In her book “Rising Strong,” Brenè Brown devotes several pages to the topic ‘Rumbling with Grief.’ My understanding of the term ‘rumbling’ is explained in the biblical account of Jacob wrestling with God. What we see in this exchange is serious engagement. They are locked in combat, with no intention of slackening off until a resolution is found.
Brenè Brown encourages us to ‘confront’ grief in the same way. She advocates a determined, purposeful approach. Grief must be experienced fully to be understood fully. There are no shortcuts. The journey takes as long as it takes. It demands courage and patience, commitment and perseverance.
I would like to focus on three passing observations she makes about grief and then look further at the three foundational elements of grief that emerged from her years of study: loss, longing, and feeling lost.
1. Grief is the emotion we fear most
What is it about grief we fear?
- We fear where it is taking us.
Following the death of my son Adam to suicide I wrote these words.
“Suicide grief has been likened to that experienced by Holocaust survivors. No one can hope to understand the horror and trauma. Where are the words to describe the sense of desolation? This is unfamiliar territory and it is intimidating.”
- We fear losing control of our emotions.
In giving ourselves permission to grieve we need to resolve whether it is a constructive exercise or does it increase our discomfort. The honest expression of our emotions can give rise to fear of embarrassing ourselves in front of others. We don’t want to appear weak or vulnerable.
2. Grief is not something we can cure or get over.
It is a mistake to view grief as pathological. Grief is not an illness we get over. Grief winds its way through our lives.
The intensity of our feelings will lessen over time. But there will always be triggers in the future that will re-ignite our grief.
As clinical psychologist Mary Lamia Ph. D says,
“You cannot erase emotional memory.”
Dr Edith Eger was a teenager when she was transported to Auschwitz. She often reflected on how terrible it was to lose all the known things: mother, father, sister, boyfriend, country, home. Grief became embedded in her lived experience. She says,
“I can’t ignore the grief, but I can’t expel it either.”
3. Grief is not to be denied.
Denial is a shield, a protection against the pain. But if we allow denial to persist it quickly becomes a negative coping mechanism.
Jennifer DuBos discusses the consequences of “living in denial.” She says,
“The long-term effects of staying in the denial phase are that one may lose touch with reality, begin to rewrite history, and can even block memories or alienate oneself to avoid reminders of the changing truth.”
Feelings or thoughts denied or avoided will find expression in our lives sooner or later.
Let us return to Dr Edith Eger who survived the Nazi death camps. She warns against ‘burying the past.’ She says,
“We don’t yet know the damage we perpetuate by cutting ourselves off from the past, by maintaining our conspiracy of silence.”
The decision to keep the past a secret can lead to isolation, confusion, and shame.
Three foundational elements of grief:
Death and separation are tangible losses associated with grief.
Some losses are more difficult to identify or describe.
• Loss of normality
• Loss of what could be
• Loss of what we thought we knew or understood about something or someone
• Loss of important milestones
• Loss of memories
Such losses are complicated. They often go unrecognised by others and are not something we find easy to talk about. Any loss that is not acknowledged influences your grief.
Longing is an involuntary yearning for wholeness, for understanding, for meaning, for the opportunity to regain or even touch what we’ve lost.
Moments of longing can come out of nowhere and can be triggered by something you didn’t even know mattered.
We visited the picturesque township of Bright recently and walked along the banks of the Ovens River. Trout fishing is a popular recreational activity in this region. We reflected on our son Adam’s love of fly fishing. We could imagine his enthusiasm at having such pristine rivers to explore. I longed to experience again the look of joy that came across his face when he cast his lure, allowing the current to take it downstream.
3. Feeling lost
Grief requires us to reorient ourselves to every part of our physical, emotional, and social worlds.
Psychologist Samantha Smithstein suggests that grief is about becoming ‘untethered.’ She says,
“It’s about losing an identity. It’s about losing a map and compass all at once; a way to orient our life, a way to channel our love.”
This untethering is not only disorienting, it can be terrifying. It produces uncertainty and apprehension.
Your former life still seems to exist, but you can’t get back to it. Dr Ray Mitsch uses the term ‘connected disconnectedness.’ He says,
“We are passing through a world of people who are connected to us and us to them, but we also feel disconnected.”
I have written about the confusion and disorientation caused by suicide grief before.
“Suicide grief is intensely personal. A part of you has died with your loved one. The landscape of your life has taken on an unfamiliar appearance. You question your ability to navigate the rough, inhospitable terrain. Can you negotiate the desert of despair? Can you recapture the sense of wonder that is elemental to life? Can you find renewed purpose, a reason to go on?”