“Grief is love not wanting to let go.”
Earl A. Grollman in Living with Loss
When grief has struck your heart and you no longer see a path, or you lose your bearings or your ability to read your compass, your whole being is impacted. Much is written about the emotional and physical aspects of grief but so often what happens to our spirit – that part of ourselves that feels grief most keenly whether we are religious or not – is not addressed.
What is meant by “spirituality”? According to Jose del Espiritu a writer on all things spiritual on Blogger.com, spirituality is described as the following:
“…spirituality is the quality of one’s sensitivity to the things of the spirit. So the basic meaning of spirituality is that it is a term which encompasses everything that we cannot see directly with our eyes, directly perceive by the other senses and know by our mere reason. That is spirituality in its basic meaning.”
I would add that spirituality is that which transcends ourselves and our world and gives it meaning. I am part of it yet it is much larger than myself. That part of ourselves that cannot be seen or felt by the senses or known by “mere reason” is who we really are. We are not our name, our job, our education, our reputation, our possessions, our family, our physical characteristics, our intellectual capacity or anything else we believe makes us who we are. These are indeed, aspects of our lives, but not our essence. It is this core self that bears the brunt of loss.
How we cope with loss is informed by many things in our personal history as well as our current spiritual reality. To have some idea of how one will likely cope with grief and loss may be determined by answers to the following questions:
How have you weathered previous losses? Your past way of handling loss is a good indicator of how you will handle future ones.
What have you been taught about your spirit?About God or a Higher Power? Do you know how to tap a Source greater than yourself or do you live only within the connections your 5 senses can make? Those who understand they are not just a body with a mind but a spirit as well can tend to this often neglected part that feels grief most keenly.
As an impressionable child, what did you witness your parents and other caregivers doing in times of loss? Did your parents model healthy grieving by talking about the loss, having tears at times, experiencing non-threatening anger on occasion, and allowing others to support them? Or did life go on as if nothing had ever happened, and in some cases, never speaking of the loss again? If you have witnessed healthy grieving by important role models in your life you may have a blueprint for grieving. If you don’t, it’s not too late to consider how you would like to grieve for your own sake as well as the model you will demonstrate to your children and other younger impressionable people in your life. They are watching and learning from you.
What kind of personal contact sphere do you inhabit? Is it one of compassion and support or are your personal connections mainly social or business oriented or simply superficial? The biggest predictor of how one navigates loss is the quality of the support system they not only have but rely on. If you don’t have this, building a system of support is a good place to start.
Contemplating your answers to these questions may give you insight as to how you cope (or will cope) with your own life losses.
Some seem to never make it back from loss. Many of us know people who have experienced the death of a loved one, often a sudden or traumatic one, where the lives appear to go on but those grieving never actually experience fullness of life again. Maybe you have seen someone who appears to wither and become but a shadow of who they were for the rest of their lives. How often have you heard (when referencing the greatest loss), “after his child died, he was never the same.” This depth of loss, this place of extreme and complicated grief is often an inability or refusal to accept what is. This is not a judgment or a character flaw or a personal failing; it is a tragedy. It’s not your fault; there is little in Western culture that recognizes, acknowledges, or supports grief past the funeral or memorial service. Your personal loss history as well as some of these other personal characteristics, lend themselves to the ability, or inability to move through grief.
Accepting “what is”, is one of the biggest hurdles in moving through grief. Research on grief has shown that almost everyone “accepts” a loved one’s death immediately, that there is not this long span of “denial” that has often been referenced as part of the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross “stages of grief”. Who among the grieving though (who are painfully aware of the reality of the loss) has not experienced coming home and being slapped in the face with the absence of their loved one? It isn’t denial; it’s trying to wrap your brain around the fact that what was, is no more. It is a transition from love being here one moment and love lost in the next, and that doesn’t often happen overnight. The heart still looks for what is lost; some research has called this “yearning” which speaks to the intense wish to reconnect with that love.
Most people move though grief at their own unique pace and many eventually find a peaceful acceptance. This does not mean that this terrible loss is “OK”, but rather that one is no longer battling reality and has come to a place of acceptance of what is. Others become “stuck” and may reach a point of bitter resignation, which is very different from a peaceful acceptance. A healthy spirituality does not protect one from loss; rather it allows one to embrace and fully experience loss and ironically often gives meaning to life itself. A healthy spirituality helps one ultimately accept the unacceptable and inevitable losses of life. Our relationship with God or our Higher Power can be a source of tenderness and compassion as we traverse the rocky terrain of grief.
If your grief has paralyzed you and alienated you from your Source of spiritual support, it may be time to seek out support from your faith community, a chaplain or spiritual advisor. If you have not explored your spirituality previously, this may be a time to ponder what gives meaning and power to your life in light of this loss. If what you believed previously is not supporting you in this current grief perhaps this is an opportunity for further exploration. Whether you are relying on faith, questioning it, disdaining it, reclaiming it or awakening to it, it’s worth pursuing.
That grief impacts the total self is undeniable and cannot be overstated. Your spirit seeks meaning in loss; what sustains you in these hard times may help you find that meaning.