STEPPING STONES – THE GIFTS OF GRIEF
It will seem strange to some to talk of the gifts of grief and indeed it is inappropriate to consider gifts too soon in the grief journey. However for many there is a time when the gifts of grief may be seen as stepping stones from impact to eventual resolution and beyond. Choice is the least recognised of grief’s gifts; we can choose to let grief paralyse our lives in some kind of frozen time warp where we feel nothing but anguish and misery, or we can choose to use the gifts of grief as a stepping stone to the future. Grief is normal, it is the emotion that we feel at the end of something, a special relationship, of wife or child, parent or friend; or maybe our health or our livelihood. It is also the end of our expectations for a particular future and hopes and dreams built over many years. It is also the beginning of the rest of life. It is an opportunity to reframe dreams, set new goals, and to think about achieving our highest potential as a human being.
If we use the analogy of ‘stepping stones’ from where we are to an unknown future, grief may be seen as a process, a journey, rather than a single catastrophic event. A process gives back a measure of control, whereas a single catastrophic event can feel like wipe-out.
When the impact of the event occurs it can feel catastrophic. Many models of grief emphasise the shock, numbness and denial that occur. These, strange as it may seem, are protective mechanisms. Numbing of the emotions allows us to carry on those life activities by which we survive. In spite of the tragic events that have overtaken us we automatically do those things that have to be done. We don’t ‘feel’ anything, yet we go on breathing, existing in some sort of shocked limbo that allows us to plan a funeral, support others or seek support from them. We bury our dead with rituals of remembering. Like automatons we prepare food for our families, our children, picking at it without enthusiasm, maybe drinking endless cups of tea. Yet somehow we survive this mind-numbing impact.
Fallout inevitably follows the numbness of impact as we begin to feel again. Emotions swamp us, negative and positive alike. Anger, guilt, sadness, tears. Overwhelming fear can arrive as part of the fallout; it may not be fear but has similar feelings and effect. This fallout is the cost of loving and commitment to a person or a way of life. We become attached to those we care about and our habitual way of life. It matters not that love may have been replaced by indifference, boredom or even hate, the habit of being part of another’s life forms attachments that when severed cause an emotional wound which needs time to heal. How deep the wound, how much the hurt, depends on several things. How long was the attachment? How much we allow ourselves to be in touch with our emotions? How much we allow ourselves to feel the pain? Evidence suggests the sooner we allow ourselves to feel the pain, the sooner we can mourn our loss and the sooner we can begin the healing process.
Bowman (1998) suggests we need to know what it is we are mourning; that we need to name the losses one by one, mourn each of them separately and together. We lose in our loved one all the roles he or she played in our life. Not only the person but what they did (or neglected to do!) and how they complemented our lives. A wife may lose in her partner; her mechanic, her gardener, her DIY person, her accountant, her playmate, her sexual partner and her bed-warmer. A husband may lose his homemaker, his co-worker, his companion and his lover, his cook and cleaner. In to-days society where roles are blurred clarifying just what is lost maybe difficult. However it really helps to list the losses, including the shared dream, the unspoken model of how reality was for this relationship.
This complexity of loss applies also to loss of a child, a sibling, a parent, a friend, a miscarriage, a grandparent, a job and even our health. For along with the loss of role, and this is a vital but often unnamed aspect of grief, there is a ‘loss of dreams’ (Bowman). This is the blueprint or set of beliefs about how this person, this child, this unborn infant, was to fit into the scheme of things. Often the moment a pregnancy is confirmed, a friendship begun, expectations and aspirations are formed; plans and ideas grow and a dream takes shape. The shattering of this dream is frequently an unrecognised aspect of the grief journey. It needs recognition and it demands mourning.
Naming the losses and feeling the pain allows the psychological reframing of reality. How it was is gone. Once that is painfully accepted and mourned we can begin to plan how it will be in the future. Moreover we can influence how we want that future to be. We can begin to dream a new dream.
THE GIFT OF MEMORY
When we can allow memories of loved ones back into consciousness a little at a time, we can begin to verbalise what they were to us. We can remember how they touched our lives, shaped us, and developed us as they themselves grew. We can look at the gifts they left with us. How they were our touchstones in times of trouble. The joy they brought, the laughter, the sharing. Not forgetting the differences, the difficulties, the conflicts and the rows. All are part of the rich pattern of life. Because they are out of sight does not mean they are out of mind. Their presence and their love is still with us inside ourselves. And there is a way to get in touch with the comfort they always were for us. This is part of the gift of dreams.
THE GIFT OF DREAMS
Recognition of the shattering of the dream enables us to mourn it’s passing. We can identify how much is retrievable, which plans we can still fulfil. We can find ways of integrating times past; love and laughter, memory and support, into our new dream. They will not be there physically, however they still have a place in our hearts. They still participate in what we do and say. “Dad would have loved….” “Mum used to …” “Remember what Gran used to say when…” “ If the baby had lived we would have…” Their standards, their ways have always been a part of our lives, why should it change now? While we live for ourselves we can also live for them; sharing new hopes and plans, communicating internally with one who once visible is now an invisible but never the less vital part of our lives. They contributed to making us who we are. This is where the gift of choice enters.
THE GIFT OF CHOICE
We will, we should mourn. We should feel our pain. We loved, sometimes we hated, and there is an empty place in our lives. We miss them terribly and it is right that we should. For some trapped in terrible lives, death or separation may have provided release from an impossible situation. Even so they were there and their absence requires an adjustment. We can and should move on. Like it or not an opportunity has arrived to make a new start, a different way of being. It may follow the same path, exist in the same environment but its focus has shifted. We have a responsibility to that new focus, we have choices. We can make a new start, formulate fresh dreams, or we can let life drift by as we sink into apathy in the name of unlived unrelieved mourning.
It is OK to notice that in time, five minutes or half an hour or even a day has gone by and we have not remembered them. We laugh again and that is OK too. We can indeed we should enjoy life without feeling guilty. We can even enjoy life for them. No one can take away the love they gave us or the memories we shared. These will not fade away unless we choose to let them go. They are eternal and unchanging they will never stop loving us or turn away, they will always be as we remember them. What you had together you will always have, now and eternally. Love reaches beyond time, beyond death. There is enough to go round.
So where now? What are your individual gifts and strengths? For many of us death brings many questions. Why? How? What is life all about? How have I lived my life? What am I proud of? What do I regret? What do I want to do before I die? There you have it. Death of a loved one hurts in so many ways not least in that it reminds us of our own mortality. Choices again, another gift, an opportunity for our own personal growth.
THE GIFT OF GROWTH
We might use our experience of loss, our sadness and our recognition that we survived, to reach out and help others and encourage and support them in their own losses. We might decide to learn more about life; more about ourselves, what we are capable of, this unique individual that is me. We might decide to become the best we are able and to live for them, letting them live through and with us. For some this may be a new job, a new hobby, or studying a subject we never had time for before. For others it might be discovering our inner lives, our inner self, that which metaphysics and the mystics call our higher selves, the divine within. Whichever route we take we eventually come to recognise death’s final gift, Acceptance.
T o acknowledge that we too will die. And that life is a gift, an adventure, and a journey in which we can become whatever we dream as long as we are willing to work at it.
THE GIFT OF LIFE
The Gift of Life is what death makes us aware of. That we are becoming, we are connected in some way, that there is a sense of wholeness if only we can reach out for it. We are in addition to being physical, social, biological, mental beings; spiritual beings. It is part and parcel of being alive. Awareness of our spiritual dimension can lead us like stepping-stones into our past, our present and our future.
We have indeed undertaken a journey from the impact of grief and it’s oftimes incomprehensible fallout. We have felt the ripple effect as it invades every aspect of our lives. We have identified the touchstone of memory discovering that love does not die but is always with us. We can and should integrate past life and love as the cornerstone of the future. That recognising and naming our losses enables mourning to take place, so that memories become the healing touch that enables us to move forward.
The gifts of grief can be ‘stepping stones’ to the future, to a new dream and a fulfilling life.
Jeni Braund July2015