Sunday, July 13, 2008

Unsatisfying Grief

"You need to fully experience grief." How many times have you read that? It makes you wonder if the authors have ever experienced a loss themselves. In the acuteness of loss, the pain can be overwhelming, and this at a time when we are doing our level best to minimize our suffering. Why would anyone want to experience agonizing pain to the fullest extent?

And yet, this is a necessary part of successful grieving. Despite how it may feel, grief is *not* all-powerful and all-encompassing. It does have boundaries and limits, and discovering these limits helps to put grief in perspective. It helps take the fear away. Fear of what? Going crazy, for one!

Of course, the day you decide to probe the depths of grief should not be one where you are already under a lot of stress. Not that the exercise will overwhelm you (in fact, just the opposite), but the mind will need a fair bit of support to even contemplate the prospect of going to the center of the pain.

Remember the first time you dove into a pool? I do. Well actually, I remember all the days I tried to dive and failed to gather the gumption ;-) I was scared. Scared of hurting myself, scared of losing control, scared of letting go. Looking back, the agony of anticipation was way worse than the actual dive itself. But it was one of those things that, until the deed was actually done, only the fear seemed real.

I got the following exercise from Happiness Is Free, and in a future post I'll quote the process in its entirety. For tonight, however, a quick synopsis will more than suffice.

First, take a number of steps to support yourself and reduce your stress. You can reread Feeling, Not Thinking II for some good ideas here. Next, get comfortable. When I did this exercise, I was sitting on my couch in my cozy, dimly-lit living room. Then, begin to go over some of the more troubling aspects of your spouse's death. You know, those thoughts that tend to really cut you up. The only difference is that this time you will try to push those wounding thoughts harder. As you're feeling and experiencing pain, ask yourself if you could go deeper into that pain. And deeper. Ask yourself if you could find the bottom of that pain, to go to the core of that pain. Give yourself permission to feel the full extent of the pain. The center of it. See if you can describe what the pain feels like at its most potent, most concentrated core.

The funny thing is that trying to intensify mental pain is a frustrating endeavor. No matter how you try to lock that pain down to isolate its core, you will find that the core eludes you. Or rather, the mind-blowing pain that you expect to find there doesn't exist. What you find there instead is a weird kind of peace.

Have you ever sat down and gorged yourself on your favorite snack food? Perhaps you didn't set out to gorge yourself. But that first bowl of ice cream just didn't do it for you. So you had another. And another. And a bit more. And just one more spoonful. And, well, there's just a little bit left, so there's no point in putting that back in the freezer. And now you just ate an entire box of ice cream!

Do you feel satisfied at the end of such a binge? Or did the pleasure escape you? Are you left with an empty ice cream container and an unsatisfied feeling (despite your full tummy)?

Probing grief can be the same way. Only it won't be pleasure eluding you, it will be pain. The crazy pain will elude you. You won't be able to find that place where the pain breaks you down. You will instead experience a similar unsatisfied feeling to that which you experienced when you snack-binged. But instead of a full tummy, you'll now find you've got grief in a bit of a box. That agonizing pain will no longer be a mysterious, awesome, scary force like an angry ocean. For now you've discovered just how shallow the pain of grief really is. And that knowledge can help you get through each day much easier than before.

The dread will have lost its sting.


Anonymous said...

Thankyou for your blog. 10 days now and the future, guilt and whole process seems so scary. But your writings and experiences have helped enormously. Now paying for a lifetime of bottling and controlling emotions.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Vic for sharing your feelings and thoughts. I find them more useful and inspiring than the advices you cite from authors of books on grief...

Vic said...

Thank you, Boris, for taking the time to post a comment. 10 days out is still very, very early, and yes, the process can seem very scary indeed. I'm glad you find my blog helpful. It sure doesn't feel like it, but grief is a healing process. In your case, that healing may very well transpire by letting go of those bottled and controlled emotions. In all likelihood, you probably won't be able to control them anymore, anyway, so best to let them go. I've posted a number of articles on helpful way to let go under the label "letting go."

May you find peace,


Vic said...

Hi Anonymous,

Thank you for taking the time to post a comment, and I'm glad you find my shared feelings and thoughts more useful and inspiring than my citations.

The majority of my posts are citations because this is essentially a research blog. I am a hi-tech researcher by trade, so this process comes naturally for me. Also, I'm well aware that I don't have any "original" thoughts -- I wasn't born with a stock of them, I picked them up along the way ;-) To me, it makes sense to keep track of where I picked these thoughts up, and I also don't want to become the answer guy. I'd prefer that people know my sources so they can read them and come to their own conclusions.

Having said that, I can appreciate that I have digested a pretty big volume of grief literature, and I probably regurgitate it all in a unique way ;-) At some point, I do intend to write a book about grief, and that work will be entirely in my own words, albeit heavily footnoted. This blog will serve as the research foundation for that book.

At any rate, I will endeavor to write a few more personalized posts over the next few months. I will also post my personal story in the form of a speech I gave recently at a Bereaved Families of Ontario meeting.

Thanks again for the feedback! May you find peace,