Death, Loss and the Healing Power of Grief

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With the recent fires in Australia, the targeted killing of Iran’s major general Qasem Soleimani, the Ukrainian Airlines plane crash in Tehran, and the general state of crisis the world is facing, grief has been a frequent visitor in my heart and in my conversations.

During the past few weeks, I have seen many responses and reactions to the onslaught of events happening near and far, ranging from hope to fear to rage. I appreciate folks trying to find a silver lining, but I feel what we need most in turbulent times, more than hope and positivity, more than solutions, is a deeper understanding of our human experience. We need permission to feel, safe spaces to share and a culture that accepts and embraces grief, in all its forms, as a facilitator for human connection and a powerful tool for healing.

When we imagine a grieving person, we likely picture someone who is mourning the loss of a family member or a close friend, but grief is so much more than an emotion that visits when one takes their last breath.

Like love, grief is a single word used to describe an ocean of experiences. We’ve attempted to include more nuance by adding descriptive prefixes and breaking it down into stages, but these still fail to capture the full spectrum of grief. The grief of losing a child is different from the grief of losing a mother. The grief of never connecting with a parent is different from the grief of never finding romantic love. The grief of letting go of a part of our identity is not the same as the grief of witnessing the mental decline of a friend. The grief of being alone is different from the grief of feeling alone in your relationship. The nuances matter, even when they can’t be described.

We face grief when we lose anything or anyone important to us. A loved one, our sense of self, our community, our faith, our careers, our homes, our land, our freedom, our choice, our savings, our dreams, any of our mental or physical abilities. And loss is not limited to death or endings, and not dependent on whether we were handed a loss or chose it. Loss includes change, transformation, stuckness, injustice, distance, letting go. And so much more.

I didn’t understand what grief was until I understood that grief is not sadness. It’s not the melancholy that fills the air on a gloomy winter day. It’s not the experience of missing a friend who lives across the ocean. It’s not the disconnection you feel after an unresolved argument with a loved one. Grief is much deeper than that.

When I first began experiencing my own grief, I was confused and terrified. As soon as I felt a whisper of it I would start cleaning, or working, or doing anything else but allowing it in. I wanted to shut all the doors and windows and scream, not here! Not now! Leave me alone! But the more I surrendered to grief, the less I feared it — I felt decades of grief in the span of a couple of years. I grieved leaving my homeland and all of my family at the age of 9. I grieved my complicated relationship with my father. I grieved the end of my parents’ 26 year marriage. I grieved my youth, the lack of responsibility and the loss of naivety. Once the dam opened, everything came pouring through.

The force that is grief is not concerned with whom, with when or with where, as Elizabeth Gilbert says in a TED conversation with Chris Anderson, “Grief has its own time frame. It has its own itinerary with you. It has its own power over you, and it will come when it comes”. When grief appears, it feels like a tsunami is entering your home, without notice or invitation. Grief emerges during transitions and endings, even when new beginnings are on the horizon. It shows up to remind us of the people and things we’ve never had or will never have. It exists in relation to the past, the present and the future. Grief knows no boundaries.

And grief is not linear, it is not rational. Not only does it arrive when and how it wants to, it truly has no sense of time. It’s possible to grieve something today that happened 20 years ago, catalyzed by a person or incident which has no connection to the original source of pain. Grief is messy and complex by nature.

Western culture fails to acknowledge and accept the full range of grief, which is why we rarely talk about it. When you ask someone how they are, they seldom respond with, “I’m grieving”. In the case of physical death, which we have universally accepted as ‘the appropriate time to grieve’, we still diminish our feelings, hiding behind the mask of sadness, as if grief is something to be ashamed of.

Grief gets treated like an unwanted, unwelcome visitor, because we don’t know what to do or say in its presence — it is so heavy, so forceful, so felt, it cuts through words and silence all the same. We haven’t been taught how to respond to it without feeling a sense of dread or awkwardness, without shrinking ourselves. A grieving person is not a victim, they are not someone to feel sorry for — their grief is not contagious. In fact, we should feel honoured to share space with a grieving person, to witness someone experience the depth of their own existence, to peer into the window of their spirit. When we find ourselves with a grieving person, and feelings of pain or dread rise within us, the grieving person is not to blame, they are simply a mirror, a gift, reflecting back emotions that exist within us, ready, waiting, asking to be felt.

Time and experience have afforded me the immense privilege of developing a relationship with grief. Grief is a part of me, a part of us. Not a shameful, intolerable part, but perhaps the most tender, human part. To grieve is to be vulnerable. To grieve is to feel completely exposed. It demands strength and courage — even more so in the presence of others.

The belief that we should grieve behind closed doors, in the safety of our own hearts, our own minds, is a limiting one, because grief is a catalyst and a bridge for profound human connection. It has the potential to shed light on our sameness, bring us closer to those we love and expand our capacity for compassion. Grief is not dark, it is not negative, it is mighty, it is intimate, and it has the power to transform the grieving person, as well as those who surround them. Grief has a way of stripping away all falsehoods, until there’s nothing left but the truth.

Feeling our grief, accepting our grief and sharing our grief, is the first step toward healing our grief. I see grief as a transformative tool which can, and often does, carry us into deeper, more realized versions of ourselves. I think of grief as the silent and invisible energy that puts one hand onto another, and says, you can get through to the other side of this, together.

I’ve both experienced grief and witnessed grief. I’ve talked to mothers who’ve lost unborn children. Daughters who feel unloved and abandoned by their own mothers. Men who have a challenging time developing meaningful relationships with other men. Single folks who are desperately looking for their life partner. Families who’ve lost a loved one to cancer.

Through witnessing grief and experiencing my own, what I’ve learned is this: although grief will come and have its way with you, if you allow it in, if you surrender to its power, when its waves are done washing parts of you away, you will feel more whole, more human and more capable of meeting the uncertainties of life. One of my favourite authors, David Hawkins, explains in his book, Letting Go, “We don’t fear events, we fear how events will make us feel”. We don’t fear loss itself, we fear what losing something or someone will trigger in us. We are so terrified of grief, we reject any person, event or experience that may provoke it. In order to avoid meeting grief, and in an attempt to soothe ourselves, we often turn to anger, rage, guilt and shame instead. But the reality is, the more comfortable we become with experiencing grief, the more we can accept death, loss and change — and the more empowered we become in the face of external events.

There is a kind of freedom in this. Knowing that nothing can shake you to your core without your consent. Knowing that you can rise from the bottom of the ocean, swim your way to the top and take a breath, once again. Grief demands so much from us, surrender, patience, courage — and trust. Trusting that leaning in and surrendering control will not have us killed. Trusting that we will move through, and move with, our grief. We have to trust that grief means no harm, it only wishes to be seen and heard, because it is one of our most tenacious teachers. Underneath its determined waves, just beneath the surface, where the ocean is still exposed to the light, it holds the key to unlocking parts of us we have yet to know.

Tragic, traumatic and sudden life events can, and often do, force us to experience grief. Yet sometimes, if we’re paying close attention, we have the choice to follow a whisper down the corridors of our histories, of our ancestors stories, to eventually come upon our own grief. Whether we wait for a life event to catalyze our healing, or boldly carve our own path into the unknown, grief will come, if it hasn’t already, and it will eventually do its work.

On the other side of grief is a peacefulness I can’t quite describe. There is strength, a resilience and gentleness that transcends words. I know this because I watched my mother grieve the loss of her partner, her love, her marriage — not to physical death, but another kind of death. I witnessed her grieve for years, and I witness her now, on the other side of her grief, moving forward with her grief — more empowered, loving and audacious than I’ve ever known her to be.

There is no doubt that grief transforms us, not for worse or better, but in ways that allow us to reconnect with our humanity. In a time when so much of our world feels like it’s on the brink of collapse, a time when AI and machines are rapidly replacing us, a time when we are facing great change and loss, we need to understand the inner workings of our existence more than ever. Feeling the depth and immensity of our emotions may be the one thing that can catalyze us to make impactful changes — for ourselves, for each other and for future generations.

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