Do you know the one thing many grieving people have shared with me? Most of them agree that the experience of grief ultimately made them more loving, patient, and kind. Grief had made them better people.
"In grief it is often that at first the pain of separation is in the mind -- thoughts of the departed, fantasies, conversations, and memories. The relationship, still in form, conflagrates the mind ... But eventually the grief opens into the heart, and the individual is not so much experienced as a separate body but is the essential connection that joined them in the first place. Then just the love remains ... Grief, the tearing open of the heart, leaves the heart vulnerable and exposed. And the deep lesson of compassion ... becomes evident."
Stephen Levine, along with co-author, Ondrea Levine, wrote these words of wisdom in 1982 in the groundbreaking book, Who Dies? He goes on to say that those who are grieving are plunged into "the very pit of despair and longing where they touch the reservoir of loss itself." Stephen acknowledges that this is not a path that one would choose, "though the confrontation with this area of deep holding seems to be an initiation often encountered along the fierce journey towards towards freedom, spoken of in the biographies of many saints and sages."
OK, you might be thinking something like, "I didn't sign up to be a saint in this world. What's this got to do with me?" If you are grieving, your transformational opportunity is to allow grief to open into your heart, to keep your heart open in the face of grief.
When you experience a life-changing event like losing a life partner through death or divorce, there are times when the pain of loss is so excruciating and raw that you wonder if you will even be able to cope with it, let alone benefit from it in any way. Grief is a normal response a significant loss and it is one of the most painful experiences you may ever go through. In the face of the grief, you may be tempted to close your heart to protect yourself from experiencing this pain and suffering.
Paradoxically, it is the closing of the heart that promotes suffering. When we close our heart to pain, we are also closing it to love, compassion, and joy. We shrink away from experiencing the gifts that life has to offer.
Most of us are not aspiring to be saints and sages. And there is tremendous value in working with grief in a conscious way that creates the capacity to ultimately embrace the gifts inherent in the experience of having your heart broken wide open.
In the context of the spiritual opportunity present, an interesting question to ask yourself is: "How might this grief serve me in becoming a better, more loving and open-hearted person?" And, yes, you need to have some distance emotionally from the trauma of the loss to even be remotely ready for this kind of conversation. You need time to heal, to mourn, to express and release the sorrow, anger, fear, all those emotions that are part of the grief process.
So how do you get to this place of readiness to explore what lies on the other side of your grief -- the gifts of openness, compassion, and love? First of all, understand that it is a journey and that it takes time. It takes patience and the willingness to consciously choose into these possibilities. Most of us weren't taught to do this, so this becomes a process of finding out how. Asking for help and guidance from someone who knows the territory can be the first step.
Even when you are in the darkest forest on your journey, there are choices you can make starting now, paths you can choose that lead to the high ground. You can choose to forgive yourself and others instead of holding on to resentment, bitterness, and anger. You can choose to enter every single situation related to your loss with compassion for yourself and others. Instead of shutting down, you begin to live life with an openness and vulnerability that perhaps wasn't there before your experience of loss.
It's a process that can sometimes seem erratic, like taking two steps forward and three steps back. The most important thing is to keep taking that one next baby step forward when you feel that you have lost ground in your healing process.
It probably won't be easy to keep opening your heart when it wants to close. This is a practice that will certainly take time to integrate. And, it helps to hold a vision of healing grace being extended to you such that you emerge on the other side of your grief stronger, more loving, more compassionate, more resilient, and filled with gratitude for your blessings.
Grief is the experience you are going through, and it doesn't define who you are. Choose love and love will choose you.
Blessings on your journey.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at email@example.com.