On Healing through Grief Work

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The text below on grief and grief work is taken from David Richo’s book When the Past is Present : Healing the Emotional Wounds that Sabotage our Relationships.  I have found it helped to clarify for me the complex emotions tied up in grief and it seems to outline very eloquently the nature of what it means to grieve in a healthy way that leads to resolution:

Grief is irreversible.  We cannot cancel or change it, and yet we try.  This is not unhealthy, since we are actually thereby respecting our own capacity for grief.  We have to let it come through in its own way and time.  This may mean that we avoid it for a while, let it in little by little, or even attempt to deny it.  We have to be kind to ourselves in our grief, letting it take the lead, not forcing ourselves into a programme meant to release it as soon as possible.

In this practice we look at our feelings and then at the inner shifts that help us let go and go on.  As you read through the following reflections on grief and grief work, see what connections you can make with your own life.

Grief is composed of three feelings.

  1. Sadness, that something was lost
  2. Anger, that it was taken away
  3. Fear, that it will never be replaced

These three feelings can be experienced simultaneously or in any order.  Grieving about our unfulfilled needs in childhood means expressing the same three feelings.  Sadness that our needs were neglected or unfulfilled, anger at those who did not fulfil them, fear that we might never find a partner who can fulfil us.

The three feelings that comprise grief are like technologies built into us so we can deal with the implacable truths of impermanence, loss, betrayal and suffering. We have the capacity to be sad because of the given of losses, changes and endings; we have the capacity to be angry because of the given of betrayal and injustice; we have the capacity to be afraid because it is given that threat and danger sometime besets us.

Grief work grants us access to our deepest feelings and to our healthy vulnerability, something so necessary to intimacy.  Vulnerability is healthy when it is combined with stability.  We feel weak, but our powerlessness does not throw us off course.  We are vulnerable, but not as victims.

We are glad rather than ashamed that we are susceptible to human pain without seeking more of it.  We open the door to the pangs of love and longing, but we are not doormats.  Our hearts are open, but not ripped apart.  Our brow  is “bloody but unbowed”, as the poet William Ernest Henley writes.

Healthy vulnerability is show in the same ways as grief

  1. I am sad that I was hurt
  2. I am angry that I was insulted
  3. I am afraid that I will not be able to get over it

Such fear is understandable since there is a feature of grief which is inconsolable.  ..

Vulnerability is unhealthy when we restrict the natural flow of our feelings.  When we show only sadness, we may feel we are victims. When we show only anger, we are on the defensive and not comfortable with the vulnerability that could make us more lovable.  When we show only fear, we seem to be expecting only more mistreatment and we run from relating.   The challenge is to experience all three feelings of grief without blame, grudge or grievance.  The three healthy feelings in grief help us in the following ways:

Sadness that is free of blame can help us contact our tender vulnerability as something to be appreciated, as a positive sign of our capacity for love and openness. The negative unhealthy vulnerability brings the sense of being victimised.

Anger becomes useful when it prompts us to become strong enough to break through our fear or when it helps us gain distance from an abuser.  It counterbalances the sadness so that we can speak up to abuse or hurt.

Fear can be used positively as a warning sign of danger rather than as an inhibiting or compelling force.  Notice that the fear that what we missed will never be replaced also gives us a clue: We may have entered a relationship with expectation that a partner will provide proper and full replacement of what we long for or lost, even though he is not aware of what that may be.

As we express our feelings and let go, we gradually forgive ourselves and others and can get on with life.  This happens because our opening to grief, paradoxically leads to self comforting.  That stabilises us and we can finally say yes to a world that is bound to deal us gains and losses.  We can say to ourselves.  “Living through the challenges of life in relationship I learn to self soothe.  Now my regrets about losses or failures become the building blocks of my sense of personal completeness.”

This completeness/wholeness results from the automatic shifts that follow our release of feelings.  We notice that we can let go of the charge surrounding what we grieved.  Secondly, we let go of blame, grudge, grievance and the need for revenge -that is we forgive.  Grief and compassion are not meant to be simultaneous but sequential.  We cannot easily forgive while we are angry. But once we work through our grief, forgiveness and compassion follow as graces.

Then we notice we can get on with our lives and more personally grounded, no longer so much at the mercy of transferences that gather around unmet needs, regrets, disappointments and the grief they carry in their wake.  Now we are more able to take care of ourselves and more open to and ready for healthy relationships.

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