I’ve been finding grief catching me unawares lately. Any transition triggers feelings but usually it is bewildering and surprising when I realize I’m in the midst of a grief response to transition. Especially when the transition is happy. For me, there is the strange grief coming after my ordination. This huge transition marks the end of a year-long push to be ordained. Of course, I am happy to have completed my goal. Thrilled. But I also have this an odd empty feeling. The work has defined almost all of my personal time. Now what shall I do with all this time, I find myself wondering. This is grief.
Change always impacts us. And we’re constantly experiencing change, in our personal lives, in our community, and in the world around us. An enormous range of feelings is stirred within me – and us – that all fall under grief: pain, heartache, guilt, fear, confusion, anger, isolation, disrupted routines, and asking spiritual questions of meaning. There are physical, emotional, mental, social, behavioral, and spiritual symptoms connected to our grief. That is a lot to handle. Depending upon the situation and our makeup, our symptoms will be different. No wonder it can be difficult to self-diagnose grief. No wonder it catches us by surprise. My grief response may look nothing like yours. We’ll each juggle our own cocktail of symptoms.
So, the first step is recognizing that I am – we are – experiencing grief and loss. This may not be obvious or easy. But once I know I’m experiencing grief, I can start listening and seeking to understand my feelings and responses. Hopefully, I can offer myself compassion as I turn toward the experience and feelings. Being with my feelings is the only way I know how to actually move through them. When I deny or avoid my feelings, they settle in for a long stay. But witnessing and bearing with the roller coaster of emotions, behaviors, and questions – consciously – I can grow from, rather than block, my grief. This is growth-full grieving.
We can support ourselves in the grief process alone, with friends, and in community. Listening, bearing witness, being patient, kind, and allowing it to take the time it takes; all of this is support for moving through grief. As we all may know, there are general stages of grief we move through in growth-full grieving: shock, protest, disorientation, and reorganization.
Experiencing the shock of a transition – whether it is happy, sad, horrifying, or seemingly neutral – has an emotional and psychological impact on us. Whether it is the death of a loved one, being an empty nester, a change in a close friendship, the completion of a long-term goal, money issues, loss of hope, retirement, or changing schools, there is shock and feelings of numbness, dullness, emptiness, anger or denial.
Our reaction to shock can shift us into protest where we find ourselves grappling with an increased feeling of anger, guilt or a pre-occupation with what was lost. We may find ourselves searching, yearning, grieving. Resisting our protest, can lead us to feel depressed. Protest is a healthy stage in dealing with our transition particularly when we stay aware of our experience and our feelings and recognize that their volatility, their mutability is a symptom and not right or wrong. The presence of our protest alerts us to our reaction to grief. Then we can help ourselves work through, be with, our shock and protest.
Awake to our grief, shock, and protest we can find ourselves moving into disorientation, the stage of grief where we find ourselves confused, restless. Why is this happening? What am I supposed to do with these feelings? What should I do with my life? What is a healthy response to this situation? Giving ourselves time to be with the awkward, uncomfortable sensations of disorientation is not pleasant or fun. But, with patience, receptivity, and waiting as I sit with these difficult feelings, I can support myself through this stage.
Eventually disorientation will shift, and we’ll find ourselves actively reorganizing our internal or external world. Active reorganization takes different forms: realizing new meaning in the loss, accepting the loss, developing new patterns of behavior, or cultivating new interests and skills. Reorganization is a process of recovery and birthing a new form of being out of the understanding, forgiveness or compassion we reach. Growing through grief is moving toward recovery – at our own pace. It takes time. When I take time to be with myself and listen to what is happening inside, then my awareness helps me integrate my feelings of shock, protest, disorientation, to eventually reorganize and recover from the transition.
As we experience grief in its many places in our lives – losses in our community, changes in our personal lives, and/or losses in the world – reach out to community, to friends and to loved ones for support. Seek friends and loved ones who have been wisely helpful in the past. Community is deeply important for our healing, for our health, for our well-being. We need each other. Be open to listening. Be open to sharing your experience as yours, accepting that each person will have a different experience. Witness without weighing in with your own reaction so each person feels safe to share what is arising for them. In this way we can heal with others. Moving through the process of grief together will be uncomfortable and awkward at times. We won’t always agree on healing paths. We don’t need to agree. We won’t all need or make the same choices. That’s OK. Together we can support each other through change and growth – in community. Our caring for each other matters. Our understanding of grief and its many forms and stages can remind us that the emotions and feelings we see and feel in others and ourselves may in fact be evidence of grief. Let that awareness arouse your compassion.
May you all find peace, ease, comfort, and the love of community during this holiday season.