Articulating Grief

Brene Brown, in her brilliant book “Rising Strong”, writes about what she calls the process of “Rumbling with Grief.” What she describes is probably the closest description of some of the things I have most struggled with in grieving, but found very hard to grasp or articulate. I was moved to share some quotes from her book, as I am sure it will resonate with many others too.

“As someone who has spent close to fifteen years studying the emotional landscape of the human experience, I can tell you that grief is perhaps the emotion we fear the most. As individuals, we’re afraid of the darkness grief brings. As a society, we have pathologized it and turned it into something to cure or get over. Owning our stories of heartbreak is a tremendous challenge when we live in a culture that tells us to deny our grief.

…What I want to share here is what I’ve learned about grief from the research. Specifically, the three most foundational elements of grief that emerged from my studies: loss, longing, and feeling lost.

Loss – While death and separation are tangible losses associated with grief, some of the participants described losses that are more difficult to identify or describe. These included the loss of normality, the loss of what could be, the loss of what we thought we knew or understood about something or someone.

Grief seems to create losses within us that reach beyond our awareness – we feel as if we’re missing something that was invisible and unknown to us while we had it, but is now painfully gone. In the moving novel The Fault in Our Stars, John Green captures one of those secret losses that accompanies grief. “The pleasure of remembering had been taken from me, because there was no longer anyone to remember with. It felt like losing your co-rememberer meant losing the memory itself, as if the things we’d done were less real and important than they had been hours before.”

Longing – Related to loss is longing. Longing is not conscious wanting; it’s an involuntary yearning for wholeness, for understanding, for meaning, for the opportunity to regain or even simply touch what we’ve lost. Longing is a vital and important part of grief, yet many of us feel we need to keep our longings to ourselves for fear we will be misunderstood, perceived as engaging in magical or unrealistic thinking, or lacking in fortitutude and resilience.

This insight helped me make sense of something I’ve experienced a dozen times but never articulated. When you drive into San Antonio from Houston on I-10, you pass the exit for my grandmother’s house. Sometimes when I see the exit, I feel a pull inside me to get off the highway and go to her house just to sit in the backyard with her and drink iced tea. I want to touch her face and smell her house. The yearning is so physical and strong that I can actually smell the flowers in her yard and taste the tea. It’s not rational. She’s not there. And yet it still takes my breath away.

I once heard a friend say that grief is like surfing. Sometimes you feel steady and you’re able to ride the waves, and other times the surf comes crashing down on you, pushing you so far underwater that you’re sure you’ll drown. Those moments of longing can have the same effect as upwellings of grief – they come out of nowhere and can be triggered by something you didn’t even know mattered.

Feeling lost – Grief requires us to reorient ourselves to every part of our physical, emotional, and social worlds. When we imagine the need to do this most of us picture the painful struggle to adjust to a tangible change, such as someone dying or moving away. But again, this is a very limited view of grief. …

The more difficult it is for us to articulate our experiences of loss, longing, and feeling lost to the people around us, the more disconnected and alone we feel. Of the coping strategies my research participants have shared with me, writing down experiences of heartbreak and grief have emerged as the most helpful in making clear to themselves what they were feeling so they could articulate it to others. Some participants did this as part of their work with helping professionals; others did it on their own. Either way, the participants talked about the need to write freely, without having to explain or justify their feelings.”

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