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.

Grief and Vulnerability; So Hard to Go There

Someone once told me that vulnerability is what we most want to see in others and least want to be seen in ourselves. Becoming vulnerable can be one of the most difficult and uncomfortable experiences. Exposure of secrets, mistakes, flaws, and sins leave a person open to scrutiny which is hard to bear. We seem to be set up for all kinds of personal loss. Reputations painstakingly built up over long periods of time are rendered precarious or come crashing down in unmendable pieces. The grief which follows is almost impossible to bear.

We live in an age where it is increasingly difficult or even impossible to escape from who we are.  Rabbi Moshe Scheiner recently taught that suicide rates are increasing in adults partly due to the dynamic of transparency created by instant background checks on the internet.  Good names are destroyed every day. Children who suffer the loss of character due to perceptions of peers, bullying and cyber victimization can feel so trapped and hopeless that they consider or commit suicide. Becoming vulnerable can create the deepest feelings of shame when those whom we trust wound us. 

When we are grieving we become vulnerable.  In fact, it has been said that grief and vulnerability go together hand-in-hand.  Either can come first but neither walk alone. The word vulnerable comes from the Latin word vulnera which means to wound.  In our most wounded times, we are laid bare.  Lost is our stature and resolve.  No longer can we appear strong and self-reliant.  Our pain is visible to everyone. This begs a rather obvious solution.  Just never allow yourself to become vulnerable and then the grief would remain private. manageable, and controlled.  Voilà. Unfortunately, there is a horrible downside to that.  If we don’t allow vulnerability, we will never experience authentic friendships, belonging, trust, or love. What we all have in common is our brokenness and when the risk of vulnerability is rejected true connections are impossible. If all of this is true then how could vulnerability and grief be so discouraged in our society? I guess because it is just so hard to go there.

Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on 16 November 1581 is a painting by Russian realist artist Ilya Repin made between 1883 and 1885. The picture portrays a grief-stricken Ivan the Terrible cradling his mortally wounded son, the Tsarevich Ivan Ivanovich. The elder Ivan himself is believed to have dealt the fatal blow to his son

Perhaps we could find some answers from Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, author, and popular TED Talk personality. Dr. Brown has made it her mission to explore the power of vulnerability.  She emphases how important it is to dare greatly in order to live life fully and to achieve success. And more can be discovered in the spiritual wisdom of Richard Rohr, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation who tells us that vulnerability is the path to wholeness and holiness.

In the final analysis, we have to come to the realization that it is not only okay to grieve and to become vulnerable, but it is also necessary.  If we are to heal we must be touched.  The work can never be accomplished alone.  There are big risks associated with all of this to be certain.  But from our perceived weakness will come a new kind of strength. Not the strength of the invulnerable but the strength of love.  For, as scripture tells us, the one who stumbles “shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary,” (See Isaiah 40:31).