”The most beautiful people I’ve known are those who have known trials, have known struggles, have known loss, and have found their way out of the depths.” Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
In June of 2013, I experienced what has been the most profoundly painful experience in my life, the loss of my dear aunt Mary. Her death has marked a turning point in my deep understanding of authentic genuine pain, of which I thought I knew, but knew nothing about, as well as the importance of the process to re-discover who I am and my journey to re-define my relationships with those alive and those who have passed.
As a professional who specializes in grief and loss and has worked with hundreds of families who have experienced the pain of loss, I was taken back by my own difficulties in coping. However, in the continual process of working my way through this experience, my aunt’s death has allowed me to walk hand in hand with profound grief. I have come to know that this walk was and is the only way to heal and adapt her death. I had spent years running away from such pain, hiding behind the sorrows of those brave people who I have tried to guide in my professional life. This “glorious sadness” has allowed me to face my greatest fear, the loss of my loved ones.
Grief and loss, however are not limited by the experience of losing a loved one to death. This phenomenon encompasses a wider level of human experience than one would initially think. From a romantic breakup, or financial loss, to the loss of dreams, expectations, illusions, youth, childhood and safety, the experience of grief and loss has found it’s way into the very core of what makes us human. In working with clients who present at their first visit to my office with an array of problems, most will undoubtedly return to a primary loss that becomes the source of many of their current problems.
As our understanding of human behavior and thought has evolved, so has our understanding of this universal experience of grief and loss. Experts have found the following to be shifts in the way we look at our the process of grieving.
1. The understanding and appreciation that we all experience our grief and loss uniquely. Kubler Ross’s stages of grief, although it continues to be one of the most useful concepts in our understanding of loss, does not leave room for the idiosyncratic nature our own personal experience with loss. Our grief is in many ways similar as it is unlike anyone else’s. Our grief is distinctly and profoundly our own.
2. The experience of grief and loss is influenced and occurs within our cultural, familial and societal context. Our grieving process is in a constant negotiation with the rules of the society and culture that we live in. How our grief is expressed can be highly determined by what is appropriate in the society we live in. Our culture can dictate how we experience death and depending on factors such as our age, gender, race, religion, and birth order or family role. At times, our own personal experience may conflict with our societal rules and what we feel is expected of us.
3. There is no right way to grief, no right stage to be in and not expected time to recover. After a loss, our body and mind go into automatic survival mode. We instinctively know what we need to feel and think. Some people are more feeling oriented, other are more cognitively oriented and cope with their loss respectively. For most of use, we are a combination of the two. Most important to keep in mind, there is no right style to grieve .
4. "Letting go" or breaking bonds is not always a healthy approach to grief and loss. Psychoanalysis and western psychology has emphasized the ‘letting go concept’ to those who experience loss. As important as it is for us to accept the loss, we can continue to draw comfort from a continued connection. This allows us to continue to build new relationships with others people or new ideas. We begin to learn that the only thing that changes is the nature of the bond that we have with the person or object or idea that is lost. For example, the divorced couple with children will have a change in the nature of their relationship, or the Atheist will have a new relationship with his/her childhood experience with God instead of cutting off who they were or devaluing what they may have believed in the past.
5. We are active agents in the process of adapting to our loss. We are the agents of progress in the process of loss. How fully we invest in learning to adapt to our loss and what we choose to do about it and think about it will determine the quality of our experience. I have chosen to utilize the loss of my Aunt as a way to better understand my shortcoming, my greatest fears. The very act of writing this blog is an proactive attempt at creating and adapting to her loss; at adjusting to the new relationship I will now have with my aunt, and consequently to all my family, and finally and most importantly, to myself.
6. Grief does not end, but it does change. Many times, I am asked by a grieving mother, or a grieving child, ” will this feeling every leave me?” The truth is, if we forgo out concept of ‘letting go,’ we greater understand that grief only changes but does not end. It will change in intensity and will moderate, the process of grief as a personal and interpersonal process changes rather than ends. The journey is unique and has it’s own timeline. Some phases of our lives, it will be worse, other times, easier. Finally, as we learn to adapt our relationship to the loss, we will be able to better adapt through experience.
Most importantly what we can learn from loss, is humanity’s undeterred resilience, and boundless potential to grow in the face of pain. My aunt Mary, through her death, has gifted me with the reminder that I must strive every day to be a more active participant of life. She has touched the deepest core of who I am both the beauty of me along with my greatest fears. Because of her, I have learned that the nature of how I view my relationship with her does not have to end, but must change in order for her to continue to influence my life. Above all, my aunt Mary’s death has taught me to better love and appreciate the people in my life daily, and to honor her by continuing to striving my best to be of service to others. For all this, I am eternally grateful of this experience.