The Secret Power of Grief

grief-like-lava-ii

I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. (Ecclesiastes 3:10-11)

I had a lengthy discussion about the power of myth, with a post-modern author who didn’t exist. In this fictitious world all reality twist. I was a hopeless romantic, now I’m just turning tricks…And I followed the breadcrumbs but I never got home. I grew old in an instant, now I’m all on my own. (O’Berst, 2007).

                   When I watch my daughter play and explore something like an acorn for the first time, I’m reminded of a time when life truly was some grand adventure, fraught with danger, sure, but ultimately good. When I see her body jump with delight in her car seat at the “flailing arm man” next to care dealerships, or throw her head back in laughter at some joke she made up about poop, I’m lifted out of my drudgery. Even if just for a moment, I feel whole again–before the world fragmented my hopes into “pipe dreams” that I have so often given up on. I’m doing better now at reviving these dry bones in my own personal version of the valley of life’s disappointments. It’s not easy. The burning of the relics of my dying idealism, overused cliché’s, and over intellectualization replaced by pure grief are slowly fueling a flame of confidence that a good will ultimately win. This fuels a belief that I don’t have to summon some supernatural power I’ll never have to ensure it happens. It’s only from these ashes that true hope/faith can be nourished into fruit we can share: a place where God’s and others’ goodness and love is maintained and still experienced despite our pain.

Fire-walking

            Volcanic ash is widely known to be some of the most fertile soil in the world. I love to mix ash from our fireplace into my garden in the spring. Grief has a funny way of torching the landscape our hearts so that the soil can once again support greenery. I’ve alluded to this in my first two blog posts. Yet two components are integral for this miracle to happen. We must first let the anger, fear, devastation, hopelessness, cynicism, numbness, etc. run its course through our veins like a fire inside our bodies. Rothschild (2000) describes in detail how psychological trauma releases an entourage of chemical messengers in our bodies that warn us of danger that needs to be attended to like a blinking red light sounds a loud, obnoxious “whom whom whom whom…”. This cortisol and adrenaline (amongst other messengers) combo is a very real pain and process that we have to allow to flood us despite the agony. This is not a combination of passé responses that stifles our emotional expression or an overly sophisticated intellectual framework that somehow explains away the need to rage and grieve. Swinton (2007) says, “Lament provides us with a language of outrage that speaks against the way that things are, but always in the hope that the way things are just now is not the way they will always be. Lament is thus profoundly hopeful” (location 1229).

No one can say what this process “should” look like or how long it “should” take. We mustn’t “should on ourselves” or let anyone else do that either in this situation. Only we can decide when it’s time to stop burning things down, till the soil, and re-sow the seeds from the dead fruit of the past season. This only works if we are able to be lucky enough to have the second component: to freely express these intense emotions in the context of relationship to our higher power and others, and in a context of empathy without judgment where those closest to us can echo our sentiments because they’ve been in a similar (not exact) place (check this out for an excellent & simple working definition of empathy). 

Allowing for catharsis of our grief in its many dialects in a forum where we feel we are not alone or alien in our experience is the ONLY way to the place where we can then truly say, “No more” and actually begin the process of replenishing/replanting the landscapes of our souls. Then I can finally say, “No longer will I allow myself to be defined by my tragedies”. I can no longer allow my anger or cynicism to put a cap on my gratitude, excitement, or joy. For some of you reading this, these last few statements may sound cliché’, insensitive, or even impossible. If so, my guess is that you’ve lacked the holding environment with your higher power or significant others within which to feel heard and cared for. Perhaps it has felt inadequate. I beg you to seek help from a professional who might understand this process better than your support system or who is better trained to help you process your trauma.

Prisoners of Hope

     You see, the thing is, we simply weren’t made to be gratified with this world. “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world” (Lewis, 1952). If the broken state of this world and myself isn’t what it was intended to be, then perhaps my desire for better isn’t naive, selfish, or “only for the weak minded who need faith as a crutch”. Otherwise, why would we be so shaken by trauma?! Wouldn’t ignorance be bliss if we thought that the trouble in this life was simply a result of everything being as good as it could be anyway? If I approach the grief inducing stimuli and events in my life from the assumption that my pain is quite natural and true to my nature, this approach has the potential to readjust my entire schema. Trauma and how it impacts the brain all the sudden takes on a new meaning when we realize that our brains literally weren’t originally designed to have to deal with things like abuse of all kinds (including neglect), death, heart ache, etc.… I don’t mean this to imply that one is stuck in our wounded state forever. We see through evidenced based practices, hundreds of studies, and anecdotal experience that we are incredibly strong people, with malleable minds and bodies capable of astounding renewal. But if I am not meant to be fully satisfied in the current state of things, then perhaps I can recalibrate my expectations and hope. Perhaps I can place it elsewhere, both in this life and whatever I believe to be in the life that follows.

So every man must come to grips with the “eternity set within his heart”. The nagging sense that despite the beautiful fruit of each season, there must be something more than what we experience within the trappings of time. So we either ignore & remain numb or acknowledge that sometimes things aren’t so beautiful and sometimes we churn and rage within. To acknowledge this means to accept our grief. To accept our grief ultimately means a shake up in our existential framework. As I process these things with my clients, recently it occurred to me in a fresh way how much this impacts our expectations of the people and circumstances of our lives. If I am still at war with the reality that this life will never sustain the satiation of my desire in a way that can ensured to not fall victim to the unpredictability of life then I still expect the people in my life and what happens to me to fulfill voids they never will. These unmet expectations and the denial of our broken state wreak havoc on so many people everyday in the form of broken relationships, addictions, abuse, aggression, manipulation, and all over sorts of calamity.

The Secrete Power of Grief

     Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (1969) coined the five stages of grief through her research working with terminally ill patients (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) as a way to put a framework around what this process looks like. The final stage, acceptance, is where the restructuring of our existential framework and adjustment in our expectations happen. If I have accepted that I don’t have a time machine to rework the trauma of my life and have worked to come to some sort of peace in my spirit with it, then it inextricably informs my approach to the future. I learn from my grief about who to trust and who not to. I learn a bit more about what is truly important versus what is simply trivial. It’s not that I become a cynical saint, working to have no desire for anything apart from heaven. Sometimes we expect more from some people or circumstances because we are more attune to who and what are trustworthy paths of life. If I can let go of the rage against my perpetrator, I may no longer assume that everyone has his or her motives and can better distinguish between who is and isn’t safe. If I mourn the idealized version of success that culture pushes on me, I can pursue the deeper passions of my heart that bring me alive with wilder abandon.

Hope’s Steadying Force

     Yet if this world will always fall short of fulfilling my desire, where do we turn? I must say a peace about faith in a God who is all loving and binds us all together. Brown (2008) speaks of this faith as a key to shame resilience and I must add that when we have a hope for peace in the afterlife as a result of a graceful God, it takes the pressure off of creating “heaven on earth”. Eldredge (2000) speaks of placing our hope in heaven and powerfully demonstrates how we can practice waiting for Eden’s return instead of trying to usher it in through our own strength/control. This is the other aspect of recalibrating our expectations that can be so liberating in the healing journey. If God is truly just and ultimately intends to restore our broken world as Paul says in Romans 8, then the pressure to over indulge and control our future is suddenly significantly lightened.

I do not write this post without personal cost. I am working to practice this approach and have been for many years for that matter. In the past few days however, I have had to decide if I am going to be true to my own advice in a new, unnerving way. Only a few days ago we had to let go of my dear sister due to a host of tragic events. It’s as if the cooler weather, autumn sent in the air, shorter days, darker nights/mornings, and changing colors of the leaves release a combination of pigments that create a beautiful yet terrifying color that is old, comforting, and familiar while still startling, terrifying, and surprising. This color isn’t perceivable to the naked eye; only the eye of the heart knows it. Something within me knew it when I started this blog over a month ago when my sister was alive, vivacious, and as strong a personality as one could know that in some way I would have to “practice what I preach”. Of course I had no idea how this would manifest, but I know that my personal journey of mourning, as well as my family’s, is good. It is bitter, confusing, exhausting, scary, and at times infuriating. But I am working to torch the land of my heart with these very real emotions. I know that Jacque would certainly want me to and her legacy/example compels me. The wordless groans that Paul speaks of are the jobsite that allows me to integrate my grief with my hope, which is yet to be fulfilled–that I must wait on. It is this work that restructures us through our grief and can possibly form us into better people, regardless of the “purpose” or “cause” of the suffering. And in the waiting is hope, joy, pain, and suffering; the good, bad, ugly, and the pretty. Knowing we have a God who grieves with us gives me the strength to say as Jon Foreman (2008) so eloquently muses, “Heaven knows, heaven knows. I’ve tired to find a cure for the pain. Oh my Lord, to suffer like you do, it would be a lie to run away”

 

Citations

Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, MN: Hazelden.

Cassadaga [CD]. (2007). Saddle Creek.

Eldredge, J. (2000). The journey of desire: Searching for the life we’ve only dreamed of. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

Fall and winter [MP3]. (2008). Lowercase People Records.

Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Lewis, C. S. (1952). Mere Christianity. New York: MacMillan Pub.

Rothschild, B. (2000). The body remembers: The psychophysiology of trauma and trauma treatment. New York: Norton.

Swinton, J. (2007). Raging with compassion: Pastoral responses to the problem of evil. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub (Kindle Version).

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