The Art of Grieving

When my grandmother was alive, grieving was a part of living.  People died from influenza, from blizzards, from childbirth, from broken bones… There was a time of mourning, when the person grieving was not expected to do more than experience grief.  Today, we have lost connection with this potent emotion.  We no longer know how to live this rich, life altering experience of change.

Grief is now a study of science, instead of a natural part of life.  As Ken McLeod points out in his recent blog, “Is Happiness a Worthwhile Goal?”, Grief is now seen as a disease, something that needs “treatment”.   Additionally, most of us are under the false impression that we know how to keep our emotions hidden.  Many professions are based on this premise.  Unfortunately, we forget that our first way of knowing is sensory.  That does not end when we become adults, it merely becomes second fiddle to speech.  Sensations, movement, emotions are all definitely there, easy to see to an aware eye.  Yet, when grief arises we work hard to ignore it, bury it or run from it.

Is grief the opposite of happiness?  Is it a disease that needs pharmaceutical treatment?  If we feel grief, should we simply “open happiness” as a cola company leads us to believe?  I remember many years ago, in the late 1970s, there was an advertisement on television.  It showed an olympic gold medalist male gymnast doing his perfect Ring Event.  After his dismount, he smiled with success and drank a cup of coffee.  The announcer simply said “Join the coffee generation”.  Is coffee really the way to win and avoid the grief of loss?  It has worked for Starbuck$.

Joan Didion, in her book “The Year of Magical Thinking” quotes Eric Lindeman’s description of grief from 1944: “sensations of somatic distress occurring in waves lasting from twenty minutes to an hour at a time, a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing and an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power and an intense subjective distress described as tension  or mental pain”.   I am struck by how accurate this description is to my own experience.  I know this well.

Now, compare it to Wikipedia’s: “multi-faceted response to loss… Although conventionally focused on the emotional response to loss, it also has physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, and philosophical dimensions.”

In “When Elephants Weep”, the authors present observations of the responses of animals to death and birth of their own species.  One observation is of elephants circling around the body of a deceased elephant while trumpeting, stroking the body, and rhythmically swaying for days.  This book received a lot of criticism based on the belief that “mere animals could not possibly know more about emotions than humans”.  And yet, we have that wikipedia description of grief…

Grief is practical.  It is natural.  When my father died, it was as Eric Lindeman describes above, waves of somatic tension, then wandering that lasted for years.  When I lost the use of my right arm, it was mental fatigue plus a keening ripping in my lungs.  When many a project or event does not succeed, it is the sighing, emptiness in the abdomen and the combined rhythmic dropping of my hands upon my thighs with the downward tone in my speech.  When grief arises, for no reason whatsoever, it is a the slicing pain in my gut, loss of appetite and foggy connection to the world.

Emily Post wrote in 1918 at a time when grief & mourning was integral to life.  I am touched by the practical observations.  “Persons under the shock of genuine affliction are not only upset mentally but are unbalanced physically.  No matter how calm and controlled they seemingly may be, no one can under such circumstances be normal.  Their disturbed circulation makes them cold, their distress makes them unstrung, sleepless.  Persons they normally like, they often turn from.  No one should ever be forced upon those in grief, and all over-emotional people, no matter how near or dear, should be barred absolutely.  Although the knowledge that their friends love them and sorrow for them is a great solace, the nearest afflicted must be protected from any one or anything which is likely to overstrain the nerves already at the threatening point, and none have the right to feel hurt if they are told they can neither be of use or be received.  At such a time, to some people companionship is a comfort, others shrink from their dearest friends.  …The bereaved must be urged to “sit in a sunny room”, preferably one with an open fire. …A friend should be left in charge of the house during the funeral.  The friend should see that the house is aired and displaced furniture put back where it belongs and a fire lit for the homecoming…”

Grief is a part of life.  It’s wisdom unfolds gradually, shifting and changing outside of time. Awareness of that which would be normally ignored is increased.  Everything is alive, poignant, awake and unconcerned.

Due to its timeless development, we can easily forget that grieving is working its magic.  Here is where bringing back an element of mourning can be useful.  It can be simple – wearing a black rubber band on your wrist.  It is a reminder, so when you feel: ‘tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing and an empty feeling in the abdomen…’,  you can see the black rubber band and remember:  “Oh yes, I am grieving.  I need to ‘sit in a sunny room’.  I need to air out the house of my mind.  I cannot push.  I can allow this rich life altering change to unfold.”

©Copyright 2012 Gail H Gustafson, Mahakala Radio, Colorado Springs

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