Being with Grief
Grief is a profound calamity which befalls a person at some point in their life. During these intense, grief ridden times, Suzy Singh holds space for grieving souls and makes some deep observations about the process of grieving.
The voice on the other end of the phone pierced her heart, making it bleed yet again. The caller intended to offer her condolences, but succeeded in doing quite the opposite.
“How did your husband expire?” she probed. Without investing a moment to ponder about the impact her indiscreet questions were having on the bereaved, she went on to inquire brazenly, “all of us in the family got COVID too, but we came out safe and sound, why did this happen to you?”
Aarti wanted to scream back and say, maybe because I’m a terrible person and God is punishing me for my sins, but she simply gulped the lump in her throat that was choking her. Her silence encouraged the caller to continue the barrage of endless questions, sprinkling salt on her open wounds. “You are so spiritual, how could this happen to you?” Had Aarti not been a counselor herself, she may have reacted to this provocation in an unkind, or should I say, human way. Instead, she reasoned with her feelings and told herself that perhaps the caller’s intentions were in the right place but her communication was really messed up.
For hours after that call, which was supposed to bring her comfort, Aarti trembled and shook like a fish out of water. She wasn’t sure if it was fury or anguish that ravaged her body. Tears stung her eyes irreverently and the child in her revolted at the meanness of it all. “Why are people so ill-equipped when it comes to dealing with those in grief?”, she screamed. “Everyone says stay strong, but what do they mean when they say that? Do they want me to stop my tears that arise so naturally when I see my deceased husband’s face in my head and realise I will never wake up to him again? Do they want me to stop grieving for a man I’ve loved so dearly, and realise I’m never going to hug him again? Why should I suppress my emotions and pretend that it’s all okay when it isn’t? Who is going to love me, hold me, comfort me, support me like he did? Do they even know what it feels like to lose someone you’ve loved so deeply; forever?”
Modern life has conditioned us to avoid suffering and to fast forward pain. No wonder grievers are routinely doled out free advice to be strong and get on with life. If anyone insists on staying with their grief long enough to deal with it, they are admonished and told to think about their children or families instead. “If not for yourself, do it for our sake,” is the common rant. In fact, the act of grieving is so often seen as being weak and selfish.
Our discomfort with grief
Unfortunately, this guidance is not only erroneous, it is highly counterproductive for those grieving. So why then, are the bereaved routinely told to get back to ‘normal life’ when every semblance of normality in their lives has clearly been destroyed? Well, it’s because most people are awkward and uncomfortable with grief, grieving and grievers. We struggle with what to say, what’s right and wrong, how to hold space for those who have recently lost a loved one, and how to comfort them. Why are we all so naive in the face of such a universal experience such as death?
Perhaps because being with someone who is grieving triggers our own unresolved grief, and we are terrified at the idea of revisiting that feeling. It also brings the idea of our mortality salience into sharp focus, making us wonder if perhaps we might be Covid’s next victim, or if it will ruthlessly snatch away one of our beloved family or friends. We are scared to even think of such a possibility. Hence, there’s an urgency to restore normalcy and distance oneself from the despair of death so that we are not reminded of it, nor are we stuck with feeling guilty for being unsupportive towards those who have already succumbed to this misfortune.
Aarti probably understood these subliminal fears and was thus ready to excuse her caller’s insensitive remarks. But when grievers are not treated with compassion, gentleness and care, it creates more complications for them. Their battle with bereavement becomes extended and their suffering intensifies. Another lady who had recently lost her young husband was shocked when her in law’s decided to return to their home shortly after the mandatory death rituals were complete. “They didn’t for a moment think about how I was going to deal with the aftermath of my husband’s death all alone. Couldn’t they have extended themselves even a little?”, she cried, “after all he was their son too!”
Even her own mother was impatient about her continued lack of motivation and incessant tears. “Think about your little child”, she kept berating her, unmindful of her daughter’s mental and emotional condition. Such situations can create much self-doubt in the griever’s mind. Am I wrong? Am I mentally sick? Will I ever be able to live a normal life? Why does no one understand what I’m going through? Am I managing my grief poorly? Is there any point in living on? Or should I just die?
While nature constantly teaches us to love and let go, we are hesitant students. I often think about how wonderful it was to have my five year old son put his arms around my neck to hug and kiss me. He no longer does that now as he’s a grown man, but I still miss that experience and grieve it too, for we can never go back in time and touch the same waters again. Life is like a river that flows on, changing from one moment to another. Yesterday is dead and tomorrow is unknown. This moment is all I have and yet I am unable to anchor my attention in the present and feel fully whatever is occurring in the here and now. Be it celebrations or sorrows, accomplishments or loss, why are we told to simply touch the surface of these experiences and not dive deeply into them? Don’t laugh too much or you’ll have to cry. Don’t cry so much, just be grateful for what you have. I can see you all nodding your heads in agreement, thinking, yes, I’ve heard that before, but my point is not whether you’ve heard them or not, it’s about why it’s so hard to feel our grief openly or why we don’t have enough compassion for those who are attempting to do so?
Let grievers grieve
In my grief counselling work, the one difficulty that I find most grievers battle with, is guilt. Why couldn’t I save him? Would she have lived longer if I’d done something differently? Am I responsible for his or her passing? How can I ever forgive myself? When someone is going through such an intense catharsis, they don’t need the weight of insensitive or intrusive questions that amplifies their guilt. What they need is a safe space in which to pour all their sorrows. A comforting vessel they can empty their pain and endless questions into. They need you to listen to them, just as God listens to us all, quietly, without interruption, but offering them the faith that you truly relate to their pain. They need the reassurance and warmth of your understanding. They need your love and care.
Ask them to speak about their deceased beloved, for that’s what they really want to share. Ask them to tell you what’s the hardest part of living without them, and let them express their desperation and despair. Your task is not to make them feel better or reduce their pain. Your task is simply to help them connect with their grief, to express and process it.
Do not try to cheer them up, nor attempt to lead the discussion in any particular direction. Let them steer the conversation. Allow them to talk about whatever it is they are struggling with. If they are not yet ready to talk, sit with them in silence, or ask if they would like you to pray with them for the deceased.
Most people with whom I do grief work are anxious to know about how their lost one’s are faring in the afterlife. They ask me, is he at peace? Has she met with the Divine? Is he healthy? Does he think of me? Does she worry about me? So I like to say a prayer with the grief stricken, that addresses these concerns and helps them find the faith that the deceased has journeyed swiftly into the Light, that they are happy and healthy on the other side, and that they are blessing their loved ones from wherever they happen to be. This brings peace and comfort to the bereaved.
If there is a lack of closure, I often suggest they write letters to their dead one’s or have soul conversations with them, to say all those things that remain unsaid. Once the initial tsunami of emotions has been dealt with, it’s useful to direct their attention to how they would like to cherish the memory of the deceased. This helps them to engage in grief projects or rituals that encourage processing the grief in very intimate and personal ways. Some people write grief poems, others write books, some gather their beloved’s favourite recipes into a folder, while still others browse through albums repeatedly, visiting and re-living fond memories or cataloguing them into remembrance videos.
Grieving has no fixed time or method. Everyone grieves differently depending on the quality of their connection, the degree of co-dependency they had on the deceased, the circumstances in which the death occurred, and the strength of the griever’s spiritual practice. There are however a few things that underlie all of life’s difficult journeys, including grief, and these are patience, compassion and love. Without these, uprooted by the storm of loss, a griever cannot re-anchor themselves in the soil of tomorrow.
For grief demands
That you unlock your heart
And stand before it
Naked and bare
So it can strip you
Of that last defence
That you’re not willing to spare
It enters your being
And stings you
You will bleed
All the pain away
When the turbulent sea
Of bereavement stills
In the ashes of your soul
Grief sows a seed
Blossoms once again
And the fountain of spring
To a renewed meaning
Of loving and living
~ Suzy Singh
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