Comprehending Grief; Five Lessons for 'Passing Through'

This month we are exploring loss and grief in a series of four journal articles and four follow-ups.  This piece refers back to 'Grief and Loss Unbundled', digging a bit beneath the surface of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' work.

The experience of grief is universal yet often misunderstood.  Comprehending significant losses seems to be almost impossible.  Why do such horrible things happen?  How could a loving God allow them?  These are the questions I posed to Kübler-Ross in 1991.  Our mutual friend and patient, Michael, was dying slowly with his body deteriorating from a form of MS complicated by HIV and alcohol dependence.  It all seemed like such a tragic waste to me.

Michael, a spiritual guide for many people who suffered from substance abuse disorders.

Michael had become a spiritual guide for many people who suffered from substance abuse disorders.  They were lost and broken.  And despite his own death sentence, or perhaps because of it, he was a touchstone of healing.  Elisabeth's response to me was short and sweet.  She told me that Michael was one of the "beautiful people" and that his defeat, struggle and suffering allowed him to shine through like a stained glass window filling others with compassion and understanding.  She said that "the physical body is designed to die and we have a limited time on earth...we will all be allowed to graduate and no longer be prisoners of these bodies."  Somehow, I had expected more from this iconic expert, but what she gave me began to resonate as time went by.  We are all on the same life journey taking different paths to arrive at the very same destination.  She would call regularly to check up on how Michael was doing.  When he died in 1993, I called to let her know and to share his last words to me.  Michael said; "You are loved.  This is the only information you need BJ."  Elisabeth listened and replied after a brief silence saying:  "Yes! He gets it!"

Comprehending grief and loss may not be as complicated as it seems.  Dr. Kübler-Ross certainly believed that to be the case.  It is our rejection and denial of the certainty which holds us back from accepting and even embracing it. Bad things do not just happen to bad people. It is almost pointless to wonder why 'bad things seem to happen to good people'.  At some point bad and good occupy a similar grey area.  Things happen.  God is not sitting on a throne with lightning bolt consequences to punish us for sins.  God is with us to comfort us as we are battered by the windstorms and droughts of life.  We each are empowered to choose the way we deal with them.

Five Ways of Comprehending loss and grief based on the teachings of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.

  1. We are responsible for our lives and free to choose love over fear.  Fear of death and other losses can consume us or imprison us.  We must learn to live while we are alive.
  2. Release yourself from negativity and blame.  Healing will come if you allow love and keep on loving.
  3. Guilt is the most powerful companion of death.  It can only be relieved if we are fully present when our loved ones are alive.  Sit with them, listen and just be there.
  4. Dying is an integral part of life and our true beauty has a chance to shine unless we fail to celebrate it at the end,  Remember that what we have accumulated and achieved become a zero-sum.  How well we are remembered and celebrated are the hallmarks of our lives.
  5. Finally, in Elisabeth’s own words; Death is simply a shedding of the physical body like the butterfly shedding its cocoon.  It is no different from taking off a suit of clothes one no longer needs.  It is a transition to a higher state of consciousness where you continue to perceive, to understand, to laugh and to be able to grow.