Grief is Good
Updated: Jul 18, 2019
How can sitting with grief help us relax into the ebb and flow of our lives?
Lately I’ve been talking a lot about how grief is the through line of our lives and that this is a good thing. Wait, what? What could that mean? Grief is bad, right? Grief is painful and life would be better without it, wouldn’t it? Most people don’t associate grief with the word “good” (unless you’re thinking about Charlie Brown), so I thought I’d take a moment to explain how I’ve come to understand the good in grief. When I was a kid, I used to think grief was a state of being that only happened once in a while, or rarely, at tragic times that were full of dread. I thought that this state was the result of bad luck, or at the very least it was the expression of the unavoidable doom that we all must face at some point. Grief seemed to be a dark enemy, lurking in the murky distance, and the thing to do was to try to stay as hidden from it as possible.
When I got a little older, what I noticed most was that it was nearly impossible to keep track of all the changes that inevitably occurred in life- unexpected drops, twists and turns, and sometimes unbelievably magnificent events, all jumbled together and completely unpredictable. There were volumes of writings on change, how it was pretty much a constant and that the only thing a person could count on in life was that eventually they would die. Jesus, I thought, this is all so stressful. I fretted that even when things were going great, it would only be a matter of time before some horrible scorpion crept around the corner and this lack of control felt like a danger. I thought that if I could just get my shit together, I might be able to make my life stand still for a sec, so I’d be safe.
That’s when I started reading Pema Chodron, the American Tibetan Buddhist. She talked a lot about the “groundlessness” of our human existence and how, if we practice, we can start to understand how to be okay with things the way they are. She made me realize how attached I was to the outcome of things, and how much I identified with the notion of good vs bad, pleasant vs unpleasant, happy vs sad, winning vs losing, etc. And of course identifying this way set me up to avoid all the “bad” things and crave all the “good” things. I was on a roller coaster of ups and downs and I couldn’t ever truly enjoy the ups because I was always bracing for the downs. Pema talked about learning to be open to the whole ride, to be curious instead of worried and judging, and to have compassion for myself when I noticed I was all hot and bothered about something, maybe even laugh at myself a little bit.
I embraced this way of looking at life, and started to learn how to step back and observe what I was getting so worked up about. Of course, this is a lifelong process and I’m no expert, but I did begin to notice that what I was usually arming myself against, sometimes even cowering from, was grief, and it was always triggered by change. It could be change of expectations or change in my opinion of myself or someone else, but there was always some sort change and therefore, loss. In the moment, I might feel anger or embarrassment or longing or abandonment or worry or betrayal, but once the initial feeling triggered by the change subsided, I found I was left with a feeling of grief. Change and grief are like fraternal twins that are typically found walking down paths together, hand in hand, alternately smirking and looking dolefully at you. You try to steer clear of them, but they just keep showing up, uninvited and when you least expect them.
Even the birth of a child is an experience fraught with grief, only we’re not allowed to talk about that. New parents are swept down a river of change where they will need to surrender their lives and embrace a new way of existing in the world. There is great joy involved, but they will never get their old lives back, so there’s grief there too. The problem is, we often don’t acknowledge our grief and therefore we miss an amazing opportunity to open our hearts to life, to grow wiser, to expand, to share out humanity with one another. So what are new parents supposed to do? Are they supposed to say, gee this baby is the new love of my life but I’m spending quite a bit of time feeling overwhelmed, confused, exhausted and ahem… miserable? Well yes, that’s exactly what they would say, but people rarely do. Just like me on the good vs bad roller coaster, most people tend to play down the low ebbs and talk up the high points. No one wants to hear you complain, right? Come on, you just had a baby! You’re so lucky! Pull yourself together!
And yes, there are groups for new moms and new dads, but it seems that if you show up to one of those groups and tell everyone that your life has been ruined by this monster baby who now lives with you and isn’t leaving, people might look at you funny. At the very least, you might get the feeling that you’re failing, that the other parents who are smiling and laughing are judging you, and that maybe you have postpartum depression or some other undiagnosed psychiatric issue. This worry brings on a feeling of sadness and isolation, maybe even shame. Winners and losers. Everywhere you go. Cue change and grief strolling toward you (again), suppressing a chuckle as you privately curse the parents who look like they’re winning.
Well, but that’s birth. What about death? Death is a horrible ordeal, isn't it? When someone dies, that grief is actually bad, right? The grief around death certainly does hurt. No will would ever argue with you there. However, I think we make it much worse for ourselves because of the way most of us relate to grief throughout our lives. When we experience a death or when we are approaching death ourselves, we may be utterly unprepared to confront the grief that inevitably emerges. We’ve spent our lives avoiding grief, denying it, silencing it, and now we’re not sure how the whole thing works, how to actually be with death and the grief it brings.
If we live our lives intentionally turning toward grief, so we can learn from it, we’re a bit better prepared when death comes knocking, however, some of us won’t start thinking about any of this until they or a loved one receive a terminal diagnosis. That’s okay. It’s never too late to acknowledge those fraternal twins who’ve been following you around your whole life. In fact, grief is remarkably nonjudgmental. Grief doesn’t mind going unacknowledged and being uninvited. Grief will just keep showing up anyway, knowing that at some point you will look it full in the face. At that point, you’ll have an amazing opportunity open up in your life because can start practicing being with grief, exploring it, breathing into it, seeing where it might lead you, how it might shape you, how it might add to you rather than subtract from you.
It all comes back to that groundlessness that Pema talks about. We can’t control the ups and downs of our lives, and we certainly can’t avoid death and dying, but we can intentionally practice leaning into grief, in order to navigate these times with compassion and understanding for ourselves and one another. We can meet change and grief on the path and walk with them, listen to them with an open heart, share stories with them, and allow them to show us what’s up ahead, beyond the horizon.