Don’t Rush the Grief

In today’s New York Times there was an editorial piece called “Grief, Unedited” (February 15, 2011). In it Ruth Davis Konigsberg claims that recent scientific findings show that grief can be managed more efficiently, in less time, than was previously thought.

This is a common mistake people make with grief. In our convenience-driven American culture, grief has become something of an inconvenience, approached as a difficult period to get through, rather than an emotional one to go through. Sure, grief will put a hitch in a person’s ability to function at the same level they are used to at first, and maybe for some time. A mother who loses a child may need to stay in bed for a year. On the other hand an elderly widow may take comfort in her routines and not slow down at all. Or the opposite could be true. The widow may need to spend a year in bed and the mother may need to stick to routines. Grief is not predictable. I have little use for scientific studies that try to quantify the grief process.

Yes there are models that can help the specialists identify a client’s grief as normal. But the favored model (J. William Worden’s as outlined in “Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner” (4th edition) New York: Springer) in grief support has no timeline or prescribed outcome. It identifies stages (or Worden’s preferred term, “tasks”) but acknowledges they may occur in any order. And as those of us who study grief know, those stages can all occur inside of a day.

Some grief may last a lifetime. It may become integrated into the personality in a way that is comfortable. I enjoy Patti Smith’s description, given in an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air in 2010:

I think that the idea that time heals all wounds is not really true. Our wounds aren’t ever really healed, we just learn to walk with them. We learn that some days we’re gonna feel intense pain all over again and we just have to say “Okay, I know you, ha. You can come along with me today.”

Grief is the normal response when someone dies. It is really just the painful reaction to a loss. We grieve all kinds of losses in our lifetimes: A limb, a community, a marriage, a job, a friend…anything we have come to depend on will be difficult to let go of. Smith’s take on it is a very healthy one. Grief is not just a painful period to rush past. It is what we carry with us.

The better we are at acknowledging these losses and giving ourselves time and space to honor them, the better we can learn to feel through them.

But why? Why not let feelings stay buried? Why dig up old stories? Pour salt on the wounds? Because grief is not just something to survive or get through. It is an opportunity to know ourselves better.

Working with grief creatively will almost guarantee a shift and change in the emotions that inspired the artwork/song/poem, whatever. When feelings are expressed they tend to expand and transform into positive feelings of love and connection. But when feelings associated with grief are repressed or ignored, they may transform into anger, anxiety, impatience or a lack of feelings.

Of course sadness has been a favored muse since the beginning of time.

There is also the possibility of gaining a new connection to the thing that was lost. The dead person’s spirit is suddenly present. Clarity arrives. Love floods the heart. Grief can be isolating, but ironically, it can also be a great connecter. Through grief we often learn compassion for others. We have to reach out and ask for help. We try to be helpful and find we care on a deeper level than before.

But this kind of processing does not happen quickly or efficiently. In fact the only way it happens is if we are patient and allow ourselves to grieve fully and completely and for as long as it takes. For some that will be forever. The more we repress grief, or tell ourselves we need to be done by a certain point in time, the more it slows us down. When we really open to it, and relax into it, the more grief becomes this mysterious place to explore and find ourselves.