A Time of Grief and Remembrance
Written by Lane Gormley, EdS, LPC, NCC
Americans are not good at grief. We are in a hurry to get back to work, to attend to every minor errand, to go to the bridge club, and to pick up the thread of our continuity. Stopping is uncomfortable. We don’t have time to mourn our losses and, besides, how do you do that? Then, there are the tears. What if someone saw us cry? What would they think? What if we started crying and couldn’t stop? We are just generally uneasy about honoring our sadness. One of my Clients in the Crisis Unit at a major hospital lost her mother at the age of 12. At the funeral, her aunt told her, “It’s OK to cry today, but tomorrow this has to be over. We have to go back to normal.”
For men in our society, grief can be impossible. Men are not supposed to feel their emotions much less examine them. A young man in the Crisis Unit I mentioned above, asked to consider possible reasons for his suicide attempt, told his therapist, “Well… I mean… My twin brother was killed in an accident in which I was driving… But I’m fine… I’ve moved on.” It takes tremendous courage for a man to feel and express grief in our society, so many of them don’t.
A hospital Volunteer named Richard, formerly a “dual diagnosis” Client with Depression and Alcohol Dependence, attended a group I gave on the grief process. Afterwards, he came to tell me about a series of losses he had never mourned. He was drinking at the time of the death of each of his parents, and he drank a great deal to get through their funerals. He drank during his divorce from a woman he loved very much, and he drank straight through the death from cancer of his best friend, the man with whom he had served in the Korean War. After group, he said, “Lane, I really hate it, but I am afraid I’m headed back to therapy. I am going to have to talk honestly about what I lost.”
In ages past, people grieving a death wore black clothing for a year. Black wreaths on their doorways reminded visitors of their sensitivity. Black clothing and wreaths were reminders to others to be gentle with them because they had suffered a loss. Everyday social interactions might be difficult for them. They might not seem themselves. They might behave strangely. They might be exhausted and distracted. They might require special help. Am I suggesting a return to these practices? Not at all. I am suggesting a return to the sensitivity that inspired them.
When there is a loss, it must be accounted for. There must be a reckoning. The heart must unburden itself. Otherwise, the pain cannot be released to become a source of wisdom and spiritual growth. It simply remains underground, hiding unspoken in a corner of the self, something to avoid, growing greater with each subsequent loss until, one day, it is too great to bear. How will it manifest? Depression? A physical illness? An emotional breakdown?
Singing the Blues
Sadness is not ugly. All moods, when felt and expressed, are beautiful. They are like music, with treble highs and bass lows. Music played uniquely in the treble clef would be annoying to listen to without the tempering influence of the notes and chords below Middle C. Painting is also beautiful, but artists usually don’t paint uniquely in red, orange, or yellow unless they are making a point (or in hypomania or mania like Van Gogh when he painted the sunflowers). The most heartfelt paintings often share bright spaces with the grays, blues, and muted violets that are part of the color spectrum. Bright colors and musical high notes are better appreciated when muted tones share their space. Our emotional range is like the color spectrum or the musical scale. If we are to truly feel our joy, then we must open our hearts to our sadness. It is our humanity that is at stake. Our human feelings are beautiful. In honoring them, we honor our humanity.
Cleansing the Soul
Crying is a cleansing and healing activity. You do not have to do it in public, but you probably should do it. It releases pain, relaxes the emotions, and lightens the heaviness that we associate with sorrow. I am a champion cryer. Sometimes I cry just because I am tired – even when there is nothing wrong. People don’t understand this because Americans are so fearful of tears. For that reason, I rarely cry in public. Once, I cried at the airport when saying goodbye to someone I love. Several total strangers tried to comfort me, so you can see why I usually cry in private. Crying feels great if you know what it is for and why we do it. It is such a relief. I hope you will do it when you need to.
Part Time Work
Grief work is only part time. One of my hospital Clients said in group, “Lane, if I ever start crying, I will never stop.” Well, as I told her, that’s not how it works. Grief work is done in moments and not in days. When grief is new, we might stop several times a day for minutes or hours to remember and to cry. Then we might go on to spend several calm hours doing what we would normally do. We might express our sadness by writing stories or poems. We might paint about our feelings or plant a special garden or spend time in chosen spiritual or religious practices. We might try to share our feelings with those we love and trust. It will strengthen the bond between or among us. As time goes on, the tears may lessen, or the intervals between tearful episodes may lengthen.
When I lose someone precious, I always write them a letter telling them how much it meant to me to share my life with them. After I have finished, I read my letter out loud and “own” what I have written. Then, I burn the letter in a fire pit or in the sink and ask aloud for the message to be delivered to the person for whom it was intended. I might do this several times until my grief is less overwhelming and I start to feel connected to them again.
I have lost a great many people, and now there are fewer tears. Mind you, I have no intention of “getting over them”, but there is no constant, day-to-day pain and for that I am grateful. I count heavily on seeing them again someday. In the meantime, I might be on a street in one of the cities that I have known for a long time; and I might imagine, just for a minute, that I see one of them. At such times, I always say aloud, for them and for me, “I remember.”
An Opening in the Clouds
It is our duty to do our grief work. We cannot ignore our feelings, or hide from them without serious emotional and even spiritual consequences. When we honor what we have lost – remember, express, and release our feelings about a death, there can come an opening in the clouds. Through it, we may see that love endures far past the physical realm. I pray that your heart and spirit will reawaken after losses as mine has always done.
When my father died, I felt so alone. Overwhelming shock, fear, and a cold, wintry emptiness seemed as if they would be with me forever. It was only after doing my own grief work – praying, remembering, writing, expressing, sharing – that I could, once again, feel his hand on my shoulder.