The Ongoing Work of Coping With Loss

Would that the work of grieving were more like shoveling snow...

Near-instant gratification.
Near-instant gratification.

This past weekend brought the biggest snowfall of the winter so far, about 4-5 inches, for the area where I live. On Saturday afternoon I spent an hour shoveling show off our large driveway (large because it used to serve as a parking lot, put in for the medical office of a podiatrist who lived and worked in the house years ago).

Yes, it was exhausting, and snow continued to fall while I shoveled, and I came into the house damp and trembling a little from the physical exertion. However, I have to confess something: I love snow shoveling.

Many people think I’m nuts, and maybe they are right, but it doesn’t change how I feel. To me there is something so refreshingly straightforward about snow shoveling, so simple, so satisfying. You fill the shovel with snow and dump it out to the side, repeating the action over and over, and each time you see more snow cleared away. Gradually you produce a clear walk, a clean driveway. Your steady effort brings results that make your life easier, safer, better. All in an hour or less.

I wish the work of grieving were more like snow shoveling.

Grieving is painful, relentless, daily work, and as I do this work, the hardest I’ve ever had to do, I look for results. However, this work doesn’t necessarily bring the gratification – whether the immediate or the delayed sort – we may expect. As we do this challenging work, often unable to see how it helps, we may even feel worse at times. Then we wonder what we are doing wrong. We wonder what we are not doing that we should be doing. Life doesn’t feel easier, safer, or better, and we may wonder if the work is worth it.

Perhaps the work of showing up to grief day after day, in whatever form it presents itself, more closely resembles something mundane like tooth brushing. Although most of us brush our teeth, we generally don't see mind-blowing results from it on a daily basis, and for that reason we may not realize how important it is. However, the importance becomes startlingly clear if we stop. Over time, dangerous mouth and gum damage can appear, bringing severe pain, unmanageable costs, and even related health crises such as heart disease. Likewise, avoiding or putting off the work of grieving can lead to all kinds of challenges – mental and physical health issues, emotional struggles, relationship difficulties.

When we can’t see or feel the potential future consequences of something done or not done, we tend to lose motivation. The absence of terrible damage is not as compelling as the presence of tremendous success. But I imagine anyone who has had to suffer that terrible damage, the damage that comes from avoidance, would have a message for us. Please, brush your teeth every day, you don’t want to end up in pain as I have. Please, do the work of grieving every day, you don’t want to end up feeling as I do.

I guess grieving resembles snow shoveling in one particular way: There will always be another opportunity to do it. Even as I enjoy the results of this weekend’s shoveling, I know that I’m only finished for a time. As long as I’m alive on this earth, there will always be another snowstorm to shovel out from, and there will always be another day without my brother, a day that brings grief work to do.

So I try to do the work. I try to meet grief every day and ask it, what’s today’s assignment? It’s an open-ended commitment, fueled by a fragile trust that doing the work will help me more than not doing it. Even if I can’t yet see and feel the results I hope for.

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