By Dr. Cara Baker
There’s nothing like loss to cancel your to-do list and plans. There’s nothing like grief to erase what you thought was top priority. In the wake of what was, we must lay aside the demands of the world, attending to what’s “in your face.”
Sometimes loss is literal: the death of someone you love. Sometimes the grief involves what I have come to call a “living loss.” Living losses include, but are not limited to: lost dreams, profound disappointments or betrayals, untoward changes in health, work, relationships, or abandonments, that feel like a “hit and run.” Sometimes the loss comes when someone dear suddenly turns away from you abruptly, with a hardened heart.
While grief may be thought of as a noun, anyone experiencing it knows full well that grief is an altered raw state, a dynamic at work that affects not only the one who grieves. Deepest grief comes in waves. In the throes, we are confronted with unpolished and un-manicured scary parts of ourselves. When the ground of what we thought once was slips away, this is an earthquake no one else can measure. Historical identity flies out the door. Self-created illusions of certainty predictability vanish. When the loss is big enough, we are left impotent to fix it. No wonder many opt out through anything that will numb the pain and anxiety. But when our favorite method of self-medication/excess fails to work long term, making matters worse, we are left to face the inevitable. We live in an ever-changing universe. What is present today will not last forever. Nothing alters this fact.
The 11 Essentials to a Grief Well Met
Herein comes the challenge. We must accept there is nothing to fix. As my friend Linda puts it: “There is nothing to do or undo.” All we can hope for is that out of the present darkness something unexpected will flower beautifully in the garden of our heart. This is possible. In fact, it is highly probable to the degree we are willing to roll up our sleeves and meet our loss with authenticity and sincere intention to find growth where it seems least likely. Following are 11 aspects to consider:
- “Harden not my heart.” While tough times can bring out the best in people, it can also bring out the worst. Our words can turn nasty, our temper impatient, our desire for retaliation inflamed. Reacting, rather than quietly responding, hardens the heart. When this happens, may we meet our grief with self-compassion. When the worst in me flares, my practice is to send forth a request to that which lives deepest in and through me that goes like this: “Harden not my heart.”
- When our disposition turns sour, may we press the pause button and seek what restores our Spirit in the natural world. Leaving the phone behind, simply going for a walk in a beautiful spot in nature, while practicing deep breathing can bring back perspective and ease in the system.
- Find evidence of new life before you. One method is to wear your watch on your opposite wrist, reminding you, every time you check the time to take time to notice something new or fresh. Breathe deeply. Life is here.
- Collect these demonstrations daily. Record them in a demonstration journal, a reference for the future when you need a reminder, that “spring” will come again.
- Recall we have choice. Life is fragile, fleeting. We have the capacity for mean-spiritedness or warmth, depending on what we choose. A sharp look, a mean word, a thoughtless gesture with those we encounter, might be our last communication. Is this the legacy we wish to leave behind?
- Always, there is an opportunity to clean up our mess. Where I have caused injury, I can do my best to make things right. There is no guarantee, however, that this will change the situation. The only guarantee is that expanding the way we treat ourselves, and others, in the fire of pain, will surely open our own heart.
- Facing the most difficult with self-compassion and kindness brings forward the possibility for what Chogyam Trungpa called an “enlightened society.” Not only we, but our children’s children are the beneficiaries of our intention.
- Grief can give way to grace. I’d heard the word “grace,” before my son was killed 21 years ago this March 21. But it was not until afterward, sitting in my wingback chair, when I simply could not hold the pain any longer by myself, did I experience grace. One minute, from the bottom of my heart, everything in me silently screamed, beseeched that presence beyond my understanding: “Help me, I cannot do alone.” From some inexplicable place, a deep and abiding calm washed through me so profoundly that I’ve never been the same since. The burden had been lifted. Now, I’m not saying that my bereavement was over. I am saying, however, that this altered my relationship to it and to my life. In an instant, I knew the meaning of these words:
“Help us to be always hopeful Gardeners of the spirit Who know that without darkness Nothing comes to birth. As without light, Nothing flowers.” — Kali “A Grain of Mustard Seed”
- Grief well met affords us the opportunity to untangle ourselves from what no longer serves life well lived. Resisting experience lessens the joy of living. Experience need not be pleasant to find joy. Joy comes from leaning into and “giving over” the burden, trusting that who we are is much, much more.
- Welcoming whatever comes sets us free to welcome life in all its forms, without attachment or resistance, and with connection to all who have known this experience in the universe. One day, as I was untangling myself from feelings of self-pity that bereavement can bring, I saw a robin feeding her newly-hatched in apple tree outside my window. Suddenly, one of her babies over-reached and fell out of the nest, hitting the ground dead. As I witnessed mama bird fly to the side of her fallen, I became aware of all creatures who birth and know loss. We were One. I could send her compassion, and it returned ten-fold.
- Let the “whole” find you from the “hole.” There is no instant fix to suffering. Whenever I am asked “can you get over it?” by the bereaved, I respond as follows. “The real issue is are you willing to grow through your loss?” A well-met grief teaches there is a presence beyond the personality. What has been hidden behind our self-constructed personality shows itself as new expansions of who we’ve believed we are as they begin to shine and bloom. Become faithful to what can flower, even if you cannot see or name it yet. Hold the space, for the yet to emerge. It will come if you choose.
More on “living losses,” in weeks to come. Today’s piece is in memory of you, Matt. So many thanks for the love that remains.
And now, A Love Letter to the One Who Grieves:
Days like today are bitter reminders that life is neither fair nor easy. There are no words for times like this. Neither pretty nor profound words can ease your pain, take away the source of what you suffer. Every loss is different. I would not presume that what I experienced when I lost my son is what is so for you.
What I can tell you is that I know you are out there, doing the best you can. As I think of you, I remember to breathe more deeply for the two of us. As I think of you, I thank life for who you are, for your sincere heart, even in times like these. When I meet a stranger on the street, I think of you, that this might be you. Of course, I do not know, but, I act “as if,” just in case.
May I wish you ease in the system? May you be free from careless remarks or unwanted advice. May this day and evening bring you comfort. May you be reminded that spring will come again, even in the hardest winter of the soul. May you be reminded in infinite ways that you are not alone.
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