The Universality of Grief, Grieving and Coming to Terms with Our Losses
by Karen White
A key reason for me becoming a coach was because I realised it would provide a way to reduce my own and others suffering in the world. The conversations I have had working with people in individual coaching relationships and in workshops have provided me with a unique opportunity to keep learning, growing and enhancing the quality of my life and existence, while at the same time offering support to others – I consider myself very fortunate!
At a recent ontological program I was leading in the USA I had a conversation with a woman about grieving. Her husband died a couple of years ago and while she was sharing about this she began to cry. She then berated herself and said she thought she was over his death and that she should be by now.
The construct we have about death and dying versus the personal
A quick side bar... I have experienced the death of three family members. My first brother died when I was in my late 20s. It was a huge shock, and completely unexpected, which was very painful. I still, more than 20 years later find myself occasionally lapsing into deep sadness about his death and all the subsequent losses I feel associated with that ending. Then about 10 years later my father died of pancreatic cancer. It wasn’t a sudden death and there was an opportunity to say our farewells, and appreciate his life and the role he played in ours. This did allow for a gentler experience of death for me, and it still hurt like hell. My most recent experience of losing someone I loved was last year when my other brother died. While it wasn’t completely unexpected, as he had leukaemia, the prognosis when he was diagnosed was good and we were told that he was strong and while the treatment would be rough there was a good chance he would make it. Unfortunately the prognosis and reality did not line up and 2 weeks after the diagnosis he died. As with the other deaths I’ve experienced, it has also been painful and not a smooth road with clear markings and a final destination.
Why am I revealing all of this? I can say with absolute certainty that we are all going to experience death in our lives, our own and also of loved ones and people that are important to us. Until quite recently in our modern society we had systems often as part of a broader religion that provided rituals and process, along with a support structure of people, which is now more often than not missing in our contemporary society. In our society at the moment, many people don’t have a way of exploring and experiencing death in a way that allows us to be comfortable and make peace with the process and the ongoing nature of the process. In the absence of having a structure and a way to be with our grief we have somehow come to the interpretation that once some time has passed we “get over it”. This is what I was listening to was happening for the woman who was sharing about her experience at the workshop.
Much has been written about death and when we look for ways to make sense about death and dying, we tend to look at the construct of it, rather than the personal and the direct experience we have or will have with this inevitable ending. It seems the common view is that we will arrive at a point where we will no longer feel the pain of the loss. My experience has not been that and while the construct is rather appealing at a level, it can create much more anguish than the suffering of mourning when the sorrow arises. A way I’ve come to understand grieving and death is that as time has gone by with each loss, it is the spaces in between feeling that intense and gut wrenching pain that gets longer and longer. In other words, instead of living in the pain moment to moment, it shifts to feeling the pain at odd times in the day, to sometime in a week, and then at some times in a month until the spaces between the sadness become longer and longer.
Our grieving does not happen in a linear progression and the heart ache we feel can arise at odd times with the spaces between the sadness becoming longer apart. Also, there is no specific event, situation or circumstance that necessarily goes with the heart ache. In learning this, I’ve come to appreciate that we can do ourselves and others a disservice by thinking that the sadness will at some stage leave us forever. This notion that we will be healed and never feel the hurt from that loss again, from my experience, is just that, a notion.
This (that the spaces in between the pain and sadness grow) was one of the things I offered to the woman who attended the workshop. It was wonderful to observe the shift in her and the relief she experienced which was immediately visible and which she then shared had happened for her.
Grieving and Sadness as Moods
From an ontological perspective we distinguish between moods, which are longer lasting and sit in the background of our lives and living, with us not always being aware of them or those moods being linked to a specific event, circumstance or situation. Emotions on the other hand are more fleeting and come and go in relation to events or situations.
As part of the conversation with the person woman on the course we explored how the space between the sadness can be attributed to two distinct moods, grieving and sadness.
With grieving we are yearning for the loss of someone, something and an aspect of our life that is never going to return. We do not accept that loss and haven’t come to terms with the death, can feel that our life is over and it is no longer worth continuing on, and this is completely normal. Accompanying this mood can also be emotions like denial, shock, guilt, anger, and even relief which keep us preoccupied with the loss and yet not accepting it. When I shared this with the person, she began to cry from a deeper place which continued for a while. As she settled a bit she said that she recognised that she was still caught in grieving and had been rejecting this for herself.
What was noteworthy for me was in the moment of acknowledging where she was at she began to shift to accepting the loss and the mood of sadness. With sadness it is still an intense and even heavy feeling and at the same time there is an increasing degree of acceptance and with it respite. For her, she was able to shift from berating, critising and rebuking herself to being kinder and more compassionate with where she finds herself with her grieving.
My interpretation of this conversation is that we had a glimpse into a microcosm of grieving and sadness in a macrocosm of all human being’s emotions and moods relative to death and dying. We spoke about how this process, shifting between grieving and sadness, would likely continue for some time yet – in other words the conversation was not going to be the panacea – and that her experience is normal and natural. It was lovely to watch her give herself permission to have the experience she has as opposed to and expecting herself to live with a script given to her by someone else, whether it be a kind friend, a book, an article or anything else outside of her own understanding.
And a footnote about grief and sadness … it is not only about death in relation to a person, but rather applies to all the endings and losses we experience in our lives, the significant ones and the little ones. We can get caught in grieving the loss of many experiences where we yearn for the return of something, like a relationship that ended, a job loss, changes in our lives personally and professionally that we didn’t want or sign up for. So, paying attention to these moods can be very helpful for helping us navigate our lives in general too.
I realise more and more that it is not about having answers, or even questions, but rather to be open to things being a little different. A few musings that came up for me that I’d love to share with you:
I wonder how it would be if we were able to move from death being a mental construct, which then becomes a social construct, to appreciating the experience and full gamut that goes with what happens in the process of grieving?
To be human is to feel... What difference would it make to alleviating suffering if we gave ourselve permission to fully feel what we feel and not suppress or edit our experience?
How can we honor our grieving instead of rejecting it and thinking we should ‘get over’ the experience of loss and heart ache?
How might we treat each other differently in the world, if we realised that we can’t put a proverbial band aid on the hurt that comes with losing people we love? How would we observe differently what is happening in the world at large?
Karen White works as an ontological coach and facilitator in South Africa. She partners with Alan Sieler in ontological coach training programs in South Africa and the USA. Karen can be contacted at - email@example.com