16 May Riding the Tsunami of Grief
Loss is endemic to the human condition. We all experience loss during expected life transitions, while other times, we face multiple, unexpected losses that can leave us devastated and isolated.
For instance, when we lose someone suddenly in a horrific suicide, a fatal accident, a stroke, a heart attack, or a pandemic, words fail to comfort us. The waves of grief are felt more like Tsunamis, they feel un-survivable. We feel like beached whales wishing we could help ourselves get back to life, but we cannot do this alone.
When there’s a major change in life, we can feel cut off and alone, even if others are near. As a species, we are relational beings, pack animals, and most relationships help us feel safe. Difficult relationships where violence is present take supportive relationships to disentangle from.
As my colleague Janina Fisher, Ph.D. says,
As a species, we are dealing with so much grief, and more types of grief than ever before: social injustice, the environmental crisis, mass shootings, unrest with the Supreme Court, job loss, housing instability, the isolation during the pandemic, and hostility within our communities. The burden of our losses is heavy.
Many people try to “be strong,” “keep busy,” or “stay positive” to resist feelings of helplessness. We strain against feeling powerless to hold back the waves of agony from drowning us. The bad news is feelings, like all energy, need to move. Herculean efforts to conquer our most difficult emotions fail again and again. Perhaps our approach in the West – rugged individualism – makes our losses even more unbearable. We’re not meant to walk through life silent and alone.
As a professor and student of world religions (1985-2005), I saw multiple ways of working with loss vs. getting over loss. Grief will always be associated with the losses we go through. My favorite Mindfulness Meditation teachers – informed by Buddhist ideas – remind us that We are always waving hello or goodbye to someone, this is the fact of impermanence.
As a systems therapist, I of course do what I’ve been trained to do – listen, witness, and acknowledge suffering, normalize, and give space for grief – but I also work with loss poetically; I approach grief as a visitor who is not going anywhere. As a matter of fact, the more I resist my emotions, the more they become my tyrant.
I use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. It’s a mindfulness-based approach to grief and loss which supports the survivors of loss to build a connection to their bodies, hearts, minds, and spirits. This means we work to:
- Breathe in the pain (like unpleasant smoke) and releases greater clarity and spaciousness around feeling, i.e., aerating the soil.
- Increase resilience in the face of loss and increases our ability to tolerate grief
- Explore the effects of isolation and loneliness and identify ways of being that help.
- Understand grief as a whole-body experience
- Ride the crashing waves of emotion that swell and fade in their own time
- Work with methods of avoidance, i.e., numbness, overuse of escaping behaviors (alcohol, TV, gambling, staying in bed all day).
- Create new rituals that return us to a new baseline for living with all the feelings that arise and fall and rise again on the wheel of life.
Using this approach makes a difference, it allows us to relate to grief less as an intruder and more as a guest. Like Persian poet Rumi writes in the Guest House:
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Horn, E. A., Crews, J. A., Harrawood, L. K. (2013). Grief and loss education: Recommendations for curricular inclusion. Counselor Education and Supervision, 52, 70-80.
Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī, The Guest House
Janine Fisher, PhD, Psychotherapist, Consultant, Trainer