The Power of Befriending Grief

‘Descending, the heart breaks open and the ego loses its moorings.’ Miriam Greenspan.

When my children were younger and I was home-educating them, I manned the telephone  helpline for the local home-educators’ support group. One of the impressions that stayed with me from that time was just how many of the mothers I was talking with had lost at least one child. This might be through not being able to conceive (the child they were home educating was adopted), through giving a child up for adoption, through miscarriage or abortion, stillbirth or cot death, or through death in childhood. So, grief in this form was ever present, even amidst the joy of parenting their other children.

Many had also downshifted, like me, as a by-product of choosing to home educate. They had therefore endured a variety of losses: income, material goods, a job, friendships associated with schools etc. However, what struck me was the level of happiness and ease of living that pervaded the group and the overall sense of self-empowerment among its members. How could that be?

Loss, and the grief that naturally arises as a result, is an important part of any life change, whether that change is planned or unforeseen, welcomed or dreaded.  In that moment of shift we have many choices, one of which is how to approach the grief. Do we, for example, stuff it down, deny it exists, make ourselves wrong or pathetic for experiencing it? Or do we view the situation as an opportunity for personal or spiritual growth and enhanced self-empowerment?

When my second son was born with some minor, but challenging, disabilities, I realised how unprepared I was to handle the deeply unexpected. I was completely un-resourced  to let go of my expectations of birthing a healthy child, and to go with what he was there to teach me. I experienced it as profound loss: of the child I thought I was carrying, of the support of some close friends, and in the loss of a small business that I had imagined I’d return to once he was a year or so  old.

But the grief eventually ripened into gratitude for this very determined and rather humorous young man who I then realised had graced rather than sidetracked my life. There were also the valued friends and acquaintances who appeared as a result of him being there. They were all, it turned out, to teach me a great deal about kindness, caring and the benefits of being willing to view the world from a whole new calmer, slower perspective. Above all, it was learning to live patiently with him that lowered me gently into the joys and richness of leading a more sustainable life.

An important part of the patience for me has been learning to aspire rather than expect. Expectations of how things are supposed to turn out just seem to set me up for further loss and needlessly drain my energy. In contrast, the gratitude that results from my attending to the natural emergence and process of grief, liberates energy and contributes positively to my personal empowerment.

Downshifting, even when it’s a lifestyle change that we’ve longed for, can involve many losses and their attendant grief. It seems that when we’re willing to face losing something dear to us, we open up to the possibility of gaining something much greater, an opportunity for reflection and contemplation, a connection to what matters and the emergence of gratitude. Thus, what at the outset seemed debilitating, becomes empowering.

4 Responses to The Power of Befriending Grief

  1. Claire Harrison June 15, 2012 at 4:19 pm #

    I appreciated reading this post, Sally. In particular because it encouraged my mind to wander back to the Four Noble Truth core teachings of the Buddha. Specifically the second which concerns the tension created by grasping, clinging and clutching (to possessions, ideas, longings and, I mused, expectations). All these hungers cause suffering with the third Noble Truth pointing the way out…non-grasping, clinging and clutching…the letting go to which you referred. Thanks for lighting a touchpaper of reflection for me.

  2. Sally June 16, 2012 at 7:34 am #

    Interesting to see where this took you Claire and thanks for sharing your insights.

  3. Beverley July 9, 2012 at 7:08 am #

    I’m experiencing grief, the sadness of losing what I’d always expected to be mine and it’s, well, not exactly painful but unbelievably sad and I’m okay with that, or think that I am… Letting go is so important but I’m experiencing some confusion, and I suspect that is related to ‘expectations’. Right now I am thinking that what I need to let go of most of all is expectations.

    Expectations set us up for experiencing loss. Counting blessings on the other hand, fill my life with joy. :-)

  4. Sally July 9, 2012 at 9:10 am #

    Beverley – I can relate to the unbelievable sadness and the confusion. From what I know, it’s important to be able to go there and feel into all of that. It will pass,

    I like what you say about counting blessings and I remember Joanna Macy saying that ‘gratitude is a subversive act’. For me that cuts through all the expectations about how we’re supposed to behave around loss – how we’re supposed to feel, how we’re supposed to just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and carry on. I reckon it needs a bit more time and healing than that – healing in terms of re-integration, re-orientating ourselves around the new situation, whatever that might be (rather than healing in terms of fixing it all). Seeing how we’ve changed and what is now true for us, coming to terms with the shift and what meaning it holds.
    Breathing it all through…

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