When we don’t address it, grief hangs on. We can we numb ourselves from our pain with force of will or sullen silence, with bursts of anger, or drugs, or busyness, yet the hurt does not go away. Instead, it settles into our joints, scars our muscles, makes our head hurt. Unable to face the enormity of our loss, some of us go to our grave frozen and miserable.
Over the years, I’ve sat with many newly sober people who were shocked by the intensity of their ten- or twenty-year-old grief. Suddenly caught with no buffering substance, they felt overwhelmed by emotions they had forgotten how to process, if they ever knew. It seemed the sadness would tear them apart.
Some of us don’t survive tragedy and terror. Our hearts shatter, never to be mended. Our spirits wither. We lose hope. In our despair, we get sick in body and mind. Some of what happens to people is unimaginably horrid. I can’t promise you will be all right, whatever “all right” means.
Moving Through Loss
Yet humans survive incredible disasters, both physically and emotionally. Our bodies are more tough than we suppose. So are our minds and spirits. The secret, if secret it can be called, is that when we welcome the loss, take it in, honor it, and share it with others, when we stop trying to manage it by ourselves, our grief miraculously moves through us. Not that we will never again feel a pang or get scared or miss someone who has died, yet the sadness won’t overwhelm us.
On Memorial Day, we remember the people we’ve loved who no longer live, at least not on Earth. Traditionally, on this holiday, we honor those who died in war. And well we should, because as a nation, we are responsible for their deaths. Our society values vengeance, encourages retaliation, and resorts to force before it tries diplomacy.
I’m not saying aggression never makes sense, nor am I suggesting war is never the best of difficult options. We started our recent wars, however, not because we needed to stop an evil worse than our own, though that judgment itself should give us pause. No, we started them because our pride was wounded, or we were going to lose oil, or our financial security was threatened. Even if we assume we are the good guys going after the bad ones, how come we aren’t fighting against every totalitarian regime in the world? Why do we prefer to “get even” rather than develop relationships? At times, it seems as if we would rather die than grieve.
Our Fear of Emotions
Perhaps that’s because, to grieve, we must experience emotions. For some people, anger is the only safe emotion. For others, no emotion is safe. That’s why the range of feelings we experience when we grieve can be terrifying. After all, there are so many of them, and they’re so uncontrollable. For example, here’s a list, in no particular order, of what we might feel as we grieve: numbness, bargaining, rage, sadness, guilt, confusion, relief, exhaustion, blame, loneliness, fear, denial, poignancy, tenderness, and even happiness. Some of us experience all these emotions; some feel only a few. Healthy grieving looks different for different people, as I discuss in this article about grief.
According to professor of psychiatry, William Worden, regardless of the emotions we experience, and regardless of whether we express them by crying or building monuments or writing poems or sitting in silence by a river, healthy grieving requires four activities or tasks. For instance, if someone we love dies, we must first accept the reality of the loss. Second, we must experience our pain. Third, we must adjust to the world without our loved one. Fourth, we must move on with our lives. This doesn’t mean forgetting the person who died. It means developing a different relationship with that person, one that keeps her memory with us, yet allows us to create a new life without her here. 
Tasks of Grieving
On paper, this seems pretty simple. In reality, few of us complete those tasks. Our culture doesn’t encourage grieving. It encourages forgetting, pretending, numbing, punishing, or avenging. So we might do the first task and acknowledge that we’ve lost something we love. Many of us do. The second task, feeling the emotions, stops a lot of us. These days, it’s so easy to find a distraction. We act as if we’ve accepted the loss and have moved on with our lives, but we haven’t. The pain festers inside us.
Then, when something reminds of our hurts, we get angry. All those emotions we didn’t want to feel rise up, crashing down on us so quickly, our conscious mind doesn’t even notice, so when we react, we think we’re reacting to the person in front of us or the political event we heard about, but we’re not. We’re reacting to every time we felt offended, to every time something was taken from us, to every time our hearts were broken.
Because our hearts never healed, the pain is more than we can bear. We get scared and enraged. We lose perspective. Hijacked by that old, necrotic pain, we get jumpy and reactive. No wonder we can’t get along with others. Diplomacy makes no sense if we don’t know how to acknowledge our hurts, let them go, and find a purpose beyond revenge.
Some of us respond to unhealed hurts by withdrawing, running away, cutting ourselves or numbing ourselves with addictions. Some of us get “strong.” We shove down the feelings from one loss after another, except for our anger and self-righteousness, of course. These emotions make us feel powerful. When bad things happen to us or those we love, we get mad. In our movies and songs, we hear about heroes who avenge wrongs. We approve of that. When bad things happen to our country, “strong” leaders get mad and fight back. As a people, we like that.
Let Us Remember; Let Us Heal
If we could acknowledge our wounds, experience our sadness and loneliness, recognize our vulnerability, and reach out for empathy, we might start to heal from our individual and our cultural traumas, losses, and tragedies. We might learn to create meaning from tenderness and kindness. Perhaps we’d stop glorifying war. Maybe some day, we would build monuments not just to those who died in battle, but also to those who died from child abuse, intimate partner violence, human trafficking and drug trafficking, from lack of health care, homelessness, and senseless cruelty.
So on Memorial Day, let us remember. Let us remember everyone who ever died from violence and aggression. And also, let us grieve. Let us fully mourn the hurts, until our hearts are open, and once again, we learn to love one another.
In faith and fondness,
- See Worden, William, Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner, 3rd ed, New York: Springer Publishing, 2002, pp. 25-37.
Photo by Kapil Dubey from Unsplash.