May 15, 2021
While listening to a therapist and author of many books on the hypnotic therapeutic interventions of Milton H. Erickson, I heard the therapist question whether or not grief had a purpose. While he felt that depression, sadness, despair, and other negative emotions have purposes, he left a question mark next to grief.
If you know me, you know that I believe any quality or qualitative experience, positive or negative, has an inherent positive intention or contains relevant information. So, having felt grief recently myself, I decided to explore what grief might offer me and the gift it brings.
I'll begin by distinguishing grief from sadness. With any loss, there is sadness, a feeling similar to grief. With sadness comes a subtle sense that one can or could have done something about the loss. Be that true or not, this feels genuine and is a component of sadness. Grief, on the other hand, is final. There is no disputing, changing, or choice around the loss.
I have not yet received grief's gift related to the recent death of my mother. When she comes to mind presently, I still see her in an acute-care bed struggling to stay alive. What I need to do now is pull up the image of her paddling a canoe on Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park, a female mallard swimming next to her. I can recall her on her 90th birthday, effusively smiling in a restaurant, flaunting a gifted scarf. I can remember seeing her swat away assistance from a caregiver -- she was feisty and fiercely independent even at 95.
When these memories come to mind automatically and the not-so-pleasant memories begin to linger in obscurity, a smile will be born on my lips each time I think of her. And I will know that I'm am moving through grief.
Here is a family story about grief. Over twenty years ago, my mother took my Alzheimer's father to a care facility, finally. The 'experts' there told her, "We'll distract him. You slip out the front door and leave." As my mother drove away and looked in her rearview mirror, she saw my father's white fingers grasping the wire fence and the look of terror in his eyes. My mother held on to that image for ten years, for each time she thought of him, a tsunami of tears and regret overcame her.
Then my mother moved into a retirement community, which meant she downsized her living space. A lovely picture of my father now hung where she could hardly not look at it many times throughout the day. In the portrait, my father has a slight, angelic smile on his face. His smile is one he rarely wore while alive; still, it was him at his finest.
Father's Mona-Lisa smile eroded my mother's miserable memory bit by bit, placing my father into her heart so that she associated him with treasured moments. When I noticed this, I knew she had moved through grief. She could recall him and talk about him with a deep fondness.
For me, grief's gifts are twofold: Loss gives occasion to place the departed in our heart in such a way that the thought of them leads to a sense of connection and joy and a smile. Then, it solidifies an energetic relationship to that person, pet, place, or piece of ourselves. The physical attribute may be gone, but the spirit and essence live on forever.
This energetic connection that dwells in our heart is a constant infusion of security, companionship, love, and, as with a pet, pure devotion.
How does this happen? Here is something to know about memory and memories.
"Research into the molecular mechanism of memory and learning reveals that whenever we recall a scene — or retrieve a certain memory to our conscious mind — we disrupt it, and by doing so, we alter it forever. Our memories are not like old books in the library, lying there dusty and unchanged; they are rather like a living, breathing entity. What we remember today of our past is in fact a product of editing and reshaping that occurs over the years whenever we recall that particular memory.”
- Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find — and Keep — Love by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller
I do not think the editing and reshaping take years.
The death of someone we loved profoundly leaves little time or distance to traverse to place them in our hearts. When I put my little dog Rosie down, I felt grief for the average time of six to twelve weeks. Now I think of her and smile at every memory, even ones in which I was furious at her. The pain is gone.
Have you ever attended the funeral of someone who was a despicable, cantankerous person? That person's worst critic may be professing them suddenly as the most gracious and forgiving person on earth. The finality of death and the transformation of the deceased is a mysterious thing. You may absorb yourself in trying to explain this with or without resolution. Memory edits may occur instantly or be like chiseling a massive headstone by hand. Moving beyond grief may take hours, days, weeks, or months until you notice a sense of love and appreciation has indeed replaced the pain.
If you are a religious or spiritual person, you may recognize that what we place in our hearts as remembrance is likely how that soul or aspect is on 'the other side.' We sense and capture the evolution of their soul or energy.
Many things in life take leave -- a family member, friend, pet, domicile, favorite possession, ability, opportunity, identity, status, sense of being a part of a couple or team, metaphoric home, direction, faith, appetite, and more. One does not know one has crossed grief's finish line because there are no ribbons, no rituals unless you conduct one for yourself.
Should you put closure to one or something departed with a goodbye ritual, you will need a ritual of hello to welcome what is filling the void. It is best to fill negative space with conscious intent, calling in something positive and detailed and big-picture.
Again, the purpose of grief is to associate the lost being or entity with loving feelings and to solidify our energetic or spirit connection with them. There is no taking these two gifts away once you've received them. They may seem too subtle to substantiate, but in truth, they are everything. Only a grieving or having-grieved person would realize this.