“The Bereavement,” marble, 2010
Grief is a synonym for intense psychic pain. It is seldom invited and never welcomed. Death is not a gentle teacher. Everyone loses someone they love, and everyone dies someday. Everyone is afraid of it and everyone is angry at it. Some people say no no, I’m not mad and scared. Unfortunately, the truth doesn’t change because it is denied. Usually, everyone dies only once, and almost no one comes back to report the journey or the destination. For some, maybe that is one of the scarier aspects of death – the unknown. At least, it is intriguing. It is surely the essence of awe. We are left alive to wonder and imagine. We have lively imaginations.
For survivors, peace isn’t immediate, after the death. We have to talk ourselves into it. That is the way grief works. That is grief work. It takes awhile. Each of us has our own personal timelines for healing. There is no need to hurry up just because someone else says so. The time may be 2 years or 10 or 2 forevers. To each his own way.
Also, none of us are condemned to be a failure. We do not have to be defined by our negative thoughts. We can find and observe them, confront them, and refuse to be defeated by them. Negative thoughts cannot dictate our behavior without our permission. We have a choice of our response, of what we do. Between the thoughts and the response fall decisions. We can decide to turn “I can’t do this” into “I will do my best, one day at a time, and succeed.” Call it self-determination reinvented.
And the past can be reimagined, reframed as the post-death relationship forms between the survivors and the lost. To reframe is to alter our perspective, to see things differently. That changes the past! It is amended. We can then make significant predictions about the past; for instance, that unresolved relationship issues will receive further painstaking attention toward reconciliation. Predicting the past! It is a privilege of the human mind. Imagine. That is strength and growth.
Therein lies the route to composure and the new emotional balance we seek. It is peace on a different plane of existence, a plane that does not depend on the physical presence of the one who was lost. Even then, a part of us remains grieved when we lose loved ones, and that is natural. It is normal. It is to be expected. It is not a mental disorder.
How we grieve and find our way from keen distress to new inner balance requires remarkable time and tears and talk. Yes, it is certainly possible, making building blocks out of stumbling blocks. Honest self-awareness promotes the process. The sincere inward view is a lesson in courage and perseverance. The strong person is the one who can conquer himself. It is worth the hard work. All of us do our best to heal the outrageous wounds of loss. Those who find the way are a source of comfort and companionship to others still searching.
What I know is that love is stronger than death.
A grief story has no proper end. Whoever has the experience is required to tell the story. It is a moral imperative. It is healing and it keeps alive the memory of the one who died. It fulfills our promise to the dead: “I will always remember you.” (The double-negative form of this promise, “I will never forget you,” is insufficient.) We are the living continuation of their story. This life-after-life is our loved ones’ right. Indeed, love and respect make it so. Just so.
When someone also listens to those stories with kindness, caring, and hope, it matters. It makes all the difference. We need others to bring us back from the perceived isolation of mourning into the land of the living. It is a reminder of the meaningfulness of life. When we stand together, we are braver.
Listening is an art that transforms lives. It is an act of compassion and true concern. It can change our minds. It is still changing mine. Death teaches life. It is a vastly creative force.
Even in the exile of bereavement, friendship exists and can become an anchor.
Where there is dark shadow, there is also much light.
“If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together… there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing [to remember] is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.”
— A.A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh
Rea Ginsberg is a retired director of social work services, hospice coordinator, and adjunct professor of clinical social work. She can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @rginsberg2.