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Loss, Grief, Pain – Leaving a Legacy of Love
Jill’s 29-year-old son died of a drug overdose late last year and was found in a portable toilet in Los Angeles. Distraught and running her fingers over tired eyes, she related how a sheriff had come to her house to tell her what had happened.
“It’s about your son,” he started — “Don’t you tell me my son is dead!” Jill screamed. “Don’t you do it!”
In tears, Jill told me how she would have broken everything in her house and just started running away as fast as she could had not the sheriff been there. That’s the shock of grief.
I envision some of the pain-filled faces in our Grief Program, some drawn, some with thin lips or puffy eyes – people smack in the middle of the heartache, loneliness and confusion known as grief. John just couldn’t stuff it any longer. Karen felt like the pain was eating her alive. Tina had run out of tears.
Some in that room had long-term relationships to pain. Unresolved loss of trust experiences from childhood can keep us in a state of, “I have to accept pain as a permanent condition.”
Pain can become so familiar it’s like a family member. We built an identity around our pain. We maintain a relationship with it. We build walls around our pain-walls that keep in the pain but keep out joy, happiness and other people. We become our stories.
Many of us have suffered so many losses we don’t remember why we hurt any more. Loss on top of loss on top of loss, all wound up like a ball of yarn. Along comes another loss, and it’s one more wrap around a huge ball of hurt. Over time we can start to feel detached or numb. Life doesn’t touch us in the deepest places of our hearts.
Some may wake up one day and discover they have shut off feelings completely. Others call someone like me and say, “I can’t get over my husband leaving me” or “My life stopped when she died.”
We get bewildered by not knowing what to do about unresolved pain. It sounds so overwhelming.
Some of the reasons we grieve poorly are that we want to put up a good front for others, to be strong for children or friends. Some think tears are evidence of weak faith so they go through the motions and try to act recovered. Others try to think themselves into feeling better.
The result? Getting stuck in fear, isolation, anger and despair. Experiencing nightmares, hallucinations and eating disorders. Add in a healthy dose of guilt and you have a recipe for depression. Or, as author Sam Keen wrote: “Those who refuse to grieve get stuck in melancholy.”
Fourteen years ago my two children died in a horrific auto accident. Jeremy was 4 and Amelia was 18 months. A car smashed into us on a darkly lit road in the middle of nowhere. In an instant I discovered it didn’t matter what I knew, who I knew or how much money I made, I found myself ill-prepared and utterly devastated.
Like so many others drowning in grief, I didn’t lack the courage to recover; I just didn’t know where to turn. I did what everybody wanted me to do: try to get over it. Acting as if everything’s all right and putting on that “I’m fine” face.
So many of us have stuffed the pain over the years. Maybe it’s a sad movie or listening to a friend’s battle with cancer, and slowly we feel our throats tighten. Our feelings bubble to the surface and get lodged there. Many of us push those feelings right back down. “C’mon, heart, be still!”
Many still suffer from unresolved or suppressed negative emotions they thought they had taken care of. Some lose themselves in religious experience. Some immerse themselves in others’ problems or turn to alcohol or drugs as false comforters. Some try to outrun the pain by working till they collapse into bed.
All offer only temporary relief. Like a rubber band, it always snaps back. We can continue to stuff the feelings, shove them away or medicate ourselves until the losses become an ever-growing weight being carried around. Then we wonder why life isn’t the happy, joy-filled experience we had always imagined.
We often talk about the pain of loss. Sometimes it’s not pain at all any more; it’s detachment. Hurting people can become checked out, turned off and tuned out. Forty-year-old Chris, for example, refused to deal with her grief, “even though I have a freight train full of it, I know.”
Chris described how a police officer had ticketed her that day for driving 85 miles an hour. The officer had warned her she could die at that speed. “I told him I didn’t care. I’m so detached, why would I care if I died?”
I asked Chris about her children and her husband. “Oh, they’d be all right. The kids are older and could take care of themselves. Besides, they have their grandparents. My husband? He’d be married again in three weeks!” she said half jokingly.
People suffering from accumulated hurts shut off feelings because they don’t want to be hurt any more. “If this is the way life is played, then I don’t want to play.” They have given up on intimacy and quit risking in relationships. As Tina Turner sings, “Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?”
Regret often pervades unresolved grief. When Jeremy died, my first thought was a broken promise about letting him burn off energy by running in the moors of England. I went right into regret and longing for another chance, for just five more minutes with him. But those minutes never came.
Others wish, “If only things had worked out differently” or “If only I’d been there in time.” All the dashed dreams, hopes and expectations. As a result, we may feel defective for having normal and natural reactions to loss.
Grieving people aren’t broken, however, and don’t need to be fixed. They need to be heard in an atmosphere of safety, respect and dignity – without evaluation or advice, which is just criticism in disguise, anyway.
Today I am pleased to say I am emotionally complete with the deaths of my two beloved children. Not that I somehow “got over it”; that event is still very much a part of me. But I’ve learned to incorporate that loss and my enduring love for them into my life. I needed to enjoy the fond memories of Jeremy and Amelia. I needed to remember them not only for the way they died, but especially for the way they lived.
The Grief Program’s step-by-step method helps those stuck in confusion and loneliness to move beyond loss by completing the incomplete emotional relationship. It provides the correct skills we were never taught. By saying good-bye to conflict, pain and isolation, we are able to hold the fond memories of loved ones forever.
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