Anodea Judith names grief as the “demon of the heart chakra1”. She states that the frequent disappointment of our striving for love and connection — with others and the world at large —results in loss of hope, and perpetual, suppressed grief. This grief turns in on itself, hardens the heart to protect it from more pain and leaves us bitter, hopeless, and even more isolated.
In the western world we live in a society that is uncomfortable witnessing the pain of loss. We medicate our feelings of sadness and pain with pills, alcohol, or extreme activity. We have learned that to be well means to be happy at all cost and grief is not a happy feeling — thus it must be ‘bad’. An article in The Lancet2 discusses the increasing trend to medicalize grief as depression. Instead of allowing an individual to go through his or her grieving process in his or her own way, society increasingly refers to normal grief symptoms such as crying, sadness, lack of sleep and appetite etc. as symptoms of illness if they last longer than two weeks. In Canada the Canada Labour Code3 provides employees with three paid days off work in case of death of an immediate family member (life partner, parent, child, in-laws). But there is no allowance anywhere for days off after the loss of a marriage, one’s health, or one’s life savings.
And so — be it because we don’t want to face the pain, because we are expected to function ‘normal’ much before we feel normal again, or because we are made to believe that we are suffering from a mental disorder — we take our grief and push it deeply into our already hurting and hardening hearts, adding to the power of the ‘demon’. It doesn’t have to be that way. Indeed, it is be our ability to grief that ultimately may allow us to reconnect and heal the heart.
The truth is that grief happens because we are connected. The closer we are to someone or something, the deeper we feel the pain of losing that person or thing. The reason that so many of us do not allow our grief to express itself is that we are afraid of the suffering we expect as a result of our pain. But, as Buddhist tradition teaches. “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”4 In The Noble Eightfold Path we are taught that pain is what the world does to us — the death of a close friend or family member, the loss of a job, the end of a relationship. Suffering though is what we do to ourselves by hanging on to our own ideas of how life should be, not accepting the loss, by holding on to our fear of an unknown future, etc. Suffering is the result of holding on to the demon already living in our hearts, the beliefs based on the past and the fears of the future. But we don’t have to listen to them.
The problem is, there is no way to allow our grief to express itself without allowing ourselves to feel the pain of having loved and having lost — at least on the human, material level of life. We have to learn to accept that pain in and of itself is not a bad thing. Without physical pain to alert us to a wound we may suffer serious damage to our health or even death. Without emotional pain we are in danger of damaging our soul and severing all connection to the universe of which we are a part.
The pain of grief alerts us to a wound that we suffered, something having been removed or cut out of our lives. If we attend to our pain, gently probe the wound for depth and severity, and then give ourselves permission to heal, we do not only heal the pain of the immediate loss, but also a little piece of that lost connection with Mother Earth and the universe that are, according to Anodea Judith, at the core of our heart-aches in general.
How to achieve such a thing? Our grieving is as individual as we are. It depends on our own connection inward, upward, and outward; the closeness to the person or thing lost; our fear of facing life without that person or thing; our support system; and so much more. All those factors determine the specific healing path each individual has to take and no one can give a general prescription for right grieving. However, for most of us the difficulties start far before the healing process. They start at the moment we are asked to attend to the pain, rather than pushing it away.
I find that Susan Jeffers’ template for dealing with fear, as laid out in her book Feel the fear and do it anyway5, can be adapted to guide us along the path towards healing our grief. Jeffers lists the five truths of fear. Adapting them to the five truths of grief results in the following:
Feel The Pain And Grieve It Anyway
Original: The fear will never go away as long as I continue to grow.
Adaptation: The pain of grief will never be out of the question as long as I stay open to love.
Loving means connecting, opening our hearts to another person, an activity, an energy. When we truly connect, we merge a part of our own lives and souls with the other, give a piece of our hearts as the saying goes. Losing this connection hurts, no matter if the physical circumstances seem to indicate that the separation is a healthy thing. Even losing the connection with an abusive person hurts, not because we love the pain of being beaten up, but because we loved this person or at least the idea of our relationship with them. We gave a piece of our heart to this and the loss of the relationship means that our heart now is missing this piece and that wound needs to be healed.
Since life is unpredictable and we can’t control it or the people we connect with, each moment of love, each giving of a piece of our heart, carries with it the possibility of loss, just as every time we leave the house carries with it the possibility of an accident.
Original: The only way to get rid of the fear of doing something is to go out and do it.
Adaptation: The only way to get past the pain of grief is to be still and allow yourself to feel it.
Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. If we can allow ourselves to actually sit for a moment and breathe into the pain we are feeling we most often will find that we are through it before we know it. The pain of grief comes in waves, some of them strong and powerful, almost overwhelming, others small, gentle, and steady. Each pain wave requires a different approach. We may need to cry out the pain of the big wave and simply recall a bitter sweet memory to deal with the small, steady waves that keep coming. But like with physical pain, if we only take medication to dull the immediate pain but never attend to the pain itself and try to find its core, each round of medication becomes less helpful and each time of coming out of the daze makes the pain all the more fierce.
Original: The only way to feel better about myself is to go out … and do it.
Adaptation: The only way to feel better about my loss is to accept it happened and that I am still here.
Not accepting the truth of our loss means holding on to unnecessary suffering. We torture ourselves with thoughts of blame, guilt, and denial. We give away our power to fantasy or to the past and we stop living our own lives. We lose not only that which has been taken from us but our future, our potential, and our hopes as well. Although we have lost a part of our own heart with the loss of that person or thing that was so close to us, the bigger part of our heart is still with us and it yearns to connect to and love others and the world in itself. We are still alive and the world invites us to heal our hearts by connecting again.
Original: Not only do I experience fear whenever I’m on unfamiliar territory, but so is everyone else.
Adaptation: Not only do I feel the pain of grief whenever I lose something or someone close to my heart, but so does everyone else.
So often in our society we isolate ourselves, especially around our feelings — and even more so around the feelings that are deemed difficult, bad, or weak. Grief usually is one of those feelings, and so we come to believe that everyone else just ‘has a handle on things’ while we feel we are falling apart. But the truth is that no one can love and lose without feeling the pain of grief. We may try to drown it out through activity, denial, or medication of some kind; we may hide it from the world and only allow some minimal expression in the privacy of our bedroom; we may even push it aside completely and march forward with the determination of a warrior who will not allow weakness to stop him — but in our hearts the pain is alive. Every person who ever lost someone or something has felt it and knows it and there is no place to hide from it completely because it is part of our very life source: the beating of our hearts.
Original: Pushing through fear is less frightening than living with the underlying fear that comes from a feeling of helplessness.
Adaptation: Feeling the pain of grief and loss is less painful than suffering the ongoing pain of isolation and disconnection from the world — and the pain of a bitter and hopeless heart.
The only possibly outcome of denying our grief and our losses is that our hearts get congested with unresolved, hardened, bitter suffering and deep-seated fear of life and love itself. Living with the intend to not ever grief means living without love; and living without love means living without belonging, without connecting, without warmth and joy. It means being without hope and light. I can not imagine any pain worse than that.
Keeping these truths in mind may help you to stay close to the pain of your griefs — and maybe even to grieve some of the losses you put away ungrieved before. As you embark on this journey, remember to stay gentle with yourself, though. Just like physical wounds, the wounds of the emotional heart need tender and gentle care and patience to allow the healing process to be completed. Don’t try to rip out past losses in order to heal their grief. Allow what is ready — or what you are ready for — to emerge and present itself. Take each memory, each loss that comes up serious and carefully look for the wound that it caused. The loss may seem small and inconsequential, maybe even ridiculous, in retrospect, but if it is still sitting in your heart as a wound, it was big enough at the time to take a part of your heart with it. Treat it gently and with compassion and you will feel the pain subside.
One thing that differentiates working with physical wounds from working with wounds of the emotional heart is that where the former often leaves scar tissue that makes the area around the wound a bit less flexible and a little harder, the later results in the opposite. With each heart wound to which we attend, a piece of the scar tissue of hardened, old, and unresolved grief is removed, leaving our hearts softer and more flexible, accepting, and open to love again — deeply and courageously — in the knowledge that we can not only survive the pain of loss, we can heal it and with it our connection to the world at large.