Abiding with Grief: Five Things I Learned

 

Recently, after a prolonged and hellish ravaging by Alzheimer’s, my sister died. She was the last of my family of origin, my only sib, the single person on earth with whom I shared childhood memories. Witnessing her diminishment was frightening, tender, and humbling. Her death closed the final chapter on her pain and struggle and for all involved was a relief. Still, I expected after her funeral to take up temporary residency in The House of Grief. I’d been there before. With each family death and bereavement—a grandparent, parents, assorted aunts, uncles, and cousins, and the heart-wrenching passing of pets—I’d experienced mind-numbing, stomach-twisting, insomniac weeks. Each loss brought its own parcel of tears, days of dazed blankness, and as I look back on it now, a variety of physical ailments symbolic of my body’s way of processing strong emotions. My sister’s death, however, evoked a more crippling response, different from all my previous experiences. This led me to investigate my grief.

Much of the current research on grief question the landmark book by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross On Death and Dying published in 1969, and her later book based on the same model, On Grief and Grieving. These two books alerted clinicians and the public to what became known as the “stages of grief” theory.

Kübler-Ross posited that grief unrolls in five predictable stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Her research was anecdotal and compelling, a necessary first step to awakening the medical profession, including psychiatry, to the range of emotions of the bereaved and the need of patients and their families to have an honest discussion about death. If only our griefs would adhere to the tidy timeline set up by Kübler-Ross! Contrary to our wishes, her paradigm does not align with the wild and unpredictable process grief is.

Nor are the stages she lists exhaustive. A study conducted by Dr. Paul Maciejewski in 2007 found that yearning, not denial or sadness or anger, was the predominating feeling of the grief-stricken. Dr. Holly Prigerson, a colleague of Dr. Maciejewski at the Weill Cornell Medical Center, has been investigating “complicated grief,” mourning that continues after six months, the common time period of bereavement when symptoms often begin to lift. Those suffering from complicated grief experience unrelenting longing for the deceased and are often afflicted by intrusive, preoccupying thoughts and memories. Anti-depressants bring some relief as does cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), which can help the bereaved adjust to their new identity and life.

But new studies suggest that intense feelings of grief do not necessarily become intractable or overwhelming, nor does depression inevitably follow loss. In his book, The Other Side of Sadness, George Bonnano, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, writes that some people are not debilitated by grief. According to his research, a majority of people respond to trauma and grief with resilience, that is, with the ability to maintain wellness in mind and body and to enjoy positive emotions. He suggests that not everyone needs a grief counselor or needs to discuss their sorrows in a group. This is a happy thought, backed up by Bonnano’s evidence that smiling and laughter, even when alone, can help an individual establish positive feelings.

The literature on grief has evolved over the decades, but one thing has remained a guiding principle: the deeper and more profound the relationship with the deceased, the more distressing the grief. This is true for animals as well. Anthropologist Barbara J. King has documented the lamentations of elephants, which have been known to keen over their beloveds and exhibit “some of the same visible responses to death… in their emotional distress” as humans do. The criteria for grief in animals even looks similar to grief in humans. “When an animal dies, the survivor alters his or her normal behavioral nature, perhaps reducing the time devoted to eating and sleeping, adopting a body posture or facial expression indicative of depression or agitation or failure to thrive.” (See Kate Wong’s wonderful 2013 article in Scientific American, “How to Identify Grief in Animals”)

The word “grief” comes from the old French “grever” meaning to burden, oppress, afflict. How do we unburden ourselves from our sorrows? In his outstanding book Unattended Sorrow, the poet and teacher, Stephen Levine, known for bringing the practice of Theravada Buddhism to Westerners, writes: “How we approach our not knowing what comes next is what gives meaning to our lives…Then, what may have seem like ‘meaningless loss,’ though it does not hurt any less, often leads to meaningful change, which, like every evolutionary leap, must cross seemingly uncrossable chasms.”

Painting of Bashō for grief post

In a chapter called, “Softening The Belly of Sorrow,” Levine reminds us that we often store fear and anger and sorrow in our guts, the belly being a receptacle, the place we store pains and disappointments we consciously ignore. One healing practice he advises is simply to sit quietly and focus attention on the rising and falling of our abdomens, softening the belly with mercy and compassion for ourselves and the sorrows we carry. Each inhalation and exhalation advances our letting go of distress while making room for a feeling of peace.

In my own experience, grief is not a small and boundaried domain, but a vast and mostly unexplored territory haunted by ghosts and memories. It is a place we pass through and become transformed. In this sense, grief shows its creative potential by acting as a catalyst for discovering and developing resilience and a greater capacity to adapt to stress. Levine says it this way: “Though we may have been told we are and must be a noun, in truth we are a restless verb, a process in process, born into tragedy and grace with unimagined potential.”

We share with other sentient beings the experience of suffering impermanence and loss. Our hearts break over and over, and yet we survive. The master poet Bashō writes with wise knowing of the persistent mystery of death and the transience of all things.

The cry of the cicada
Gives no sign
That presently it will die.

(translated from the Japanese by William George Ashton)
Five Things I Learned about Grief

  1. We don’t all follow the Kübler-Ross model of five stages of grief.
  2. Grief can be complicated and include unrelenting longing for the deceased for months.
  3. Some people recover quickly from grief. Its duration is not predictable.
  4. Grief is not just a human emotion. We share grieving with fellow animals.
  5. The process of trying to find meaning in what seems a meaningless loss can be transformative.