I am no authority on grief. But over the years I have experienced grief and I have listened to the experiences of others. Based on that, here are a few thoughts on grief.
What is grief? Grief is the emotional suffering that accompanies loss. When we think of grief we usually think of the pain we experience when a loved one dies. But there are other losses we can grieve too: the loss of a job, a home, a pet, our routine, our health, our youth, our independence. We are often sensitive and understanding when someone is grieving the loss of a loved one, but can we be just as sensitive and understanding when someone is grieving the loss of their eyesight, their cat, their driver’s license, or their memory?
We don’t necessarily grieve in the same way. Some people can’t stop crying when they grieve. Others shed very few tears. Some want to be alone. Others want to be with people. Some become listless. Others become hyper. Some want to talk about their grief. Others want to grieve in silence. We must learn to recognize and respect the way others grieve–and the way we ourselves grieve.
Grief can come in unpredictable waves. When we are in the initial throes of grief, we might think, “I will never get over this loss.” But time does have a way of lessening the pain. At least for a while. But weeks, months, or even years later we can be hit by an unexpected wave of grief. Several months after my father died, I was in the drive-thru at the bank. I had the classical station on. Suddenly Franz von Suppe’s “Poet and Peasant Overture” began to play. Instantaneously my eyes filled with tears before my conscious brain could figure out what was happening to me. Then my brain realized that this particular piece of music was one of my father’s favorites. He played it all the time while I was growing up. My spontaneous tears were an expression of my deep grief for the loss of this beautiful man in my life. Someone has said, after a loved one dies we do learn to walk again–but now we walk with a limp.
Grieving is the way we relearn the world. When we suffer a significant loss, our world can radically change. And we may be radically changed. If our spouse dies, we get a new identity: widow or widower. If our parents die, we may really feel we have been orphaned. If we move to a new house, we have to learn how to live in new surroundings. If we have lost our good health, we may have to learn to navigate the world now with a hearing aid, an oxygen tank, a walker, or a prosthesis. It takes patience and humility to relearn the world. And it takes time.
Grief is not local. Probably the best book I’ve read on grief is C. S. Lewis’ book, A Grief Observed, a journal he kept after the death of his wife Joy. Lewis says that grief is not local–that is, it is not restricted to place. Sometimes we think, “I will avoid that restaurant we used to go to,” or “I won’t listen to that song I associate with her”–as if our pain can be minimized by avoiding certain places or situations. But Lewis says, on the contrary, he feels his wife’s absence everywhere. He writes, “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.”
As painful as grief is, though, it can still be a blessing in a way. Grief is the underside of love. Perhaps there is no clearer proof of love’s greatness than the pain we experience when the object of our love has been taken away from us. Grief also underscores the essential goodness and meaningfulness of life. If people were not good and things did not matter, we would never grieve. But people are good, things do matter, and life does have meaning. That is grief’s great promise.
What are your thoughts and feelings about grief?