The Task of Grieving

Mountain_SunsetWhile working in the studio this morning, I chanced to pick up an old sketchbook, one from the late 70’s. Looking out from the studio, across the mid-winter landscape, I paused to enjoy the long shadows and brilliant, snow-reflected sunlight. The contrast between sunlight and shade is strong this time of year, and as today was sunny, this difference was striking. When  I returned to flipping through the images, I found myself wondering about them. Some drawings I remember creating, others not so much.

These drawings were made after I developed new Polio symptoms and before I was diagnosed, some ten years later, with Post Polio Syndrome. Drawing is an activity I still deeply enjoy and can engage in for short sequences of time. I miss the days when I could draw or paint for many hours each day.  Looking through the sketchbook, I was left with a blend of emotions: pleasure, excitement, and grief.

I work with much grief in my life as a clinician and healer. A central task of healing from trauma is telling the stories and allowing oneself to grieve, and I am honored to hear many stories. One one side, the stories are rife with unimaginable cruelty, suffering, and loss. The other side of these narratives is courage, perseverance, and survivance, attributes highlighted by their proximity to deep shadows.

As I listen, I am aware that these stories call on all who hear, including the teller, to have compassion for the barer of such anguish. Self-compassion, a hard-won skill for most of us, opens the door to exiled parts of self, whose return will undoubtedly bring grieving for the loss of so much, including time. That grieving is ultimately a balm for the soul, providing we can hold it, and, eventually, move through it.

Grieving takes place in time, although in the midst of grieving time may seem to stand still. We humans are, after all, temporal beings; yet, for most of us, our capacity to experience deep, geological, time is quite limited, largely confined to imagining our life spans and perhaps those of our grandchildren or great-grandchildren.

Our concept of the future is shaped by our knowledge that our sojourn here is brief, perhaps 90 years. It is also formed by our past, which provides a yardstick against which we measure change.

When we note the ever quickening loses incurred by the rest of Nature, we do so against the background of what was normal for us growing up, and project the difference forward. At the same time, it is immensely difficult for us to hold the very long view that might offer solace of sorts, that is, to live in deep time. Thus, we grieve.

I am reminded of this as I engage in conversations with some of the young people we will be leaving the world to. They, too, find themselves face-to-face with grief, as the Earth they care dearly for seems to die before their eyes.

The task we all face, as we confront our mortality, life losses, and the threat of a greatly diminished future for our kin, is to find ways to grieve deeply, and to allow that grieving to transform us. I like to believe that grieving is a task we work at, as we discover how to do so, over time. Perhaps grieving is never fully completed; maybe we simply learn to settle for good enough grieving, a well enough done task.

I image that life offers us a promise: if we can weather the demands put upon us by it, we may step from the fire and ice of grief, into the remainder of our lives, transformed.




18 thoughts on “The Task of Grieving

  1. A beautifully written post, Michael. In my personal experience with grief that heals and in my clinical work I have grown to really appreciate and believe in the then continual need to grieve. I frequently allow myself to have a “pity party” where I grieve for how hard life can be and sometimes grieve how hard grieving can be. This sounds a little silly but I know you understand. Thanks for bringing a tear to my eye that alerts me that I need to grieve a bit before I can fully embrace the beauty of life.

    1. Oh, Pat, I have not learned the skill of pity parties, am a bit too harsh on myself for that. Yet, I do understand grieving grief, a concept so fundamental to being human, yet so very challenging to grasp. And yes, grieving so often opens the doors to feeling alive. Still, it is a daunting task.

  2. Very thought-provoking Michael. I find myself grieving more as I get older and not just because of those loved ones lost, but, as you say, for the loss that time brings in the way the world, and things, change. Yet I also look forward to the future and wonder what changes I will witness in the world as I grow old.

    1. Dear Andrea, I, too, wonder about the future, the good and the bad. I want to be a part of whatever unfolds, even when I dread what may come. We are indeed complex creatures, called to grieve, and to offer solace and hope.

  3. There are all those things that set us apart from others – our very own and unique history with its pain, losses and traumas. And there are those processes – like grief – where we should end up finding ourselves embedded in a greater whole. We cannot do that when the greater whole is not there. In the traditions I know, those who grieve are not left on their own, the community is there for them in every way, practical, emotional and spiritual. Grief is not meant to be a solitary experience, its essence unfolds in sharing and connecting with others in deep and meaningful ways.

    1. Dear Whirlbee, I imagine that grief is both communal and individual. Our losses are both collective and private. Yet, there is no doubt that having company along the road allows grief to become simply a powerful human experience, another glue that might hold us together as a community. You are so right: that companionship is all too often absent in our larger society. Perhaps finding a way to share the grief would allow us much collective healing, and a brighter future.

      1. dear Michael, When it comes to sharing, I don’t think it’s optional. As long as we are alive, we share everything with Life itself. and Life is not a part of us, we are a part of Life.

  4. I certainly have trouble with grief, especially in the dark days of winter.
    There are things that I used to be able to do easily too, and now I struggle. Seems I damaged a nerve sitting all day at the computer and stuck in traffic for hours day after day…for years. I didn’t realize during that time, that I was compromising my health. Now I blame myself. I can’t sit for long without pain and I have to face the fact that this nerve damage (that I inadvertently caused) can’t be undone. I grieve for days gone by and wonder what the future will bring. In my 60s, time is growing short.

    1. Dear Mary, Yes, in my late sixties I, too, am aware that time may be short. The physical complications of simply living are multiplying, the things we inadvertently do to our bodies begin to catch up with us. I guess this is what my older friends mean when they insist that aging takes courage and heart. I find the grief becomes compounded, accrues layers. Another friend insists this is good, that it slowly allows us to let go of this beautiful world and our loves. I’m not convinced.

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