear the story and help you move that grief through telling so that your burden is lightened and moving on through life becomes an easier journey.
Note on Confidentiality: Details of any client experience mentioned in these writings have been changed so that the identity of a particular person is fully protected. However, the lessons learned or points made by me as a therapist remain true to any specific experience shared.