Grief

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Grief

 “The dance of life finds its beginnings in grief…It is the way in which pain can be embraced, not out of a desire to suffer, but in the knowledge that something new will be born in the pain.”[1] Henri Nouwen

No discussion of death and dying would be complete without considering grief. Grief is a feeling of sadness that manifests when we have lost something precious. It runs the gamut from being aggravated at dropping one’s mobile phone in the hot tub to putting down a beloved pet to losing one’s child to cancer. There is also anticipatory grief that occurs when the prospects are great of losing something precious in the not-too-distant future. A loved one receiving a diagnosis of a terminal health condition, for example, or the loss of an income stream due to an upcoming job loss. There is also grief over internal conditions, such as when it is we who receive the terminal diagnosis. In such cases, we grieve losing our close relationships or leaving important projects undone. The common thread in these examples is the loss, or anticipated loss of something that is intimately woven into the fabric of our days. Losing something or someone familiar and comfortable is difficult.

In previous reflections in this series of Life Notes I have devoted considerable space to the numerous types of death occurring in our lives on a regular basis. One purpose of this focus is to point out that death is a natural and necessary aspect of life, and all of our deaths involve some sort of loss, although most deaths fall short of ending our personal, earthly life. Even so, the death of something important to us will result in some measure of grief, from a momentary sadness to a crippling sense of despair lasting months or years. The point I have emphasized is that in the eternal cycle of life, death is always followed by rebirth: birth, growth, decline, death, rebirth. It is a relentless cycle, not intentionally cruel, but unyielding none the less. The way our rebirths will manifest is usually hidden from us, but there is always a rebirth. This is just as true for the regeneration of our cells as it is for the death that ends the phase of our life on earth.

Twentieth century author, Henri Nouwen, expresses this point eloquently by writing that “the dance of life finds its beginnings in grief.” Because grief results from loss or death, it is followed by new life. He says that in knowing something new will be born from our pain, we can learn to embrace the pain of loss. It is not that we seek out suffering, but we recognize that suffering is the gateway through which new life enters. While such knowledge may or may not lessen our grief, it at least gives it purpose – that something must be lost before something new can emerge.

There are as many ways to grieve as there are people who grieve. Some express their sorrow outwardly while others hold it inside. Some people will only express their grief behind closed doors, holding back the tears until they are alone or in a place that feels safe. Others fill their days with activities, as if trying to run fast enough to keep their grief from overtaking them. My first outward expression of grief over my mother’s death did not occur until her memorial service, nearly a month after her passing. My daughter played “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the cello. The beauty of the melody and the rich tone of the instrument unleashed a stream of tears from me.

Of course, tears are a common expression of grief but certainly not the only one. Grief for some comes out in the way they treat others, perhaps being short-tempered or seemingly unable to focus on the present moment. However we do it, it is important to grieve. It is equally important to get professional help should one’s grief become disabling. In retrospect, I do not believe I appropriately grieved the sudden death of my father (when I was 14). When I was finally forced to enter psychological counseling as a requirement for a college course some years later, a flood of unresolved issues poured forth with a force and span that surprised me.

Ultimately, there is no cookie-cutter approach to grieving, nor is there a standard timeline. There is only what is right for a person given their situation following a particular loss. There are, however, common stages of grief that most people experience to a greater or lesser extent. I will consider those stages next week.

This is the 34th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.

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[1] https://www.azquotes.com/author/10905-Henri_Nouwen/tag/grief, accessed May 5, 2020.

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