It seems like every day I speak to a friend who is either racing off to the hospital to see a parent who’s ill, or a spouse, a friend, or dealing with their own illness, or divorce, or job loss. It’s not that I don’t know people whose lives are great – but the reality is that millions of us are dealing with difficult challenges.
As Pema Chodron, the Buddhist writer says in When Things Fall Apart:
“Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look.”
In 2009, I had my own personal “tsunami.” My 23 year marriage ended, I had no job, my mother died, my daughter moved 3,000 miles away, and I had to move, with two dogs. Life dealt me a hand that left me broken. I felt like I was under water and couldn’t breathe.
A dear friend pointed me in the direction of Eckhart Tolle’s book, The New Earth and I read this:
“Whenever tragic loss occurs you either resist, or you yield. Some people become bitter or deeply resentful; others become compassionate, wise and loving. Yielding means inner acceptance of what is. You are open to life. Resistance is an inner contraction, a hardening of the shell of the ego. You are closed. Whatever action you take in a state of resistance (which we could also call negativity) will create outer resistance and the universe will not be on your side: life will not be helpful. If the shutters are closed, the sunlight cannot come in. When you yield internally, when you surrender, a new dimension of consciousness opens up. If action is possible or necessary your action will be aligned with the whole and supported by creative intelligence, the unconditioned consciousness, which in a state of inner openness you become one with. Circumstances and people then become helpful, cooperative. Coincidences happen. If no action is possible, you rest in the inner piece that comes with surrender. You rest in God.”
This became like a mantra to me. (A long one, I know.) I typed it up and carried it with me. And honestly, circumstances and people did become helpful.
One night at Friends In Deed in New York City, a “pragmatic, spiritual crisis center,” I attended a workshop on grief. I told myself I was willing to go anywhere for help, but it didn’t hurt that Friends In Deed was just up the block.
Here is what I learned:
Grief is the natural response to loss. Loss is a perceived change in circumstances plus a perceived change in personal identity. Grief now becomes a lifelong companion, never leaving you in the beginning, softened over time, but never leaving completely. If the person meant anything to you, the loss of them will visit you, sometimes when you least expect it.
The five stages of grief Elizabeth Kubler-Ross defined—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—are helpful, but perhaps the stages are not linear and maybe there are better models. And what about relief? What about guilt?
Another model for grief is shock, disorganization, reorganization.
There are three levels to grief – the first level is the loss of the person, the life. The second level is the practical issues, the loss of income, a home, structure. The third level, the constant reminders: you pick up the phone to call the person, you cook for two instead of one, you look at the chair he or she sat in.
First comes disintegration, then eventually reintegration..."the new normal." The spaciousness and the possibilities begin to return. Grief is natural, like breathing. Try to let it happen, let it run its own course. One day you’re on the floor and then surprising yourself, you find you’re going out on a date, something unimaginable just a short time before.
Here are some myths: you'll get over it. You'll transcend it. There is a right way to grieve.
Truth: Your loss will transform you. This is the experience, and it is what it is. Tell your friends what you need. Let them know you can use their help. If they ask, and you don't know what you need, thank them for asking and ask them to maybe ask again. Soon.
The transformation is often for the better. Not always, but usually—especially if we find ways to get out of our own way. I gave myself to the process, and it is a process, and now I’ll avoid the word journey, but it was and continues to be.
The tried and true methods of dealing with grief and anger, though they can be effective in the short term: drugs, drinking, eating too much, are distractions from the process.
The good news: human beings are resilient. We are amazingly strong.
What helps with grief?
Not talking helps
Writing (in your own handwriting)
Hitting a punching bag
Maybe you were grieved last week when NBC cut into Olympic coverage to give a sneak peak of the new show starring Matthew Perry called "Go On." In it, they find the humor and pathos inherent in a grief counseling group. I was lucky enough to find Friends In Deed, but there are many kinds of groups out there, one that will suit you. You may even feel most comfortable in an online community. The main thing is to take your grief seriously, as loss is a necessary part of living. It needs to be respected and not ignored (as Perry's character finds out in the first episode) - and you need to feel that you are not alone.
The tsunami that hit me ultimately has been the greatest gift of my life. It added depth and understanding to my life and what else would I have to share? Tips on how to deal with curly hair? (Not that that isn’t very important information.)
But I am now a far more empathetic person than I was when frizzy hair was my biggest problem.
Friends In Deed is located at 594 Broadway, Suite 706, New York City, friendsindeed.org