Inside all of us is a great pool of grief that keeps enlarging as each fresh loss is added to the others. This is why we often find ourselves weeping for earlier losses along with a present heartache. Sometimes even a sad scene in a movie will get me into that pool, and my tears flow from that indistinguishable source.
When we are young, the prospect of losses over a lifetime appears daunting. How can elders, especially, bear all the deaths? We can't imagine enduring the accumulation of so much sorrow -- parents, friends, siblings, life partners. One by one, we are deprived of our beloved. It can seem as if later life consists of interludes between bereavements. But there is a corresponding enlargement, unseen and not necessarily described.
Grief heals when it is received by a caring other. This is the key to human endurance. Sometimes it is hard to find the right person to cry with, because true listeners can be in short supply. Also, the vulnerability of letting another person see us break down can seem unbearable in itself. I prefer crying while driving 70 miles per hour, rocking out to oldies in my car, but the kind of weeping that makes grief move through us is that which is witnessed and comforted.
Sorrow follows no schedule. We have to give it time when it comes, or risk the consequences of suppression. Holding it back can lead to the collateral evasion of other feelings, such as tenderness, leaving a blank surface where there might have been heartfelt expression. If we cover our feelings with overwork or drink them away, the sorrow remains stagnant.
The deepest expressions of grief tend to come unbidden. I have cried the hardest when I have been ambushed by an old sorrow, when a piece of music or a certain smell unexpectedly caused me to swoon. At those times, my guard wasn't up, and the sensory reminders kindled full emotion as though years hadn't passed. We are lucky when feelings arise out of our depths, even though such opportunities may arise at inopportune moments. No matter what the context, it is important not to fight back such tears but rather to partake of the comfort usually offered in response.
Too often, in the rushed and pressured pace many of us live, we are unable to set aside the emotional space for sitting with our feelings. I attended a conference recently, and chatted with a stranger during a break. During our brief conversation, she apologized for getting choked up: "My father died a few weeks ago." Job constraints did not permit her to cancel, and she had exhausted all available time off. What kind of societal ethos compels us to apologize for our tears?
In almost all traditional cultures, you are not expected to function in the first month after the death of a parent. Falling apart, dis-integration, is expected as a necessary aspect of getting through the worst losses. The community supports you during this period, making sure you have what you need emotionally and materially. A man from an African village told me that after the death of a parent or partner, the mourner dons a special cloak for a year so that everyone can give this person special consideration.
I often imagine how it would be to wear such a cloak during a time of bereavement -- not needing to explain the inability to concentrate, the frequent thoughts about death, the sense of removal from ordinary life and, indeed, the heightened aliveness and awareness of all emotions. It would be wonderful to go through the waves of feeling without apology, surrounded by others ready to receive the grief should it reach the level of words or tears.
What we have instead of a cloak is the fact of getting older. We should all regard someone in their eighties or nineties with special consideration for the grief they must surely carry. Our readiness to hear the grief stories would reward us with further knowledge about the contours of sorrow and the capacity for enduring what will eventually befall us.
The consolations of mourning are not automatic; they must be acquired. We have to do our grieving. We must to open ourselves to sorrow, allow it to move through us, and await the bounty that will grow out of it. Through the work of grieving, we start to number our days and to live with the keen awareness that all that is wonderful in life comes with the possibility of its loss. It isn't that grieving gets easier as we get older, but we know what we have to do and we do it. Over the years, we learn how to dip into the pool of grief for a while and then step back out into the oxygen of love and life.
Adapted from: Life Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older, Tarcher/Penguin, 2011, copyright Wendy Lustbader.