Embrace Your Endings

Keeping Love Alive By Mastering The Art Of Grieving

By Marv Thomas © 2014

 

Everything changes. Change always means an ending is happening and a new beginning is under way. Adventures begin and come to an end. Entering kindergarten ends the bliss of mother’s full attention. Graduation ends student hood. Marriage ends single life. Divorce or death ends marriage. Moving to a new home or city ends the familiar comforts to which we were anchored. Jobs come and go. All friendships end eventually. Loved ones come into our life and leave. Life blossoms and ends.

Judith Viorst, a writer of children’s stories and a student of psychoanalysis, calls endings losses. She says, “We lose our girlhood to become a mother. We lose our childhood by the responsibilities of adulthood. We lose our children as they fly away. We lose our vitality and strength as we grow old. We lose our good looks and stunning figure and illusions. . . . Losses are a part of life—universal, unavoidable, inexorable. And these losses are necessary because we grow by losing and leaving and letting go.”

Several thousand years ago King Solomon recognized how change was a natural part of the pulsation of life. He expressed this understanding when he wrote:

There is a right time for everything.
A time to be born — A time to die
A time to plant — A time to harvest
A time to kill — A time to heal
A time to destroy — A time to rebuild
A time to cry — A time to laugh
A time to grieve — A time to dance
A time for scattering stones —A time for gathering stones
A time to hug — A time not to hug
A time to find — A time to lose
A time for keeping — A time for throwing away
A time to tear down— A time to repair
A time to be quiet — A time to speak up
A time for loving — A time for hating
A time for war — A time for peace
—Ecclesiastes 3:2-8

 

The Buddhist tradition teaches that nothing is permanent.

The only thing known for sure is that we live and that we die. All else is in a constant state of change. Peace turns into war and war turns into peace. Happiness turns into suffering and suffering turns into serenity. Beginnings and endings are the stuff of life. Each beginning means the end of something else. Sometimes the loss is welcome, like the end of a war, but sometimes the loss is difficult. Only after we learn how to embrace our endings can we fully embrace our life.

As you roam in through life you will be challenged constantly to accept endings: of place, people, loved ones, status, health, beauty, and eventually your own life. Dancing with change is one of the core arts for living a successful life. Life is in a continual state of change and that makes for unending emotional work. A big part of that work is to grieve what is ending in order to make room for what is new.

As a teenager I bought gasoline for 11 cents a gallon at an ancient Shell station that had not changed much since the days of the Model A. Inside, the old guys in the neighborhood sat around the stove and told stories, while mechanics with dirty rags hanging out of their back pockets changed oil, pumped gas, and put in new head gaskets. I soon became anchored to the smell of tires, gasoline, and oil-soaked wooden floors. It was here that a mechanic welded up my muffler and taught me how to change a fan belt. That old gas station was one of the touchstones in my roamings. It nurtured my soul. It helped to define who I was.

When I graduated from college and left home, I felt a twinge of sadness about leaving my familiar childhood haunts including the Shell station with its familiar smells. But mostly I was excited about my new adventure, so I did not think about what was ending. I was unaware of the importance of embracing my endings in those days.

As I pulled my car away from the curb, with my mother and sister waving goodbye, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that my father—a man to whom I was very close—did not come out to bid me farewell. He was standing in the backyard with his back to me, looking down. It crossed my mind that he was sad but I decided not to think about it. Only later did I learn that I could have marked that ending for both of us in a more compassionate way.

A new city, a new job, marriage, and children. And on the edge of my neighborhood I found an old Texaco station that looked like something out of another era. It was just like the one I grew up with: oil-stained wooden floors in the repair bay, rusty barrels of oil and solvent out back. Inside, the hand-operated cash register was in the corner of a dimly lit office lined with old cans of Stop-Leak and miscellaneous car parts on the shelves. It smelled the same. It had that familiar greasy feel. And Morrie was there.

My heart sang. I was back home again. For several years Morrie, who lived in back of the station with his wife, pumped my gas, let me search through the dim corners of his shop for a bolt, and was one of the anchor points of my neighborhood roaming. Every week I looked forward to talking briefly with him about the weather or the increasing traffic or the state of his wife’s health. Then one day he announced that they had sold the station. I was stunned. Yes, it was time for them to retire. But Morrie was a part of how I defined myself because he had come to represent my connection to my childhood. I had genuinely grown to care for him. The familiar contact with him every week was a predictable experience that brought comfort into my life.

The last day that Morrie pumped my tank full of gas, I wished him well with a heavy heart. Then I pulled around the corner and allowed myself to cry and cry and cry. Something precious to me was ending and I was embracing that ending with my grief. I lived in the same neighborhood for the next thirty years and every time I drove past the strip mall where Morrie’s Texaco station had been, I remembered the warm feelings I’d known in that dark, oily, familiar place. The memory still nourishes me.

By the time I lost Morrie I had learned the profound healing experience that grieving brings. Grieving makes room for the new.


The ability to grieve is one of life’s greatest gifts.
Embracing grief in the face of loss is a natural and healthy pulsation, like breathing and eating and sleeping. Only when we know how to grieve can we truly love.
Grieving is not easy. But if we resist it, we store up a reservoir of held-back feeling that stifles our emotional expression and interferes with our ability to love and bond to new people and places. In order to get good at living, we have to get good at grieving.

 

Grieving Is Natural

We don’t have to be taught how to grieve. It is one of those God-given gifts that continually refreshes our souls. But we can be taught to bottle up our grief.

Grief is always accompanied by emotion, some of it intensely painful. You will find people who do not want to feel that emotional pain and they make it their business to tell you not to grieve. No son of mine will ever cry. Buck up—it was their time. Get over it, you will find a new husband. They do this because others’ grief reminds them of their own and if they can inhibit yours perhaps they will not have to feel theirs.

If we buy into their admonition to “stop crying” or “get over it,” we lose our birthright. Inner renewal stops. Our pathways to aliveness and passion become plugged, and we become subject to depression, anger, physical illness, and even falling out of love. Life can cease to hold vitality. That’s when we turn to addictions like obsession with e-mail or overwork or drugs or compulsive shopping. That’s when we grow tired of the loved ones in our life and go out seeking replacements. Loss of the ability to grieve is a personal tragedy.

Why is grieving so important? The answer can be quite complex, but there is also a simple answer. It starts with how you define yourself as a person. The people, events, and situations around you largely shape your inner psychic landscape. Your neighborhood, family, friends, and loved ones help define your inner sense of self. To a great extent we are who we are around. We create a psychological mirror of the important people, situations, culture, and physical surroundings outside us. We use this mirror to define how we see ourselves and how we walk in our personal villages.

In addition, as we become connected to others an efficiency develops that allows us to go about our daily business. Others can be counted on to carry out their parts in the complex interactions that make up the fabric of life. For instance, our mother will remind us to put on our shoes in the morning and then point out that we have homework at night, so we do well at school. A husband will remember to take the car in for an oil change so his wife does not have to think about it. She will remember that an important insurance payment is due each year on the first day of June so he does not have to hold that in his memory.

Engagement in tight interaction with others bonds us into a collective memory and efficiency that makes life go smoothly. That is why it is so devastating when a loved one dies or a divorce happens. Our collective memory has been ruptured. 

On top of all this, we humans hunger for bonding in relationship with others. It is in our genetic code. Our body chemistry benefits and our souls sing when we are in the company of loved ones. There is a mystical connection between people who have built a relationship, one that we can feel but which ultimately cannot be described. We all feel it. We need it. Without it, life shrivels.

Endings fracture this mystical connection—the comfort and security of belonging. The comforting physical and psychological connection we felt with another is torn apart. The collective memory that we have come to depend upon ruptures. And most of all, our inner sense of who we are is seriously jolted. This stirring up inside happens whether we lose a little thing like a neighborhood or a major thing like a dearly beloved spouse.  That is why a major loss often feels like a bomb went off in our heart.

Felicia and Rick lived together and planned to marry. Together they held a dream of a nice house with a picket fence and roses, children, and a shared career as physicians. They were deeply in love. Then Rick was killed suddenly in a boating accident. Felicia's entire world came unraveled. The fabric of her inner psychic landscape was torn apart. For months she cried all the time, lost weight, could not sleep, and walked around in a haze, unable to continue medical school or think about her future and hardly able to feed herself. Her friends stood by and helped as much as they could. A good therapist guided her through her grief so her inner sense of self could reorganize to the point where she could resume her training. It took several years of inner work to heal this injury to her sense of self and of her expectations about what her life would hold. Eventually she was able to create space inside of herself to hold a new relationship, but she always held a special place in her heart for Rick. Felicia was profoundly changed, and because she had embraced her grief she was able to love again.

Of course death or divorce can be ultimate losses. But every day we suffer all kinds of losses, like breaking a favorite coffee cup in the sink or losing a purse or wishing a friend well when they move to a distant city.

There is more: disappointment. We come to expect that people will routinely behave in a certain way, like remembering birthdays or always expressing tenderness. Sometimes these expectations come from experience and sometimes they come from wishful thinking. But people always change. They disappoint us by not doing what we have come to expect. Because we are attached to things unfolding a certain way, we are disappointed when people don’t act the way we expect.

Reactions to disappointment are many. Sometimes people simply blow off their inner feelings without facing the fact that they are disappointed. They shut down. Sometimes anger is the result and nasty conflicts can erupt. Sometimes the response to disappointment is revenge. And revenge can take nasty turns, one of them is totally abandoning the person who caused the disappointment and replacing him or her with someone else.

If you have the strength of a Zen Master, you might be able to recognize that your inner expectations cannot be met and simply accept it. This is not so easy for most people. Learn to examine disappointment as a call to re-evaluate your expectations. When you learn how to do this, you will be more present with yourself and with those around you. Only then can the relationships in your personal village be open and vital and delightful.

Living in relationships with others will always lead to disappointment and loss. Good relationships involve hard work and sometimes have very painful periods. Life with people is a constant process of small, and sometimes large losses, as we refresh our sense of self in an ever-changing world. A rule of thumb: the deeper the relationship has been, the more intense will be the grief at the end. Failure to grieve the loss of an important place or group or person is an insult to the gifts received from the experience.

Down The Corridor And Into The Global State

As you walk along the pathway from the familiar to the new, it may help to think of grieving the way that psychologists do. When life or a relationship is going smoothly and efficiently—with good bonds, a well-developed collective memory, and realistic expectations—it is like traveling down a well-known corridor. Walking that hallway is familiar, comfortable, and easy.

An example of this is when you go every day to the same job on the same bus, have the same tea and lunch rituals with the same people, and banter with your co-workers in the same satisfying way. These familiar rituals make work comfortable and easy. Your inner sense of self and your expectations are all in harmony with the established rhythm.

Then it changes. The company goes out of business or you are transferred to a new division or worse, you are fired. Life in the familiar, easy framework of work comes to an abrupt end and you are thrown into what the psychologists call the global state. It is a state with no boundaries, no orienting rituals, no defining ways of doing things, and no comforting others. Your inner psychic landscape opens up from a well-defined experience into what seems like a infinitely disorienting void.

Most people experience this sudden new psychic vacuum as bewildering and become anxious and distressed. Some will try to solve the crisis by resisting the change or by leaping into a new corridor or defining path, which explains the sometimes crazy behavior people exhibit after a job loss or during a divorce. Some people resort to addictions or become intensely angry, which can lead to domestic violence or rageful behavior. We often see that in men who have been laid off from a job that was very important to them. It is a hard time, and it requires great strength to tolerate the sudden loss of structure in one’s inner and outer life.

If you can recognize that you have been thrust from the familiar into the global state, then you can better tolerate the unknown. Be patient. A new sense of yourself will gradually unfold and life will go on. If you can hold on through this period, the new form will be a stronger you with a deeper connection to your native talents and interests. Life will never be the same, but you will be stronger and wiser. The old adage that time heals is referring to this process.

Different Endings—Different Responses

Endings are often happy events, and celebrations work to reorient our inner sense of self to the new reality. Leaving single life for marriage is one such time. All the complex arrangements and the marriage ceremony itself acknowledge the end of single hood and launch us into the next step of a relationship.

We are drawn to punctuate endings in a formal way. When a child is killed along the road, people bring flowers and balloons to mark the place. Afterward a plaque marks the tragedy. In this way the community contributes energy to marking the ending with an outpouring of tears and candles, and perhaps also angry letters to some civic official. We attend funerals as communal recognition of a death. Acknowledging major ending is a community event.

In divorce, the ending is often marked with counseling sessions and lawyers, and sometimes even highly emotional dramas in court. Failure to face our grief over the loss of a marriage can result in nasty public spectacles. By contrast, a very few enlightened people mark the end of a marriage with a divorce ceremony to honor what is ending and to make room for the beginnings to come.

Robert Carlson is a social worker and former pastor who has created a marriage-ending ceremony. He begins by bringing the couple and, if they want, their close mutual friends into a neutral, quiet, calm setting. He asks the couple to bring any significant symbols with them, which are then placed before them. Then he rings a bell and calls for a five-minute meditation. The following Divorce Vows are then pronounced, either together or in turn.

May the love and good things we shared endure and blossom.
May the results of our struggles compost into new growth.
(Number) years ago I embraced you as my marriage partner and life mate.
Now I release you as my marriage partner and life mate.
I honor you as my special companion in the dharma (destiny).
May we be loving friends forever.

May we cherish and honor each other and strive to use right speech with one another.
May the blessing of our relationship, past and present and future, benefit our children, families, friends, and community.

At this point Robert rings the bell again and invites everyone present to express thanks, gratitude, and appreciation for what did happen around the relationship.

They close by each walking away in separate directions to signify the ending.

In this way the couple and their friends have an opportunity to gracefully restructure their relationship and their inner sense of self, which had been defined by the relationship. Much of the grief process is very intimate and private. But to have public acknowledgment of an ending, other than a funeral, is an essential part of moving on.

Sometimes when we have a pool of unresolved grief from an earlier loss in life, the experience of supporting and grieving with someone else allows our own reservoir of unexpressed tears to drain out a little bit. That is why people find themselves crying very deeply over another person’s loss.

It seemed that the world collectively grieved the death of Princess Diana, and the global community became a little more alive in the crying. When you stand by a friend who is working through a loss, you help her and you help yourself.

Sometimes an ending is a minor event, like replacing a beloved old car or moving to a new neighborhood. The inner work—grief, if you will—may be no more than a faint longing or a brief heavy feeling or even a huge sense of relief. When you end something that has seriously defined you in a major way, however, the reorganization work is much more involved.

Judy and Sherman had been very happily married for thirty years when he developed a brain tumor. Over a period of ten years he gradually went downhill, still able to live at home for several years but eventually moving into and sleeping all the time in a nursing home. At first Judy was devastated by this slow collapse of her deeply loved husband, but very gradually she began to develop a parallel and then separate life, while her beloved slowly and painlessly slipped away. When Sherman finally died of a stroke, she had almost totally reorganized herself from a married to a single woman with many friends and grandchildren. The grief at the end included some tears and some heavy moments, but in general the end was a relief for everyone. Judy’s journey down the corridor into the global state and back into reorganization was so gradual that, though it was hard, she was not blown away.

Jennifer and Lucy were the closest of friends. They talked every day, shared every confidence, went shopping, shared childcare, sang in the church choir together, knew each other’s lives and families intimately, and for fifteen years forged a bond that seemed like it would last a lifetime.

Then Jennifer’s friend Patricia became acquainted with Lucy and her family. Eventually Patricia had an affair with Lucy’s husband. Lucy was enraged and turned her fury onto Jennifer for bringing Patricia into their life. A deep, unforgiving, blaming place opened up in Lucy. She abruptly cut off from Jennifer.

Now Jen no longer had her friendship with Lucy as an organizing principle in her life. She was thrust into the global state of agony, anxiety, and disorientation. Gone were the daily rituals she and Lucy had enjoyed. Gone were the frequent phone calls. Gone was the touchstone of Lucy’s kitchen and family. Gone were the happy times in church. Jennifer felt totally lost. Fortunately she had her own family and many acquaintances. For months she felt like the rug had been pulled out from under her. She felt like she had been abandoned by her best friend.

As she talked about it with her husband, cried, and expressed her sense of betrayal, she gradually began to explore a new friendship, and after a couple of years she was over Lucy, mostly. Two new close friends gradually came into Jennifer’s life, and now when she thinks of Lucy her feelings are mostly neutral and a little puzzled. Jennifer had done her grief work.

 

Supporting Friends Who Are Suffering Loss

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote the first definitive description of the grieving process. She broke it into five stages, though in reality it is not usually so clear-cut as these discrete steps might imply, and the sequence of the stages can be quite mixed up. Grief is difficult and often chaotic.

The Five Stages of Grief 

  1. Denial: This is not happening!
  2. Anger or Resentment: Someone is to blame!
  3. Bargaining: Oh God, I will do anything if you will make this go away.
  4. Depression: I can’t function. Life has no meaning.
  5. Acceptance: It is not easy, but I can go on now.

When you have a loss, either large or small, you will find yourself negotiating through these stages in some form. If you friend, Jim, suffered a severe loss, you will want to give him support. How do you do this? For starters, it helps to recognize that everyone travels these same steps through the grief process. How you respond will depend on where your friend is on the journey. Let’s talk briefly about these steps.

For example, say your friend just lost a loved one or his house burned down. The first thing you can expect from your friend is that he will be in a state of shock, disbelief, and numbness. This is nature’s way of dropping a veil of quiet over the person so he will not be overwhelmed by the loss. He will be unable to process the meaning of what just happened. You can support him during this early phase by simply standing by. He cannot yet take in the concept that a major part of his inner life, not to mention his outer life, has been uprooted. Your simple presence, offering whatever practical support you can—perhaps making a phone call or asking for details about what happened—will be very valuable.

During this period you can provide practical help, like driving him somewhere or getting food. If your friend wants to talk, let him say what he wants without trying to cheer him up. Realistically accepting your friends loss is the most important gift you can offer. Listen while he tells you every detail about what happened—over and over. That way he can begin to take in the idea that the loss really happened, which begins the internal reorganization process.

As the numbness begins to lift, your friend may become angry and blaming. He will blame himself, the one who was lost, the doctors, the police, the media, anyone he can think of. He may even turn his anger onto you. Here you help by simply listening and not taking sides or joining in the anger or blame. Don’t try to talk him out of what he is saying. If he says he is going to get a lawyer and sue someone, simply listen and, if necessary, point out there will be plenty of time for that.

If you are not careful you can become polarized with your friend in his anger and take sides. You might be tempted to join his efforts to punish an abandoning spouse, to take a tirade to the city council, or to march off on a revengeful legal action. Be careful not to become polarized. If you need to take action on your friend’s behalf, take your time and think it through. Otherwise your piggybacked anger may only unnecessarily inflame the situation.

As your friend seriously begins to integrate the loss and the massive changes that are going on inside, he will cry, be angry, laugh, cry again, be numb, propose stupid things like taking a lover or getting revenge, cry again, act normal, walk around like a zombie, and ask over and over,

why?

Your task here is simply to listen, encourage him to talk about what happened, propose a walk, or gently cool his heels if he starts to launch out on something outrageous. Take your friend to a movie or fix dinner together. Do things that you have done before, like having lunch at a familiar restaurant, going to the theater, visiting friends, anything you can think of that was a part of normal life before the loss. Stepping back on the ground of the familiar, even for short periods, will help him come back into an inner harmony—his inner equipoise will return.

As your friend recovers, encourage him to resume his old activities, talk about the loss, remember the positive things, look at pictures, and laugh about old memories. With your continued support, sometimes over years, he will reorganize his inner sense of who he is and life will go on.

If the loss to your friend was someone very close, this process can go on for a year, or two or three. If the loss was less significant you might see the process run its course in a few minutes or days.

Crying, talking, remembering, feeling like a lead weight is in the stomach, not sleeping, asking why, anger, seeking revenge, and blaming oneself are all part of the grief process. When you or your friend can fully embrace all of these things as necessary rather than judging them, inner work is going on and healing is unfolding. Wisdom is building. Strength is returning. It is not an easy task, but allowing yourself to grieve and supporting your friends through their grieving process is the stuff of relationships.

What Else Helps?

Loss cannot be avoided. Friends will fade away. Jobs will be lost. Children will move away from home. Loved ones will die. The vitality of youth will fade. Luckily, there are some things we can do to ease the way.
For starters, if you have succeeded in keeping your personal village diversified, you will be in much better equipped to make the transit across this loss.

If you have all your people in one basket—job, relationship, activities—when it ends, you are left with a huge hole inside yourself and in your life. The global state will become overwhelming. If you make it a policy to have many relationships at all levels of intimacy, to engage in many activities, and to roam freely and widely, then when one of your supports goes away you’ll have a foundation of many people that upholds you during the grief process and the ensuing reintegration.

Make it a habit to develop relationships with people both older and younger than you. Then you can be a support to people across the spectrum of life, and they will be the same to you.

Refugees, people who have been uprooted from everything as they fled some tragedy, often leave absolutely everything behind. Even though they may have had a balanced life in their former world, to lose everything propels them into a global state that often is totally overwhelming. The massive reorganization required is sometimes more than can be managed. Some never do recover. Most of us are not refugees in the total sense of the word, though at times we all may feel like one. If we have nurtured a diversified personal village, we can draw on the accumulated social capital during a loss, no matter how severe, and be able to find comfort and people to help us build a bridge over the crisis and into a new healthy state.

When You See It Coming

Sometimes we know a loss is coming. If we can celebrate by saying goodbye or doing a farewell ceremony, the grief will not be as disruptive. These principles even apply to the loss of a pet. Rudy was a much-loved dachshund. He remembered everyone he had ever met. As he reached the end of his life and faced a serious terminal illness, all his family and his old friends gathered to say goodbye. They held him in their laps, fed him sweets, petted him, and let him kiss them like always. Rudy loved the attention and his family felt they were giving him a great send-off. The next day when he was put to sleep, everyone felt a depth of gratitude for him and the joy his antics had brought into their life. Even though everyone missed his bouncing walk and his silly, laughable barking, the loss was softened. If a pet is a central figure in your life, to celebrate the ending of life with them, if possible, will ease the grief.

Gratitude for what you have received is an important dimension of easing loss. All of us have enjoyed an abundance of joy and pleasure, and probably many immeasurable benefits, from whom or what we are losing. Our lives are fuller when we acknowledge the gifts we have received. If you know the loss is coming and can express your gratitude, the reorganization afterward is richer.

When some people are faced with the impending loss of a dearly loved one, it is common for them to drop many of their busy daily activities and begin to shower attention on the one who is about to leave. It always seemed strange to me that people waited until the end to express their affection and gratitude. Marci once had a cat whom she decided to treat with great affection and attention every day as if it were to be the last. Of course she had a very happy cat on her hands and her heart sang in the process. (If you think she only does this with cats, you are wrong.  She treats everyone she knows in the same way.) When her cat finally died eleven years later, Marci did not feel grief at her passing. She missed their daily time together and the sweetness between them but there was no sorrow, only gratitude for what they had shared.

Treating everyone with graciousness, warmth, caring, and gratitude is the best way to live in the company of others and to ease the passing when the end eventually does come.

There will be times when we leave a place to which we have grown especially attached. One way to acknowledge the ending is to spend some time in that physical space and remember what happened there. You can even thank the space. Phyllis is a psychotherapist who describes leaving an office where over a decade of memories were stored up. Before she locked the door for the last time, she spent an hour remembering many of the events and feelings that she had experienced in that office. Many tears had been shed in that room. Much laughter had reverberated from the walls over the years. Often sheer horror had filled her heart as she listened to the stories of the people who came to see her. She thanked the people as she remembered them and thanked the walls for holding everyone through a grand adventure of personal growth. As she went over all of the memories associated with that room, she was able to say goodbye to the office and move on to her new place. The hour she spent remembering helped to reorient her sense of self toward what lay ahead while honoring what was ending.

One social scientist, Mark Granovetter, made a surprising discovery while studying people going through major life changes. It turns out that distant acquaintances, those who rotate in a different sphere from you, are often as much or more help than your more intimate friends and relatives during times of rapid change. This could be true because the more distant people have access to resources that your circle of people have not yet discovered.

April was going through a nasty divorce but had not been able to find a good attorney. She shared her difficulty with her hairdresser, Angelo. Angelo thought his brother knew a good lawyer and called him on her behalf. The brother called April and soon she had the legal help she needed. This unlikely resource opened up as a result of her connection to her hairdresser. This is common in the loose network of our personal village. When a major transition, loss, or change is happening to you, be open to ideas and people you do not ordinarily think of as resources. Often you will find help your inner circle does not know about.

If you are so totally overwhelmed with the immensity of a loss that you cannot function, it may be time to think about professional help. If the grief turns into chronic depression or anger, or if it seems to go on and on without ending, this may mean that something deep in your psychological structure has been jarred loose and the restructuring is beyond what you or your friends can handle. This is when a professional can help. A counselor is trained to understand the grief process and can be very helpful. In severe loss, the help of a support group can be valuable. The company of others who have suffered losses and who are sharing in the restructuring process is often a godsend.

Grief’s expression can run the gamut from racking sobs to a solemn inner state. It can be raging anger or a simple acceptance that you need to go on. It can be mind-deadening numbness or a quiet heaviness. We experience inner work in many ways, but regardless of the way it manifests itself and regardless of whether it takes a few minutes or a few years, we all must go through it over and over if we are to be fully alive to ourselves and to those around us.

Once while walking through a cemetery, George came across a man standing stoop-shouldered next to a new grave. He walked up to him and asked gently, “Your wife?” The old man nodded.
“How long were you married?” George asked.
“Sixty-three years,” he managed to say.

George nodded. The old man looked down and George walked on. Sadness filled the air. Tears flowed as George realized that one day either he or his wife would be standing by a grave just like that. Grief is the price we will eventually pay for the intimacy we enjoy today. It is a price we would rather not pay, but we know it is the unenviable counterpoint to the great sweetness we experience now.

Knowing how to survive the grief process and how to transform endings into new beginnings is one of the marks of maturity. We can take the gifts that our cherished loved ones have bestowed upon us by letting go when the relationships end. By taking these gifts forward, we can avoid letting the end drag us into depression and withdrawal. Anything less is an insult to the quality of the contact we once enjoyed together.

Life is hard work, and life is change. On the journey from birth to death, the supportive cast of a strong personal village makes this hard work possible and carries us through the continually changing landscape of our lives.

A Chinese emperor once asked his wise men for a statement that would always be true, no matter where, when, or how. Their answer was, “And this too shall pass.”

 


This article originally appeared as Chapter 13 in Personal Village, How to Have People In Your Life by Choice, Not Chance  by Marvin Thomas (2004).

 

If you have questions, call me at 206-364-9494 or drop me a line at marv@marvthomas.com.

 

Personal Village

"Community is at the core of what it is to be human." —Marv Thomas 

Personal Village >

Counseling

Offering individual, relationship, premarital, and marriage counseling.

Counseling >

Testimonials

Feedback Marv has received over the years from individuals and couples.

Testimonials >