Trusting Grief

It’s uncomfortable to admit this but, in the past, when I’d see someone grieving for longer than I thought was warranted, I’d wonder, “Why don’t they just get over it?” While my compassion was abundant, it had an expiration date.

That was before the year in which I ended my marriage, lost two dear uncles and nearly lost my father. During this time of multiple losses, grief moved in and unpacked its bags. A year later, I’m humbled to see that, while I thought I’d be done with grief by now, it’s not yet done with me.

I’ve never been one to suppress my tears, but I didn’t anticipate their seemingly endless flow as I mourned these endings, especially my divorce. Grief has literally brought me to my knees at times—often without warning—forcing me to surrender my own agenda, slow down, and pay attention. Some days, grief is simply exhausting.

What I’ve learned is that there’s a reason for all this.

“Grief is a body-centered process and, when we allow our bodies to experience the feelings, they will integrate and shift,” says Kripalu Healthy Living faculty member Aruni Nan Futuronsky. “However, we’re not responsible for the integration—the moving through the feelings in the body/mind. That relies upon the wisdom of our brilliant, ‘animal’ bodies, as Mary Oliver would say.”

What we are responsible for, says Aruni, is creating the circumstances in which integration can happen, which means quieting our minds and lives to make space for grief.

“When my mom died, I was totally and wholly exhausted. I needed to rest and relax regularly,” Aruni recalls. “A few months later, it was time to start moving. Bike riding, walking, yoga—they all helped me keep unraveling the feelings, but they would not have worked earlier in the process.”

The most important thing, says Aruni, is to give ourselves full permission to be exactly where we are on our own unique journey of grief. This might prove challenging—not only to us, but also to those who care about us, especially if our grieving frightens them.

In the months following my divorce, I heard from loved ones who said, “I hope you’re keeping busy,” or “Focus on the good in your life,” while others told me, “I’m praying for you,” or “Come over, I have Kleenex.” These well-meaning messages represented their personal strategies for coping with loss, while I had to honor my own.

In truth, I’ve sometimes felt a strange sweetness in the murky depths of my sadness. As my heart continued to break open, I sensed more chambers in there available for tenderness, appreciation, and love. For that is what we’re doing when we grieve—mourning the loss of something or someone we loved, and thereby honoring love itself.

“The road back from grief can be a wavy one,” says a friend who lost her partner to a heart attack several years ago, “but the gift within this is that the road is to yourself, in new ways.”

Self-compassion is therefore essential when grieving, as is support from those who have been there. Two books that kept me company during this time were Dark Nights of the Soul, by Thomas Moore, and Safe Passage, by Molly Fumia. Both authors promised that, if I let it, I could trust grief to carve deeper channels in me for a fuller experience of life. I also learned that denying grief can cause anxiety, depression, addiction, compulsive behavior, blocked creativity, and even chronic physical ailments.

“If you get grief wrong, you get a lot of things wrong in life,” said Fully Alive author Tim Shriver in a recent interview. “You hide from a lot of pain. You hide from a lot of frustration.” A member of the Kennedy clan, Shriver said he grew up not knowing how to face or transform the inordinate amount of loss in his family. “I think learning how to express grief, move through it, and internalize both the pain and healing is a real process of growth and change,” he remarked.

In another helpful book, Honoring Grief, author Alexandra Kennedy recommends setting aside a special place and time each day to sit with our grief and honor the person or part of life that we’ve lost. I’ve done this at the altar where I pray, letting photographs trigger healing words and tears. Journaling also helps enormously, giving voice to the pain.

“May you learn to trust grief and let it take you where you need to go to heal,” Kennedy writes in her book. “May your heart heal of old wounds and regrets so that it may open to greater love and joy. May you celebrate—every day—the wonder and mystery of being fully alive.”

I think I’m getting better at trusting grief—my unpredictable, demanding companion—for the wise healer that it is. My hope is that I’ll one day look back and appreciate its gifts.

Kim Childs is a Boston-based life and career coach and writer who specializes in Positive Psychology. She is also a Kripalu Yoga teacher and facilitator of workshops based on The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, by Julia Cameron.

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