How can grief be good? So many of us are grieving across the globe right now. Never in the history of humanity has the entire world’s population been so united in a collective experience of grief—and it doesn’t feel good at all. Everything in us wants to move past this pain. We want to get ‘back to normal’ and begin to find joy and laughter again. This grief is debilitating and disorienting.
But what if there is a way to grieve well? What if our grief can be good, and what if good grief can make all the difference to how we live and face life’s challenges? Well that’s what we’re exploring today. You can find the transcript of the video below.
GRIEF IS NORMAL
In the last couple of weeks we’ve been talking about befriending death—which can sound like I’m saying that we should be totally ok with death and not feel grief, sadness, or any of the other difficult emotions that go with death and dying. But that’s not what I’m saying at all. Grief is a normal, natural, and necessary response to death—regardless of whether it’s the big death of facing the end of our own lives or the loss of a loved one, or the little death of failure, regret, suffering, or loss. It’s not that we need to reject grief in order to befriend death. It’s that befriending death means learning to grieve well.
So what does good grief look like? How do we learn to grieve well? And what difference does it make when we learn to do grief better? I’m so glad you asked!
EXPRESSIONS OF GRIEF
Most of us will have heard of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of dying. And most of us know that those stages can be applied to grieving too, albeit in different ways. It is tempting to think of the stages as a clear, linear journey— From denial to anger to bargaining to depression to acceptance— but grief is not that easy or simple. Everyone grieves differently, for different reasons, in different time frames, and the process of grief is anything but linear. It’s probably better not think in terms of ‘stages’ of grief but rather in terms of ‘expressions’. And we can move from expression to expression in any order, repeating some or all, sometimes skipping some altogether. This is all normal. Good grief is not about following a certain pattern perfectly as if there is an ideal way to grieve.
What makes our grief good or healthy, is what happens as we journey through it. For some people grief becomes a catalyst that removes all restraints on their worse selves. Grief becomes an excuse for treating other people disrespectfully or for ignoring the impact of our moods and actions on those around us. For some people grief becomes a justification for racism, sexism, violence, or selfishness. For others grief is an excuse to stop trying and to expect the world to be at our beck and call. When we allow this to happen our grief becomes destructive and unhealthy.
I knew a woman once who had lost her son in a war. For decades afterwards, when anyone contradicted her or didn’t do what she wanted she would burst int tears and declare, “My son didn’t die for this!” It was destructive and manipulative and did lots of damage to her relationships with her family that was still alive.
But good grief shifts us to become more compassionate, gracious, generous, and creative. Richard Rohr writes that we are transformed into our best, most loving selves by great love or great suffering (and those two always go together). When we enter into our deaths—big or small— with the acceptance that death is an inseparable part of life, with an openness to the process of grief, and with a willingness to find a deeper life beyond the loss, then grief can be a surprising gift.
So how do we grieve well? Here are some suggestions that I hope will help:
- Accept grief, with all its chaos and different elements, as normal, healthy, and necessary. Do not try to avoid or fast track the process. But enter the grief gently and as willingly as you are able.
- Do not try to limit your grief to a linear process. Or to any specific process. Give yourself permission to go wherever your grief takes you. Express what needs to be expressed when it needs to be expressed. But try to maintain a curiosity about your grief. Ask yourself what it’s telling you. Ask yourself what you need in each moment. And try to notice any signs that you are trying to control, stop, or rush your process. If your heart starts to get hard then you can take that as a sign that you are not allowing yourself to process your grief in the most healthy way for you.
- Finally, as you grieve with an heart open—and only when you’re ready—allow your grief to connect you more deeply with the suffering of our world and of others. You know that you are moving into a less intense experience of grief when you are able to use your grief to be more compassionate, loving, caring, generous, and supportive of others who are suffering or grieving too. David Kessler, who worked very closely with Kübler-Ross, has identified a sixth stage of grieving, which, he believes, moves us into a deeper healing and a richer life beyond the grief, or even in it (because some griefs never go away): Meaning. It is this ability to make or find meaning in our grief that empowers us to move more easily into a place of peace and that makes us more able to return to joy and aliveness.
Have you experienced good grief? What was that like for you? What made it good? How did your experience of good grief help you to befriend death a little more?
I hope that we can all use the grief of the pandemic to lead us into a deeper connection with each other, a deeper compassion for the suffering, and a deeper sense of meaning and richness in our one wild and precious life—to borrow a phrase from poet Mary Oliver.
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