Saturday, April 5, 2008

To Live Is To Grieve

I've been poking around a really neat website called Life Challenges, and I found a few articles that help describe a lot of my thinking about Grief and Recovery. Not that my thinking is muddy, mind you ;-) I buried my dead spouse two years ago this week, and, like many of you, I have had many days, weeks, and months of incessant thoughts about her. As a number of articles on this blog and elsewhere will attest, this is a normal part of grief and bereavement. From what I can understand, this constant thinking and rehashing is the mind's way of re-filing all those memories.

Imagine, if you will, a business office with hundreds of thousands of paper files relating to another firm involved in a joint venture. Suddenly, that joint venture firm is dissolved for whatever reason, and simultaneously a tornado touches down and trashes the warehouse where all the project file folders are kept. A clerk is hired to comb through the trashed warehouse and clean it up. Directions on how to do this read as follows:

  • piece files back together again as best you can, understanding that some files will be incomplete and others will have been destroyed

  • develop a concise, logical filing framework to best describe how the two firms came to work together, the nature of their joint venture, and the results of the dissolution of the defunct firm on the remaining active company

  • store the resulting file system with Business Archives and remove all references to the defunct firm from any active files

  • while no timeline is specified in which to accomplish this task, keep in mind that the remaining company is actively involved in ongoing and new business, and enough time to be thorough and effective should be spent, but no more. This cleanup operation is to be considered a term-contract for the clerk, not a lifelong profession.

The catch is, the clerk has had no previous experience with this type of job. What is one to do? In my case, I read books from and reached out to others who have already completed this task effectively in the past. While I did read a number of books and articles that described certain stages or phases of grief, I didn't find them terribly helpful at the time. They seemed to be written in a very remote, cold, clinical fashion and did not at all describe what I felt was happening to me.

So, you may be surprised that I am going to refer to an article tonight that describes yet another "stages" system. I won't quote the entire interview because it is a bit long, but I highly encourage you to read the whole thing if any of it resonates with your own experience. Note that this article is not solely about bereavement. In fact, it doesn't talk much about death at all. But it does vividly describe a number of thoughts and feelings that I did experience, so in that regard, I hope you find it helpful. I have come to the conclusion that, in learning how to grieve Deb's death, I have learned how to truly live.

[From Transforming Lives through Dealing with Adversity, Trauma and the Unexpected An Interview with Richard A. Heckler, Ph.D., author of "Crossings: Everyday People, Unexpected Events and Life-Affirming Change" (Harcourt Brace & Company, New York). By Alissa M. Lukara]

A Process of Separation

ALISSA: What happened after the unexpected entered people's lives?

RICHARD: That was even more fascinating. The entrance of the unexpected seemed to shunt people into a period of separation regardless of whether they wanted it or not, regardless of whether they understood what was happening or not. Something about their world was fundamentally different. Their relationship to all the objects in that world seemed suspended for a while, so that the things that they would do for pleasure, didn't seem that pleasurable any more. Certain levels of conversation no longer felt satisfying.

What compounded the challenge is that many times, the people who had these experiences had difficulty describing them to their friends, loved ones and community. This period was really a precursor, a preface, and indicator that a change in their community was afoot, that something was ending and something new would begin somewhere down the line. Here in the middle, however, the space was highly ambiguous, but also very symbolically rich.

When the unexpected enters people's lives, there's no rule book, no guide book, no map, so people follow what they think are subtle clues or hints or signs. Separation is a very internal, introspective phase during which people pass through the next two stages of the process of transformation:


During incubation, something is dying out and something else is getting ready to be born, but it's not born yet. Oftentimes, what's dying out is old ways of being. It is very similar to what people write about when they talk about the major life transitions, like the astrological event known as the Saturn Return which comes when somebody is 28 or like what people call the midlife crisis or the midlife transition. All the ways you have put together your life -- you may have even been doing quite well in a lot of ways -- just don't seem to be as useful, functional or meaningful anymore and you just can't get it up to do it again. This is fine, but you also don't have anything new or different to substitute for those ways yet.

Because of this, Incubation is intensely vexing and painful, and people feel tremendously lost. This is what St. John discussed when he wrote about the "dark night of the soul", also known as the "night thief witch" in mythology. In this place, we have a sense that this is where we need to be, but it doesn't feel very good. We know that there may be great potential here, that life is moving at its own pace and the new will unfold in its own time. The question is what do we do in the meantime?


The second stage that's going on during separation is a fervent search for meaning. This is where people ask: Why did this happen? What does it mean? What does it mean in terms of my life? What does it mean in the context of this world and this universe that such a thing that I never expected to happen could have happened? Most of the people I interviewed weren't new age people living from out-of-body experience to out-of-body experience. They never expected something like this to happen to them and many of them never knew anything about these types of occurrences in the first place.

From the outside, the intense search for meaning that occurs could look obsessive, but from the inside, people feel it as the absolute right place to be right now -- even if they have to let go of relationships or jobs or where they live or money or whatever else they need to let go of. This search becomes the quest of life. This is the great quest.

A Mythic Journey

ALISSA: It's like what Joseph Campbell refers to as the hero's journey.

RICHARD: All the legends throughout time and across cultures have written about when people go off in some way like the wanderer or the traveler or the hermit or the monk. In western culture, we're at somewhat of a disadvantage at this point, because in indigenous cultures, they're so familiar with these stages that they prescribe them. They take a novice, a young girl or boy, along with the other adolescents, away from their hut, from their family. Then, for a period of years or months, they're trained in the esoteric ways of the culture or community. They learn the names of all their ancestors. They learn how to find medicinal plants. They learn spiritual practices. They learn how to survive in the woods or the desert and spend the night alone. Many things develop, but they are also giving a sense of structure to this period. In this culture, we don't have this sense of structure.

ALISSA: No, in fact everything works against us having it.

RICHARD: We live in a culture that prizes achievement, accumulation, success and then holding on to all of that. As a result, when the unexpected comes, as it often does, in the form of loss or sudden turnabouts, we quickly interpret the events as meaning something is wrong. The culture further reinforces this idea when mental care givers throw diagnostic labels at this transition and further pathologize it.

One of the great lessons in the separation phase is that just because all of this is happening doesn't mean that something is wrong. Instead, something is being born. I attempt to instruct the students and therapists at the universities where I teach to remember this: The huge diagnostic label that they carry with them to their graduation is actually very small in scale compared to the nature and scope of this passage.

Click here to read the entire article

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