Tag Archives: grief

Grief and religion

One of the things that religions have in common is that they offer answers to human suffering. It may be in the form of strategies to relieve that suffering by living in certain ways. It may be through stories of divine oversight, grand plans, or afterlife recompense. This is one of the ways in which I’ve always found organised religions problematic. Not least because so often, those consolations don’t turn out to be that helpful for people experiencing grief and trauma.

When you have to ask why your God wasn’t there for you and why terrible things were allowed to happen, you either undermine your faith or start having to believe that terrible things are somehow part of a grand plan for your own good. It’s a bigger issue for omnipotent Gods who are supposed to be benevolent.

We suffer in so far as we care. Love and grief are two sides of the same coin. Everything in our world is finite, and will end, or die and if we care about that, or about ourselves we are bound to be hurt by this. To care is to be vulnerable to loss.

In my late teens, I first encountered existentialist thinking, which responds to the grief of life and the apparent meaninglessness by owning it. We may have to make our own meaning. There may be no other meaning. It was the first approach I’d found that genuinely comforted me and it did so because it let me own what I was experiencing. This may be all we have. There may be no grand plan. Everyone dies. If you care, it hurts.

Rather than follow a path that has anything to offer by way of more conventional comfort, I’ve lived with this on my own terms. I see loss and grief as part of life. I see them as intrinsic parts of my caring and loving. I’ve not sought a path that would free me from pain, rather, I’ve tried to embrace it as part of what it means to be human. I find more comfort in the idea that there isn’t a plan, that terrible things happen for no real reason at all sometimes, and that we certainly do not get what we deserve. I think it’s kinder not to assume we get what we deserve.

When we try to protect ourselves from pain, we may close our hearts to what’s around us. We may delude ourselves. We may not do today the things we will no longer have chance to do tomorrow. When you live knowing that everything and everyone is going to die and you let that colour your world view, it becomes more necessary to live fully. It becomes more important to tell people you love them. It becomes more important to try and sort things out here and now, and get them right in the first place.

I’m never very sure what I believe when it comes to deity and afterlife. What I am sure is that it works better for me to live as though there is nothing else but this life and this body I have to experience it with. To love as much as I can and to accept what that means and to embrace grief as an aspect of love makes the most sense to me.

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Grief and love

Grief is the painful but necessary process of dealing with dramatic changes around love. If that which we have loved is gone, there’s a process to go through responding to that. Either we choose to let the love go as well and move on, or we learn how to carry it. We adjust to loving that which is no longer present in our lives. I’ve always felt strongly that no one should be obliged to get over a loss of someone or something they truly loved.

Learning how to carry the grief of loss is not at all like letting go. It is a process of making that love a part of you, no longer dependent on anything exterior to you. To accept the loss, and refuse to let go of the love. To decide that the love you have is bigger than death, bigger than distance, or destruction. I think it’s a good choice to keep what you loved alive by continuing to love when it is no longer there to directly inspire that love.

Sometimes grief takes another form and of the two, I find this one harder to deal with. If we are betrayed by someone we love. If what we loved turns out to be lies and illusion, if we have been manipulated, let down, led astray. If our love has been accepted only to control us and put us on a leash… And there comes a point where this is visible. The object of our love may be right in front of us, just the same as always. What dies here is our capacity for love. The grief that follows the death of love is different from the grief that follows the death of a loved something or someone.

It may be that the illusions were of our own making. We put our faith and trust in an idea we had, and reality can’t bear it out. That hurts, and is likely to bring a lot of soul searching and distress. Unpicking and understanding the illusion after it has been revealed is tough work. Dealing with the memory of love for something unfeasible can be painful, humiliating. It can be waded through, and it is better to be free of such illusions even if the short term cost of dealing with them is really high.

It may be that we have been deliberately misled and betrayed. The death of love in this way is an entirely human issue. A creature won’t do this to us, nor will a landscape, a house, a musical instrument. They are what we are, and if we love such things for what they are they will never deliberately let us down. People are a whole other issue. Whether we love enough to endure betrayal is something you only find out on a case by case basis. Sometimes it may be a good and noble thing to keep loving in the face of terrible let-downs. Sometimes it may be the bars on your prison that keeps you locked in something abusive. Sometimes it is better if love dies, and you live.

Most spiritual traditions uphold the idea that love is good, and ideal and what we should be working with. There’s not much practical advice out there as to what to do to stay sane and functional in face of serious betrayals of trust. We have plenty of cultural information around us about dealing with the loss of what we’ve loved, but precious little to help a person navigate around the death of love itself. We tell each other that love should be eternal and unconditional, and we don’t tell each other what to do when we find we really can’t deliver on that.

As a consequence, the death of love can feel like a personal failing. Having been monumentally betrayed, the victim of this may be left thinking that they should still be able to love and give and feel compassion for the person hurting and harming them. It may seem that the onus is on them to be bigger, kinder, more generous. I know from experience that if you have what it takes to keep loving someone who abuses that love, they will just keep cutting you down and making you smaller and less able to function. Sometimes the death of love will save your life in a really literal way.


Grief and healing

“Trauma is often the result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one’s ability to cope or integrate the emotions involved with that experience.” (Wikipedia, summing up a definition I’ve seen in lots of other places.)

Grief is a process that we know about. Around matters of bereavement, people who grieve at the time of loss, cope. They may carry a lot of pain with them, they may never ‘get over it’ but they will be functional, they will find a way. Grief is an adjustment process, and while it may hurt like hell, it is the way forward. People who do not grieve at the time of bereavement will get a delayed grief experience. When it will happen, and how, and with what force is unpredictable, but it’s reliably much, much worse for delayed grief people than for people who can grieve in a timely way.

Grief is not just about death. It can be about all manner of losses and wounds, shocks and setbacks. However, what often happens when we hit a crisis, is that we get a lot of support to cope. Stiff upper lip. Soldier on. Push through. The smaller the crisis, the more pressure there is not to make a fuss about it. How many of us have working lives that are basically running low level crises? Or family lives of that shape? Or financial problems that are just small, constant nightmares. And how many of us hit bigger things and find there’s no room to do anything but keep going?

I spent years with this one, when there was always something else more important than how I was feeling. Running from one crisis to another – most of them not of my making, fire fighting, coping, keeping going, doing all the important things. The one important thing I did not do during those years, was grieve for my losses, my wounds. I spent a lot of time trying to be brave for everyone else, to keep a good face on it. I was put under pressure to be jolly and co-operative, for the good of others, at times when that was unbearable. So I smiled, and bore it as best I could.

When grief is suppressed and undealt with, there is no room to integrate the experience. There’s no time to absorb and process, to make sense of what’s happened. There’s no room to let go and put it properly behind you.

The result is that it comes out sideways, unexpectedly. There aren’t always obvious triggers, except that its more likely to happen when you feel calmer, safer, more able to accommodate it. Why there is the sudden drowning in grief may be impossible to explain, and certainly if it hits you years after the event, its much harder to get the emotional support that’s more readily available to people who have recently been hit by a thing.

When we think about trauma, we tend to think about big, dramatic events. However, the accumulation of lots of smaller, unprocessed losses also takes a toll, but leaves a person with nothing they can obviously point at.

It’s important not to rush people through grief. If you can make any space at all to deal with things as they come up, you will do better. I know it seems like helping to tell someone to keep going, chin up, smile, don’t let the bastards grind you down, but keeping going in the short term can mean really not keeping going in the long term, and its worth looking at the bigger picture.


Mournful Poetry and the power of despair

This is a poem that came out of a number of things. I think it makes sense without the explanation, but I also think the explanation is interesting in its own right, so here we go. The content for this poem came out of two lunatic walking expeditions, one which took me over, the other under a motorway. In both cases, the increasing impact of the motorway sound on what else I could hear was quite a distressing experience, and on one walk produced a great sense of horror in my son. Most people only get near motorways when driving on them, which reduces this horror considerably. To stand in a field and hear it roar, is a whole other thing, and not pleasant at all.

Thing number two was an article about how you can hear the absences in ecosystems, and that any listening orientated science is hearing the hush descending on the non-human word. A deathly hush of absence.

Thing number three is Miserable Poet’s Cafe, which I went to last night and for which I needed material. This is the one I did not end up reading – there is a glimmer of hope at the end – and there wasn’t time. Still, I did win a bottle of very cheap wine.

 

Silence falling

Allow me to render you unquiet, and unhappy

For there are uneasy truths I would inflict

Of deathly silence falling on ecosystems

No dawn chorus but a quiet straggle.

I invite you to be glum, to despair.

Have you heard the fox at midnight?

No wolf will howl for you, not on this shore.

Have you heard the haunting crane call?

Or the bittern boom at the edge of viability?

Owls and orcas, nightingale and narwal

Passing into myth on our watch

For future generations to place beside unicorns.

Have you heard the roar of motorway

The ever busy sound wound carving

Its angry self into land and air,

Always hungry, raging over miles to eat up

The subtle songs of hedgerow dwellers.

Have you heard the fevered squeal of late night

Just having a laugh at 80 would be racers

Thunder of aircraft tearing the sky, the insidious whir

Of fans, coolers, air conditioning, the sound

Of life being stolen from the future,

One loud pluck at a time.

I invite you to hear the ruined world song

And despair.

Only in grief will there be hope.

 

(*and yes, I know there are people trying to reintroduce wolves to the UK, but I’ve never heard one here and most of us never will.)

 


My Sadness Tantrum

“All sadness is a tantrum” – I’ve seen this thought on facebook, the author has several hundred thousand page likes, so a lot of people got this message recently. Welcome to my sadness tantrum, feel free to lie on the floor beside me, thrash about and howl if you need to. I’m not ‘enlightened’ enough to have stopped feeling pain, and I’m enough of a blasphemer against this position to think that sadness is a good thing.

I have my personal sadness around loss, setback, frustration and physical pain. Things that scare me make me sad. I see these as aspects of my being human and I am not ashamed of them. Empathy makes me grieve for the suffering of friends and share in their sadness. It makes me cry over the things I cannot fix or undo. I believe that sorrow teaches us compassion. Then there is the place beyond sadness. The rage and anguish caused by images of war, and fracking; the horrors we inflict on each other and on this world. I weep over those. I invite you to weep too, because our salvation may lie in the spur to action that comes from our broken and bleeding hearts. Howling is magic. Grief harnessed begets transformation. This is where powerful, positive change starts – when we can no longer bear things as they are.

I have not achieved enlightenment, I’m not expecting to any decade soon. I’m so far from that state, I haven’t a clue what it means, and whether getting there means you dispense with human emotion. I rather hope not. I think our emotions are often our saving grace as a species; grief and joy are twins that inspire and enable us. If enlightenment means losing that, I guess I’m opting out of the spiritual race. So, I know nothing about this stuff. I do however know a bit about tantrums.

“Tantrum” is the word we use to describe a perception of disproportionate emotional outbreaks – usually from children, or from people we wish to ridicule and undermine by likening them to undisciplined infants. To class something as a ‘tantrum’ is to belittle and dismiss it. If something is “just a tantrum” it lacks worth, and relevance – it can be ignored.

Small children are prone to disproportionate emotional outbreaks, from an adult perspective. I’ve raised a child, I’ve hung out with parents, this territory I do know. Your toddler knows nothing of torture, murder, war and crime. A tiny setback and a minor pain can be the worst horrors they have ever endured. The frustration of being thwarted is unbearable because it is quite literally the worst experience they have ever had and it totally challenges their sense of self and their place in the world. Ideally as a parent you have to do two things with this, and they are equally important. You have to help your child gain enough perspective to cope with life, without traumatising them about the state of the world they have joined. This is a process. It takes years. You have to do this, ideally, whilst not undermining their sense of self. That means not entirely invalidating their emotional responses, not making them feel stupid or worthless because they cried when you thought they shouldn’t. It is a bloody difficult job.

You don’t get to fast track on this one. You don’t get to be an emotionally mature adult without first being a shrieking toddler and doing whatever you do with the chaos of adolescence. There are no shortcuts, so I’m prepared to bet that if enlightenment is available, there are no shortcuts there either. I also suspect that knocking someone back doesn’t help them grow. We are where we are – however flawed that is, however far from where we think we ought to be. You have to start from where you are, but if you start out ashamed of your point of departure, that isn’t a lot of help. More the opposite.

I don’t know what enlightenment looks like, but my gut says it should not be smug and toxic, invalidating the struggles of people who are ‘less advanced’.


The Tyranny of Healing

We’re all supposed to want to be perfectly functional. To be well, stable, capable, not inconvenient for others. Being well is not all peace and light.

On the New Age side there can be a lot of pressure towards wellness, with a sense that being ill represents a personal failure, a not having tried hard enough. The more extreme end of other religions will ascribe illness to being out of favour with God. Good Christians don’t get cancer, in some people’s book, therefore to get it is to have failed religiously, on top of everything else.

There are a lot of chronic and on-going illnesses out there that can, at best, be managed well. No amount of healthy lifestyle choices or positive thinking will cure you of Multiple Sclerosis or arthritis. Then there are the psychological ailments, because it simply isn’t the case that you can positive-attitude yourself out of suffering from severe depression. There are life experience too painful and serious to heal from as well. I know people who have lost children, and who carry that grief. No one should be asked, or expected to ‘get over it’ but the pressure to be convenient to those around you, is vast. Grief is something we are supposed to knuckle down and heal from, and if we can’t or won’t, we will be treated as though we need a medical intervention. There are occasions when not healing should be a perfectly valid option.

That which seriously harms us, in body or in mind, leaves marks that endure long after the obvious damage has gone away. The damage to a rape victim’s body will heal, but the damage to self, to relationship with the world, may be there for the rest of their lives. There is no way back from certain kinds of experience, no way of unlearning it, or ceasing to be aware that it can and does happen, that it could happen again, and that it will happen to other people. Extreme pain and sickness, violence and dire accident change our relationship with the world. Afterwards, we are not the same. We can’t be. We become more cautious, more aware, and we see differently. The damage becomes a part of self, a part of life, and to be asked to heal after that is to be asked not to recognise your own harsh journey.

The pressure to heal, put upon us by well-meaning people can add insult to injury. Are we to forget, then? Are we not to learn the lessons a failing body has taught us? Are we to pretend it never happened? Those who have not been put through hell at some point, quite understandably do not want to have to think about what might be out there, waiting for them. Those who have, may not wish to be reminded by seeing it happen to someone else. But what kind of answer is that? It’s not healing that is sought here, it’s not about what the survivor may need, but abut rendering them less problematic to those around them.

Sometimes, the best you can hope for is to make peace with things. A place of acceptance that makes it possible to get by, and from which you can make something of life. Peace is not the same as healing. One can be at peace with the open wounds in the psyche, with the lost parts of self, with an innocence that can never return. One can be at peace with grief while still carrying the razor-sharp sense of loss. Healing is not always available, for body or for mind. It is not always the best response. Sometimes we have to adapt and become some new thing, and let the damage shape us. The pressure to be well, to be normal, to be convenient is of no help at all in that process. Healing people might seem universally heroic and good, but there are times when it isn’t the right answer, and where honouring the transformation and allowing the change would be a good deal more helpful.


The death of dreams

One of the hardest things to deal with in times of loss and grief, is the attendant loss of that which never was. It’s an issue when someone in our lives dies, in the breakdown of relationship, the loss of a home, a job, or any aspect of your way of life. All the things you imagined would be, all the dreams you wove around that thing have to now be dismantled, or rebuilt somewhere else. It’s a hard process, made more so by being invisible and difficult to explain. The more disproportionately you have invested in relation to what was actually there, the more it hurts, and the more silly you get to feel along the way.

I’m getting fond of blog posts with soundtracks, and for me this song encapsulates something about the secret grief that is a dead dream.

Life is not kind to dreams, and often we are not culturally kind to dreamers, either. To be a daydreamer is to be out of touch with reality, to be a fool, unrealistic and doomed to be disappointed. And yet, without dreams, without wild hopes and aspirations, without the triumph of optimism over experience, life would be thin and pale. It’s the willingness to dream that sets us on the path of new romances, takes us to new jobs, founds new organisations and groups, gets up and tries. You have to dream before you’ll make anything new. Some of those dreams are stillborn, or die young. It is part of the nature of dreams.

When pets and people die, it is obvious, and we have some idea how to grieve that. Dreams die slowly and quietly, slipping away without telling you. No one else sees their passing, there are no funerals for dreams, although plenty of poets will write them elegies. But poets are dreamers themselves, and wider culture doesn’t have much truck with that either.

There is deep, hidden personal tragedy in the death of a dream. It does not matter how large the dream was. Small dreams of days off, a little good, a small joy, are painful in their demise as well. It does not matter how crazy the dream was, all those abandoned ideas of fame, fortune, creativity and a life less ordinary. It does not matter whether you fed it with action, or cherished it as an idle thought, its death will still diminish you and take a little colour out of the world.

When enough dreams have died, it becomes easy to give up on them entirely. Dreams are foolish and ephemeral things, as the song says, ‘they just let you down’. So perhaps you stop dreaming them. Perhaps you stop hoping, daring and imagining. You don’t hold them anymore and you stop feeding the ones you were trying to make real. It is a bitter road to walk, wherever it takes you.

Afterwards, when you have buried the dream and grieved its death, the trick is to start over, to dream something new, to make hope out of whatever threads are left. So I’ll leave you with a second song, one that reliably makes me cry.

Don’t be misled by the first verse, this is not *just* a song about a ship. This is a song about not quitting, about love and determination, and refusing to give up on dreams and passions… though your heart it be broken and life about to end… no matter what you’ve lost, be it a home a love a friend, like the Mary Ellen Carter rise again.


Life without skin

I think early on I was fairly normal in terms of my ability to handle tragedy. That changed when I became pregnant. All capacity to distance myself from the grief and pain of others left me. From then on, news items frequently brought tears to my eyes. This last year has further intensified it, hence the blog title. Sometimes it feels like I am going through the world with no skin on.

There are plenty of jobs in which ‘professional distance’ is required, and which become impossible if you empathise too much. I knew a nurse who was unable to tune out the suffering of wounded soldiers in her care, and who was coming close to being traumatised as a consequence. What does it say about the state of things if the only way to survive in an ostensibly caring profession, is by not caring too much?

Unlike even our relatively recent ancestors, we have the woes of the world delivered to us by international media. There’s probably no more woe out there than there has ever been – and in terms of life experience, many of us get an easier ride than they might have done a hundred years ago and more. Most of us don’t see violent death first hand, much less see it frequently. So maybe we’re encountering the idea of it a disproportionate amount even as we encounter the reality less frequently.

To be honest, I have no idea how much skin I *ought* to have. I feel everything all too keenly, and there are times when it would be useful to be moved less easily. But at the same time, this often painful awareness of other people’s distress is a constant spur, and makes it very hard for me to be complacent, or disinterested. Maybe that’s a good thing.

What prompted the blog is this. Yesterday, like many people, I heard about the four trapped miners. When news came through of the first body found, I was almost in tears. My grief was less for the dead, more for the families waiting and not knowing, for the heartbreak and the devastation to their lives. This kind of high profile tragedy always attracts empathy, but the odds are in the weeks, and probably months to come I’ll still be wondering how those people are doing, and what I would have done.

I remember when Princess Diana died, and there was a tremendous public outpouring of grief over her passing. Commentators remarked at the time that it seemed disproportionate, as though people were finding it an opportunity to vent private grief. Interestingly, my counsellor has been saying similar things – the undealt with pain can leak out in response to other things – sad films, and the distant stories of other people’s grief. The things we cannot weep over in our own lives are only expressed when something distant but hugely emotive reaches out to touch us.

Perhaps I am weeping for everyone else because I was not able to weep for my own wounds when I needed to. Perhaps there will come a time when the soul skin re-grows and I’m not so naked, not so vulnerable to every source of distress that comes to me through the media. Or perhaps not. I don’t know how I could honourably meet the world without breaking my heart. I’m not at all sure I want to go back to being able to hold my distance and tune things out. I wonder if my Druidry will require me to keep going through life like this, desperately raw and unable to protect myself on certain levels. Then I find myself asking what such a painful degree of awareness is for, and I know that in trying to answer the question, I’ll be beginning a whole new quest.