If only grief were simple: sadness, tears, missing that beloved person. If only we could be alone in stillness with the absence (and the starting presence) of that dear person we’ve lost. Maybe then we could simply rest in the plain sorrow of love and let our grief be.
What you get, though, is it not just grief but grief soup – a rich and varied blend of emotions that is as unique as you are.
Grief soup is a mixture of love and sadness, fear and anger, regret and resentment, with a healthy dose of loneliness, most likely, and traces (depending on your own recipe) of hope or despair, relief, shock, shame, courage or self-consciousness. All those ingredients blend together into your particular version of grief soup, which most people simply call “grief.”
With so many emotions, judgments and expectations present, it’s tricky to speak about your grief, much less deal with it in a helpful way.
When I lost Bonnie, I was blessed to experience a grief that was largely unmixed with fear, regret, resentment and anger. Bonnie and I had had two and half months to be together, knowing that she would soon die. Her slipping away was gradual, and at the end she chose to stop taking medicine, rather than extend the misery she was feeling.
Loneliness, though, was a huge and obvious part of my grief after she died. My friends saw I was lonely, and offered their time and their homes to ease me through that empty time. It’s important to notice that such invitations are offered as remedies for loneliness, not for grief. Sometimes people are given well-meant advice like “You should get out more,” or “Why don’t you start dating again.” (I stoutly resented that one, right up to the day I suddenly fell in love with Carol.) If you see these as recommended cures for grief, you may be shocked at your friends’ insensitivity. But this is advice to deal with loneliness, not with grief. And for loneliness, it may be good medicine.
Let’s not be so simplistic with ourselves or with our grieving friends. Let’s not say, “I’m grieving,” or “He’s grieving,” and let it go at that; let’s listen for all the ingredients that are present in our grief soup or someone else’s.
If we pay close attention, we may find that we have ways to deal with the anger, ways to deal with the fear, ways to deal with regret or resentment or loneliness. And when we have noticed that we can deal with all of those, maybe we’ll find that we don’t need to deal with grief itself, that we can simply allow our grief to be, because it is, in its essence, no more or less than love.
So what are we to do with Grief Soup, the mixture of emotions that well up in us after we’ve suffered a heart-breaking and life-altering loss?
As long as the emotions are all mixed together, it’s difficult to experience grief as love. And a single fierce emotion, like anger or fear, for example, can “shout down” the softer emotions, the way too much salt overpowers all the other flavors in a soup.
Fortunately, by reflecting and by talking to a generous listener, we can begin to separate out the emotions that go along with grief. When you see what they are, you can deal with each one in a way that’s appropriate and effective.
You’ve felt fear before, and you have ways of dealing with it. You’ve also dealt with anger, regret, resentment and loneliness, haven’t you? For each of these emotions, you have one or more actions you can take to deal with them. And for any one of them, you could ask your friends what they’ve found to be effective.
For example, if you notice that you’re afraid of what the future holds, you can set to work devising strategies to deal with possible problems, and you can also ask your knowledgeable friends for advice in areas where they have expertise.
Is your experience of grief flavored with resentment or regret about things that happened or things that should have happened? Probably, resentment and regret are emotions that you’ve dealt with before; perhaps you’ve found, as many people have, that the most effective response to resentment and regret is forgiveness – forgiveness of others for actions or omissions that you’re holding against them; and forgiveness of yourself for actions or omissions for which you blame yourself.
Anger, too, is often best dealt with by forgiveness. Look carefully: you are angry because of something that should have happened differently – something that someone else should have done or should not have done. But that “should” is yours. You own it. It’s your value, your judgment; and however admirable it may be, it’s also yours to let go of with forgiveness. Forgiveness is always yours to choose.
I’m not saying that any one of the specific responses I’ve named will work for you; but you already know, or can learn, how to deal with anger, resentment, fear, loneliness, and many other emotions that may be present in your own version of Grief Soup.
So what are you to do with grief itself? I’m going to suggest that once you have dealt with these other emotions, there’s nothing you need to do about grief.
Yes, I hope you’ll find there’s nothing about grief that you need to cure or heal or fix, because grief is simply how your love for the person you’ve lost feels now. That beloved person is absent from the world, and present in your heart. By all means, deal with your anger, meet your fears head-on, forgive wherever you have resentment or regrets, fill your times of loneliness in whatever way fulfills you. And do the one thing with grief that is effective and appropriate: allow it to be a full-hearted experience of your love for the person you’ve lost.
May you be blessed in finding that your grief is your love.
Paul Bennett 2011