Making space for grief

Making space for griefI do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh

The summer is rapidly turning to fall in the part of the country where I live. It is the end of the season, and the little death of autumn is upon us. I am always sad at this time of year — it feels like a loss. Even though my days of summer are not carefree as they were when I was a kid, I still cherish the feeling of longer days and a slightly more relaxed schedule. I hate to see it end.

The season change is a small reminder of the change and loss that are with us always. We resist those losses is ways large and small. We deny, we suppress what we feel, we “move on” but stay stuck with unresolved stuff that we never acknowledge.

Of course I am thinking about much larger issues than weather. I am thinking about all the losses that come with a chronic disease like rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Loss of hobbies we love because we can no longer move our hands or feet the way we used to. We know about the loss of energy, time and stamina. We experience the loss of some dreams we had that “someday we would…” We know deeper and more sustained loss in relationships.

Often we take those feelings, the little griefs that mount up, and stuff them away because we are afraid to acknowledge that pain would hurt too much. We prefer to look forward, or stay positive.

But grief is a funny thing. It doesn’t just stay stuffed away. It festers, grows, and seeps into other places in our hearts and lives.

We can learn and grow, as Anne Morrow Lindbergh suggests, if we add mourning to our practice. Mourning doesn’t have to take a lot of time. It can be as simple as an acknowledgement in our journal or to someone we trust, that this particular loss is hard.

A client of mine told me about a loss she was experiencing. She is an avid golfer, and uses her time on the greens to think, to walk, and to enjoy the power of a well-placed shot. But last week she had to admit that holding and swinging a golf club was a thing of the past for her. She simply couldn’t do it without extreme pain. But the physical pain was nothing compared to the pain in her heart that this part of her life — and her identity — was lost to her.

Grief is a funny thing. It doesn’t just stay stuffed away. It festers, grows, and seeps into other places in our hearts and lives.

She has gotten through her life being philosophical and stoic. But those habits were not helping her manage this. I suggested we simply sit quietly for a few moments so she could feel in her heart how the loss of being a golfer was for her. She resisted. “I don’t want to feel it!” she exclaimed. “I have thought about it too much already!”

I pointed out that thinking about this was not the same as letting herself feel it. ”Just try feeling what’s there,” I said. We sat. I could see the pain on her face. “It’s sad,” she said. “It’s lonely. I feel trapped and angry about it.” We sat in silence for a few more minutes. “OK,” she said, breathing out slowly. “OK. I don’t have to fight this so much. I can live with this.”

This week when she came in, she told me that she was now feeling some space in her heart. “The tightness is easing,” she said. “I’m not happy. But I don’t feel that despair creeping over me at night.”

Acknowledging, allowing ourselves to feel what is there, opens the way for the next things to slowly emerge. Then we can begin to learn, and our suffering, once acknowledged for what it is, can begin to transform into healing and a new path.

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