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The Hallowed Work of Grieving


I've been thinking a lot about some recent client stories: a grieving mother urged by her family to "move on" after the death of her only child; a grieving sister admonished by a teacher for saying she "still has a sister" because her sister died four years ago; a grieving husband, married only three years, advised not to feel so sad since they weren't married long; a grieving adult son whose father's death affected him so deeply he found it difficult to concentrate at work and lost his job; a father grieving the death of his daughter who has to correct family members when they say he doesn't have any children. Despite sometimes being well-intentioned, these attitudes for many feel like a form of psychological violence.

I have 23 years of these stories that I hold tenderly as they are shared by vulnerable, grieving people.

The problem, as I see it, isn't grief. It's not grief's duration or intensity. It's not grief's wild machinations and ceaseless (but normal) thoughts about what we 'would do' differently if only we could. It's not grief's timelessness and capacity to seep into the threshold of our every moment. The problem, as I see it, is society's intolerance of grief and judgment of grievers. 

Even more so than the subject of death, the subject of grief, or worse - it's open expression, can clear out a room, a grocery store aisle, a holiday party. Our culture's propensity to seek happiness and disavow pain and discomfort creates an inhospitable, even hostile, environment for some who grieve. We are so focused on feeling good that we reject the single emotion which is more sacred than every other: grief.

But here's the thing: because the work of grieving is hallowed ground, it is deserving of our pause, our recognition, our hands pressed together at our hearts. Those who do not know this, who refuse to learn this, will hurt others. They will marginalize grievers, shun grievers, and turn away from grievers. Societies that do not know this will cause suffering to its people through institutions that lack compassion and connection. And then we blame grieving people for having difficulty coping. This is a classic, blame-the-victim pattern. There is little we can do about social systems lacking understanding, wisdom, and compassion about grief, especially when catastrophic. But people we know, we expect to respond with more tenderness. Why? Because one day, they, too, will suffer loss.

And when, on that inevitable day, the "happiness-only-seekers" lose one so beloved to them, they will either feel deep regret for the psychological trespasses and emotional harm they've caused others who grieved, or they will eventually and undoubtedly suffer maladies of the mind and body, and even soul (or existential self). Their lives - if they do not open to the holy work of grief - will shrink and they will face life with a profound dilution of any meaning. 

Most importantly though, they will never know the hallowed work of grief that each of us who have lost one so beloved now know.

And though we would return this knowing gladly to undo the horror of his or her (or their) absence from our lives, this hallowed work of grieving, is what we do to remember them, to honor them, and to redeem our remaining days of what is left in the rubble.

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© 2020 Joanne Cacciatore, Ph.D.