One of the greatest challenges of human life is dealing with the loss of loved ones. If you are blessed to live a long life, you will have to face the deaths of many family members and friends, as well as losses due to separation/divorce, and diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Learning how to grieve consciously can make an enormous difference in our lives.
Like just about all of us, I have faced enormous losses, including the death of my father in a car accident when I was five, and the suicides of both my mother and brother.
It took me a long time to learn how to grieve consciously. First, I did my best to push the pain away and used achievement as drug to feel good about myself. Then, in my 20s, I had a spiritual awakening and began using meditation and spiritual concepts to avoid the pain.
It wasn’t until I went through a separation and divorce in my early fifties that I learned how to grieve consciously. I am grateful that I’ve been able to heal from the trauma of the deaths in my family and to guide many others in dealing skillfully with grief.
In general terms, I see three primary ways to approach the grieving process. The first approach is to use avoidance, distraction, or numbing (usually some kind of addiction.) This is not a winning strategy. We may be able to temporarily get away from the pain. But, we will continue to carry it in our bodies and our subconscious. Ultimately, it will limit our capacity to enjoy life and can lead to serious illness or self-destructive behavior.
A friend of mine turned to alcohol to escape the pain of a difficult divorce. He drank more and more heavily, eventually becoming so lost that he committed a crime which resulted in a long imprisonment.
The second approach is drowning in the grief, which only leads to more suffering. Some people feel the pain deeply, but not consciously. They become deeply identified with their suffering, perhaps endlessly recycling thoughts of regret or self-pity.
People can spend many years wallowing in grief, never finding relief. They might even carry this unresolved grief to their graves.
The third approach which I highly recommend is recognizing grief as a powerful healing opportunity and consciously meeting whatever feelings arise through the various stages of the grieving process.
Welcoming whatever feelings come up, rather than trying to escape or wallowing in them changes the whole dynamic of the grieving process.
I’ve found that meeting the pain/anger/fear/etc. in my body with grateful awareness is a winning strategy. I am grateful for the gift of awareness and for the opportunity to meet and transmute whatever chunk of the human suffering I came here to meet.
When we’re able to directly meet the grief in our bodies without resistance, the emotions move through rather quickly. Yes, more layers will arise, but we get a sense of movement and hope.
I had one client, Robert, who came to Mount Shasta for a retreat a few days after an extremely painful break-up. After I explained the process of meeting the emotions deeply in his body, Robert dove right in, often letting the emotions release through sound and movement. By the end of his three-day retreat, he had released a huge amount of suffering and re-discovered the joy of the Present.
There is no right or wrong timetable for the grieving process. But, when we consciously embrace it, we can move through the process much more quickly than if we resist or get lost in grief.
When someone is stuck in unending grief that never goes away, it’s often because they are holding a belief which is blocking the grieving process.
One time, I guided a retreat for Louise, a woman whose 13-year old daughter, Ellie, had died of cancer three years previously. Since then, she had been in huge, unrelenting pain. In our work together, I discovered that Louise had a belief that if she wasn’t in intense pain over Ellie’s daughter’s death, she would lose her connection with her daughter. We did a process to shift that belief and Louise was finally able to begin to release the immense grief she was holding.
I’ve noticed that whenever we have a new loss, all the unhealed grief from previous losses comes to the surface. When I went through my divorce, I had a chance to meet the huge amount of pain I was carrying from the deaths of my father, mother, and brother.
Finally, consciously meeting the pain that had remained locked in my body, some of it for almost 50 years, was truly the most deeply liberating and transforming experience of my life.
Grieving is a natural healthy process. It offers incredible gifts. If we fully embrace the grieving process, we can come out the other side healthier and stronger than before the loss. We can discover a depth of compassion and joy and a spirit of freedom which will truly enrich our lives.