In the depths of our grief, something new is being born in us. Grief is the dark mother delivering from her womb of sorrow an unfolding version of ourselves. This new version experiences dimensions of emotion that the old version could not. The new version has collapsed and stretched and suffered and learned in ways that leave us changed forever.
We emerge from our grief—if we have grieved well—with expanded awareness of what it means to be human. If we have shown ourselves compassion for our own suffering, we will have developed more compassion for others. If we have seized the opportunity to sift through the myriad emotions and memories that flood our hearts and spirits while grieving, we can mine the golden nuggets of truth that may enrich the rest of our lives.
As Judith Viorst writes in her book, Necessary Losses, “The people we are and the lives that we lead are determined, for better or worse, by our loss experiences.”
Life is likely to bring many losses, great and small, and grief always has more to teach us about ourselves. Sometimes a new loss thrusts us deeply into incapacitating sorrow over a previous loss that was never adequately grieved.
I discovered this when Lex, my dog, died after a very long and happy life of seventeen years. He was sick so his passing came as no surprise. Yet the depth of my reaction caught me off guard. I was literally doubled over with sadness, and the tears swelled and flowed like emotional floodwaters for days.
I came to realize that my out-sized sorrow over Lex’s passing had a lot to do with my still incomplete grief over losing my 16-year-old son Justin eight years earlier. Lex started out as Justin’s dog, and I can still picture that moment in the pet store when the clerk placed that furry, squirming bundle of puppy energy into his arms. When their gazes met for the first time, the story already was written.
Lex was my loyal companion in the days and years after Justin passed. He accompanied me on walks and rode shotgun when we ran errands in the car. There was a perpetual grease stain on the chair upholstery next to the spot on the floor where he always plopped down next to me. In every way, Lex was the very definition of unconditional love. No wonder his passing triggered a big new wave of grief about losing Justin.
After Lex passed, I found that my empathy was much greater for others who were bereft over the death of a beloved pet. Often, we find that the losses we have shouldered in our lives deepen our capacity for compassion and our ability to support others in their grief. We develop a deep knowing of what words to say and when to remain silent. We learn the momentous gift of just bearing witness to another’s suffering.
Grief also teaches us about the difference between being strong and being stoic. It takes a lot of energy to be stoic, to hold back emotion and soldier on through life as the losses pile up in a dark, locked closet of our being. While stoicism may look like strength from the outside, it often comes from a place of fear and shame. Stoics may resist exposing their vulnerability and fully experiencing their pain, and so they bury it where it can’t be seen and judged by others.
Sometimes true strength is in surrender, allowing deep feelings to flow freely and act themselves out in unruly ways. There is strength in allowing grief to disrupt schedules, in failing to fulfill others’ expectations, and inexplicably bursting into tears in the supermarket checkout lane.
Willingly giving ourselves over to our grief is a radical act of courage. It is faith in life itself, a deep trust that, just as the natural cycles of life decree that spring always follows winter and light follows dark, joy will follow sorrow if we cooperate.
From Healing What Grieves You: Four Steps to a Peaceful Heart (New Jersey: Cape House Books, 2017)