Grief, we are often reminded, is a process, a journey that we are called to embark upon uninvited — with the hope perhaps of accessing and integrating painful, sometimes agonizing and world-shattering feelings of loss.
Grief comes even when loss is a choice, a conscious decision — for example, the ending of a professional relationship that may have been positive or negative. Saying goodbye to your child as she leaves for college for the first time. Loss remains an embedded part of our human condition, one we ultimately are required to face.
The loss of a loved one is for many a gut-wrenching, sorrowful and complex experience. What happened? Where have they gone? Will we meet again? Do we want to meet again? Or are they simply gone forever? We fear this may also be true, and oh, what an unbearable, unacceptable thought. There also may be feelings of relief, perhaps after the loss of a loved one who has endured a long debilitating illness. Or we may be plagued with residual feelings of guilt or anger if our loved one left while estranged from us, with unresolved hostility or unexpressed pain.
The process of grieving is recognized and revered as a necessary one — one that is experienced and expressed by many cultures in vastly different ways.
A common denominator in that the “grieving process” at the heart of the matter, however, is acknowledging the presence of deep affects, feelings and thoughts that may be both either present or emerge over time. In doing so we may be able to honor and recognize the depth of capacities we as humans experience — measuring in some way the significance and impact meaningful relationships have on our lives in myriad ways.
Some suggest that “grief” follows a course dictated by a series of stages (Elizabeth Kuhbler-Ross 2001). Yet for each individual, often the road is not so clear or precise. Phases of affect states and emotions frequently wave back and forth, up down and sideways, tossing us on high seas, ruthlessly submitting us to “dark nights of the soul” (Hollis 2011). A place we wrestle with during the day, and in the small hours of the night, questioning our right to even have complex feelings.
Loss and grief know little or nothing of time and space. Grief, for it to ease, must be permitted no boundaries, judgments or limits. Grief must reveal itself in the fullness of time, in its way requiring each individual to address and experience its unique journey.
To suggest there is “something wrong,” for example, with a mother who 30 years on continues to grieve the loss of her young child, fails to grasp the understandable complexities surrounding her requirement to “be” in that space and time, in the way the she requires to be understood and honored. A failure is suggesting that this particular woman’s grieving may be considered “long,” for this directly relates to a lack of insight regarding what may have been absent at her time of loss. A need and requirement for a particular kind of “relational home” to support her with such traumatic loss.
When a relational home is absent, an unbearable void exists — a vacant legacy in which longings are unmet. Unbearable loneliness remains. In isolation, this mother is literally and understandably unable to process and grieve. A double void and loss. A double trauma.
Society and grief
Society does not prepare us well for the experience of “loss” or death. It hides, minimizes and fails to embrace the inevitable vulnerability of our human existence. This cripples our abilities to grieve fully and to admit to profound losses — placing a tourniquet on our emotional lives. Memorial services address good memories, with platitudes and epithets or passages from Bibles or Torahs or other spiritual and religious works insisting on the importance of being strong. “One must go on.” And, “No ill may be spoken of the dead.”
When grief becomes complicated
But what of the anguish of those who are conflicted by the death of a loved one. When the passing leaves bitter tastes in the mouths of those the deceased was supposed to have loved — did love in ways — or did not love. When “the passing” was absent peaceful goodbyes or loving words. When death left so much unspoken, unacknowledged, unforgiven, unseen, unclear.
Where anger, or guilt, or carried shame, was unexpressed, replaced by inauthentic sentiments of love or silence. Where histories of rejection, unchallenged in life, left final memories, lingering with cold, brittle, cracked edges around aspects of some warmer memories or longings that might have been mentioned … and were not.
How then does grief continue on its long and darkened journey shrouded in mists, sentiments — the survivor unable to grieve as “normal grief” prescribes?
Complicated grief remains traumatic and confusing. Feelings of unexpressed pain are buried, piling trauma on existing trauma — the sufferers ashamed that they are not one of “the normals” (R.D. Stolorow). Complicated grief lies bleeding for the “traumatized ones.”
Hope for the complicated ones
The road of complicated grief can be jagged, unclear, full of extreme emotions and self-rejection. Yet this too is another side of grief — no less significant; no more so — but different indeed.
What of this guilt? Is it healthy? Or does it serve to subjugate more authentic feelings that remain unexpressed. Profound rage and shame may surface, intermittently uninvited, shaking the bowels of our being, barely able to hold on to some semblance of normalcy.
Seeking authenticity, complicated grief requires the expression of outrage, a home for shame and rage (Wood 2014), while declaring out loud a truth that may speak of years of assaults unexpressed prior to the death — demanding release from the constraints of all that was unshared and unacknowledged by the one who has passed on.
As the survivor’s release of a “true self” emerges — shaky at times, yet resolute — truths unexpressed begin to take root. Truth be told, complicated grief may not be as unfamiliar and uncommon as we would like to imagine. The path of “self-hood” (R.D. Stolorow) requires authenticity, and with authenticity comes inevitable relational complications.
The second stage, “Anger,” described and defined by Kuhbler-Ross in her paradigm of loss, seems to refer to anger felt by an individual robbed of his or her loved one. Anger embedded within complicated grief, however, may also stem from unexpressed or acknowledged grievances, unresolved within the relationship with the one who has died. Anger that walks aside sorrow at the loss of the potential of a relationship that did not meet expectations during the lifetime, or even prior to departure — leaving only lingering feelings of frustration, anger, powerlessness and deep disappointment.
The resolution of complicated grief comes after a painstaking process, one that requires deep acknowledgment, careful attention, the withholding of judgment and a depth of understanding of the complexity of human relationships — many of which were far from perfect. Shards of pain slowly, sometimes violently surface with resulting agony and relief.
For those whose relationships were left wanting, complicated grief takes its own path. Its beat to a different drum. When fully permitted, this complicated grief makes profound sense as a unique, enriching and necessary journey down the path of life and death.
Related post: “Why Do We Mourn for Celebrities?”
Images by Gerla Brakkee