• Hazelden Renewal Center

Good Grief

girl letting go of a heart balloon

“Life is growth in the art of loss.”- John O’Donohue

I live forward and backward. In, then out of the present moment. Time unbound. The past is present and the present is lost. The future is behind a veil through which I cannot see.

My sister died. My youngest sister. Too soon and too fast. I am riding the messy, painful, very human roller coaster of grief.

I’ve been here before. My parents died. Close friends died. Sadness comes in waves, drags me into its riptide. Normalcy appears like a mirage of fresh water in the desert of now.

The Buddhists remind us that impermanence is a part of life. Everything we love we will lose. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love. The far greater sorrow is to not have loved. I am grateful for the fullness of years I had with my sister. How much I would have lost had she not been here at all.

Grief has many symptoms. Those first days overflow with confusion. How did I get here? What was it I was going to say? Where did I put my keys? Has anyone seen my mind–I seem to have lost it!

There is a numbness to grief. How do I feel? What do I want? I have no idea. Nothing tastes good. Sleep is interrupted or excessive. My energy is either drained or super-charged.

Grief is complicated. Feelings are messy. It is so tempting to move into the intellect, the comfort of the brain’s organizational skills. Analyzing the situation seems like it is doing something! Here are the 5 or 7 or 15 stages of grief and I am in stage 3 or 4 or 8 so I must be half way there. Except where is there? And who’s directing traffic?

“Grief is about a broken heart, not a broken brain. All efforts to heal the heart with the head fail because the head is the wrong tool for the job. It’s like trying to paint with a hammer–it only makes a mess.” So say John W. James and Russel Friedman in The Grief Recovery Handbook.

Grief is a gateway to our feelings. Grief, sorrow, loss must be felt. We can drive them underground but they won’t stay there. Rather they seep into our lives like toxic chemicals from a military dump site. They flow into the streams of our consciousness and the dark streets of our nightmares. Feelings will insist upon being felt, no matter how hard I fight them.

I admit I fear feelings. What if they move in and never leave, like mice nesting in warm basement corners as autumn approaches? However, when I do feel my feelings they dissipate. They linger a while and then move on. I didn’t believe it either–but it’s true.

Let the feelings come. Cry. Rant. Yell. Be sad.

Where do I put this grief? I could store it in the root cellar of my memory where I put all the things I want to get out of the way of today. The problem is, the shelves are already full of stuff I have avoided for years. My avoidance strategy has not worked in the past, why would it be useful now?

I could stay busy and leave it perpetually simmering on the back burner. What happens to back burners that are never attended to? They burn, ruin the pot and stink up the house.

I could deny that I am in pain. How are you? Fine, just fine. But I am not. I am hurting. I am sad. I am angry. My heart is broken.

I know my immediate acute grief will lessen in time. Yet we all carry heavy loads of unresolved chronic grief. “Unresolved grief consumes tremendous amounts of energy…unresolved loss is cumulative and cumulatively negative.” The Grief Recovery Handbook. My current grief touches all those old griefs.

A good place for grief is in the space between me and a good listener. We all need listeners in our life. They are the people who let us talk and talk–even when they’ve heard it before. They don’t judge, interrupt or analyze. They listen. We also need to recognize the people who are not able to do this. There are tipoffs. For instance, when someone says “I know exactly how you feel” or “Did I tell you about when I lost my pet or a lover or ….” Say thank you and call someone else. Or they say “Here is what you need to do.” Or “Aren’t you over that yet? It’s been a week, a month, a year.” Say, “Nice to see you” and move on.

Good listeners listen. They listen with their hearts. They don’t turn it back to their stories. They don’t try to fix you or the situation. They listen.

We can train our listeners by asking for what we want. I want to talk with you about how I am feeling. I don’t want to be interrupted, fixed or distracted. I want you to listen. Can you do that?

Grief is a response to loss. Some losses are readily apparent–a death, a divorce, a health crisis. We know what was, no longer is. Other losses are more ambiguous. I lose my dreams of what may have been. I lose the person I know, replaced by someone who no longer knows me. I lose the fantasy of a perfect family to the reality of what is.

Those ambiguous losses eat away at us. People don’t ask about those. Friends are uncomfortable when we bring them up. We can get stuck on rewind. I should have…. If only….. Why didn’t they….. These repetitive questions are clues that I am sinking into a cauldron of shame. Somehow the loss is my fault and if only…. “If onlys” are like a ball and chain used to keep prisoners controlled. They keep me tied up and not able to move on.

Sometimes we must be alone with our grief. I take mine to the woods, sharing it with the oaks and brambles. I sit on a fallen tree trunk, softly upholstered with moss, and let the natural world comfort me.

While solitude can sooth my soul, isolation is dangerous. Grief is communal. It connects us to one another. When I gather with family and friends at a funeral, I feel supported. We share the loss. We gather to remember and tell stories. We recognize the sacred ground of our interconnectedness.

Francis Weller in his book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow, says “The gift of grief is the affirmation of life and our intimacy with the world.”

Life is full of loss. We cannot avoid that. Among the losses will be our own life in its time. But we can embrace the gift of life that remains. Losses have their sacred place in our life. May we feel them, integrate them, learn from them and then embrace fully the life and memories that remain.


Mary Lou Logsdon, is a Spiritual Director and retreat leader in the Twin Cities. She can be contacted at logsdon.marylou @ gmail.com. 

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