Saturday, October 3, 2009

Confronting Grief

When someone close to us dies, our natural tendency is to remain strong. Intellectually, we know that there is nothing we can do to change the situation since we cannot bring the person back to life. Yet, in the long run, being brave can be extremely detrimental. Our courage can imprison the release of the heart-breaking pain that needs overt expression. If despair and sorrow are repressed, the hidden pain can explode into a serious depression that only appears to be unrelated to the emotions that we were trying to circumvent. We may also make irrational life-altering decisions as a subterfuge; or as a ploy that deceives us into believing that we have escaped the pain that we are trying to avoid.

It is difficult to face the fact that we will never be able to call our loved ones on the phone and that they will not be around to share the important events in our lives. Unmarried women who have lost their fathers need to face the pain that they will be walking down the aisle alone. Sons who have lost their fathers need to feel pain that their next promotion or accomplishment will not receive accolades from a person they depended on for encouragement. If the children craved approval from one or both parents, the loss of a parent can paralyze the desire for success or create a dark abyss in the search for meaning in life. A wife who loses her husband will never be able to hear him say, “I love you,” or hold her in his arms. If there’s something she thinks he might want to know, she has to keep the information to herself. She will never again feel the warmth of his touch or the serenity of his smile.

Attempts to avoid feeling grief exacerbate the problem because the pain is not alleviated until it is confronted. Even after the pain is faced, the sorrow can continue forever. Grief that is concealed expresses itself in ways that are subtle and difficult to understand. A good example of this was described in The Art of Happiness: “Randall lost his father to cancer a little over a year ago. He was quite close to his father, and at the time everyone was surprised by how well he was taking the death. ‘Of course I’m sad’ he explained in a stoic tone. ’But really I’m fine. I’ll miss him, but life goes on. And anyway, I can’t focus on missing him right now; I have to arrange the funeral and take care of his estate for my mom… But I’ll be fine,’ he reassured everyone. One year later, however, shortly after the anniversary of his father’s death, Randall began to spiral into a severe depression. He came to me and explained, ‘I just can’t understand what is causing this depression. Everything seems to be going well right now. It can’t be the death of my father, he died over a year ago, and I’ve come to terms with his death.’ With very little therapy it became clear, however, that in struggling to keep a tight reign on his emotions, in order to ‘be strong,’ he had never fully dealt with his feeling of loss and grief. These feelings continued to grow until finally manifesting as an overpowering depression that he was forced to deal with. In Randall’s case, his depression lifted rather quickly as we focused on his pain and feelings of loss, and he was able to fully confront and experience his grief.”

Death is extremely difficult to deal with because we are not sure what happens to people when they die. Even if our faith tells us that they are “alive” in another existence, it is hard to be certain of something we cannot see, feel, hear or touch. Often we feel the presence of someone who has died long after he or she is gone, but we can believe that this is wishful thinking. It takes an inordinate amount of strength to believe that someone is there when you are looking at empty space.

People who have strong beliefs in the afterlife often have an easier time dealing with death. These people still feel the pain of the loss, but they understand that their pain is basically selfish. Obviously, we want the people who have died to be in our physical plane because we miss them. Yet, if we believe in the afterlife, we know that the person who died is experiencing more joy and happiness than what was possible on earth. We also realize that time is just an illusion. We will see this person again when we make the transition from life to death. It may feel like the time lasts forever, but it is only relative to our experience with time.

Socrates never believed in death. Instead, he believed that the soul is immortal. He was always careful to make the distinction between the body and the soul. The body may die, but the soul lives forever. After Socrates was sentenced to death, he tried to explain this concept to Crito. In Constantine Cavamos’s book, Plato's View of Man, he quotes a passage that explains the response of Socrates to Crito’s request for burial instructions. "I cannot persuade Crito, my friends, that I am the same Socrates who is now conversing and ordering each part of the argument; he thinks that I am the other Socrates, whom he will later see a dead body, and he asks how he will bury me. And though I have said just now a great deal indicating that after I drink the poison I shall no longer remain with you, but will go away to the joys of the blessed, he seems to think that I mean something else, that I am merely comforting you and myself. Therefore, be surety for me to Crito...that I shall not remain when I die, but shall go away in order that he may bear my death more easily, and not be grieved when he sees my body being burned or buried, as if I were undergoing tribulations, or say at the burial that he is laying out Socrates, or is following him to the grave, or is burying him. Realize excellent Crito, that not speaking rightly is not only an offense, but also infects the soul with evil. You must be of good courage then and say that you are burying my body."

I actually feel closer to people after they die because I realize that they can be with me anytime I need them. On the physical plane, there are distances that separate us. In the ethereal world, they can be there instantaneously. I also feel that there is someone who can help me in ways that I don’t understand. On earth, our help is limited to the physical reality. In the next dimension, the help that others provide can be magical.

For many people, dealing with grief seems pointless. This is especially true for men who tend to be problem solvers. They know they cannot solve the problem, so they avoid thinking about it or they use external distractions to subvert their pain. Many men monopolize their time with work or sports. Others make extreme life changes as an elaborate ploy for avoiding the pain of grief. A common tactic is to become involved in a love affair following the loss, especially if the sufferers lost a parent who they depended on for emotional support. The psychological “high” of infatuation or falling in love can appear to compensate for the intense pain of grief. This tactic is a subversive form of avoidance and can be extremely deceptive. As an associate explained: “A friend of mine lost his father and he appeared to be dealing with the loss exceptionally well. His absence of intense grief surprised me because he depended on his father for approval and he was extremely close to him. A month later, he became emotionally involved with a woman, which seemed to be a rebound reaction to the loss of his father. Even though he downplayed the relationship, he asked her to marry him only four months later. Their wedding was only a year after his father died. It was obvious that the ecstasy of falling in love distracted him from facing the pain of his father’s death. When his father was alive, he said that he wasn’t ready for marriage, but then his father died and he married the next person he dated. It wasn’t a coincidence. He was using the marriage as a way of avoiding the pain.”

I also met a guy who seemed like he was dealing well with his father’s death. In fact, he seemed so “together” that I thought his father must have died long ago. There was no emotion in his eyes when he mentioned his father’s death. He talked about it like he was talking about yesterday’s sports scores. At the time, he told me that he worked in forensics so I assumed that his profession made him de-emotionalize death and I hypothesized that he was doing the same with his own father’s death. I later learned from a mutual friend that his father had died only a few months earlier and that the forensics profession that he created was only a lie. At first, I was a bit disappointed that he had created a false “identity,” but the disappointment quickly turned to compassion. I couldn’t help but think that he created the forensics occupation as a way of avoiding the pain of his loss. Some people will go to great lengths to avoid dealing with pain that they believe will cripple them. He didn’t realize that if he could confront the pain directly, he could deal with the resulting sorrow without the need to create scenarios that superficially made him believe that he was “fine.”

Women usually have an easier time with grief because they are more sensitive to their own needs to feel emotional pain. They know that crying may not solve anything, but the emotional release helps alleviate the internal pain. Women are also more likely to see a therapist to help them deal with their grief and they are less likely to use romantic or work distractions to avoid dealing with pain.

Grief does not automatically go away in time. We need to understand that it is okay to be sad and angry that people are taken away from us before we are ready to see them go. Widowers often are angry with the spouse for dying and it’s normal to be upset with God because we don’t understand the “big picture.” We are only human and our only reality is the one we can experience first-hand. There may be another reality that is hidden from view, but it doesn’t make the pain of our loss any easier. We still have lost this person from our lives and every day we are aware of the absence. My niece and nephew no longer have a father. No belief in the afterlife will change that. Their male role model is gone and their sense of loss will stay with them forever.

We may not be able to change anything by feeling pain, but we can help to heal ourselves. The pain we feel will not kill us, yet by avoiding pain, we can kill a part of ourselves that needs expression. No other person in the world can fill the gap that is left by a person who died because every person is unique and our relationship with that person cannot be replaced by another person on this planet. Yet, we can keep the person “alive” through our memories and by being grateful that we had the opportunity to experience love, even if it feels that the love did not last forever.

In actuality, love never dies. Even after the person is gone, the love will stay with us forever. What is important is how we remember the person and how we can appreciate the gift of the person’s presence in our lives. Losing a father who loves us is difficult, but at least we were exposed to his love while he was alive. Many people live their entire lives without feeling loved by their parents. The pain of loss is less when the parents die, but it is only because these people did not have a significant impact on us while they were alive. Would we rather feel the pain of the loss of someone who deeply cared about us or would we rather avoid having an intimate relationship with someone only because the pain of the loss is less severe?

Death is a natural part of life. In American society, we don’t like to think about death because we perceive it as negative. Yet, as the Dalai Lama has explained, “You might consider things like old age and death are negative, unwanted, and simply try to forget about them. But eventually these things will come anyway. And if you’ve avoided thinking about these things, when the day comes that any of these events occur, it will come as a shock causing an unbearable mental uneasiness. However, if you spend some time thinking about old age, death and these other unfortunate things, your mind will be much more stable when these things happen as you have already become acquainted with these problems and kinds of suffering and have anticipated that they will occur.”

Death is not necessarily negative for the person who experiences it; it is only negative for the people left behind. Many things in this universe are invisible to the naked eye but it does not mean that these things do not affect us. We can’t see ultra-violet light, yet it has an adverse affect on our skin every day that we are alive. We may not be able to see the positive aspects of a person who has passed away, but it does not mean that their effect on us can’t be positive for the rest of our lives. Without the influence of our parents, we would be different people. The effect they have had on us is immortal. Can’t we just be grateful that they helped us to evolve into better individuals?

Regret is usually prominent after someone dies. Maybe we didn’t show our love the way we thought we should. Maybe we could have been there for them more often than we were. Maybe we shouldn’t have argued about the little things. When my friend committed suicide in my car, I was consumed by regret. What could I have done to save him? Eventually, I understood that regret was a useless emotion (though normal in the case of suicide). I could have done a million things differently and he probably would have committed suicide anyway. The past is the past.

The people who have died know we loved them immensely. They know we tried to be there for them whenever we could. We need to trust that whatever dimension they are in, they understand our feelings better than they ever could while they were alive. We always say and do things that we regret. These are not the things to remember. These actions and words are already forgiven. Dealing the pain of death requires extreme compassion and forgiveness. If we believe in God, we need to forgive Him for taking away the person we love (or to understand that God is not to blame). We need to forgive the person who is gone for the feelings of abandonment that naturally follows the loss; and most importantly, we need to forgive ourselves for any of the memories that might cause regret. We need to transform regret into compassion for our pain.

It is also extremely dangerous to believe that the death is some kind of “punishment.” We may want to explain events that we do not understand, but this does not mean that we correlate events that are not correlated. No one deserves the pain and suffering that is caused by a loved one’s death. Death is always a tragedy. We can only do our best to survive it and to grow and evolve by meeting our suffering head on.

Denial of pain does not mean that the pain does not exist. The pain is there whether we choose to accept it or not. Wouldn’t it be easier for us in the long run to suffer the pain of the loss rather than letting the pain affect us in ways that appear to be unrelated to event that precipitated it? If we cannot accept the pain that comes from losing someone we love, we may actually shield ourselves from experiencing passionate love in the future. We may be afraid to face a similar pain again. Yet, isn’t it better to love intensely, even though there could be pain associated with its loss -- rather than not loving at all?

Everyone we love will die. Some will die before us and some will die after we are gone. Death does not have to be a negative event. Just because we don’t understand the transition does not mean that it is not beneficial for the person experiencing it. Changes in form happen all the time but one form is not necessarily better or worse than another form. We believe that a butterfly is “better” than a caterpillar even though the caterpillar has “died.” Why would the death of a person be any different? Instead of mourning death, we need to celebrate life. Each person on this planet can positively affect another human being and each person’s life can be changed as a result of the interaction. We could close ourselves off from the rest of the world, which would ensure that no one would suffer the pain of our death and we would not suffer when others die. Yet, human beings were put on earth to interact with others. We cannot live in this world without being affected by death. No matter how we may feel about death, it will inevitably happen. The problems associated with death cannot be avoided simply by refusing to deal with them. We cannot change the mortality of the human race -- we can only change how we choose to deal with it. We may feel that avoidance will make the pain disappear in time, but this philosophy simply is not true. We have to have the strength to deal with our emotional heartache or we will never be able to transcend it. Suffering is a part of life. We need to be able to suffer through pain in order to release ourselves from its imprisonment.

Grieving is a healthy process. We may feel that life is unfair because the people we love were “taken away” from us. The simple truth is that life is unfair or if it is “fair,” we don’t always understand the reasons for particular disasters and hardships. The best we can do is to heal ourselves and to have faith that life and death have a purpose. A person who dies is never really gone. Emotionally, the person is a part of our lives forever. If we suppress our emotions, we are in effect, removing the person from our lives because we are refusing to think of the person out of fear that the pain will cripple us.

We have the power to keep people alive in our memories and in our hearts. We may need to experience the paralysis of pain for a period of time, but we then need to transform the pain into gratefulness. Every second we share with a person we love is sacred even if physically, the person may not be with us forever. After all, death lasts only a moment, but the beauty of a person’s life is immortal.

The Light of Death

We normally mourn death when one’s laid to rest,

but why do we need to cry?

Is it distress for the souls who were destined for death,

or because we’re alone without knowing why?

A life lived is just evolution.

Transformations become our quest.

When our path gradually comes to fruition,

we’re rewarded with love, peace and rest.

Once necessary lessons are slowly ingrained,

our awaited tribute’s in sight,

with a union of love without judgment or pain

in an accepting immersion of celestial light.

The process of death shows such beauty and grace

when divine souls congregate and unite --

to welcome their adventurous world traveler

during his latest transitional flight.

To mourn someone’s death is to acknowledge our love,

and a way to value our friends --

we crave more moments and memories to share --

for it’s too unbearable to witness their end.

Yet you too will make this transition

when your sacred destiny is cast.

Until then please cherish the moment of death,

as a symbol of beauty for the life just passed.

And remember it’s all a circle.

We will be together again.

For death lasts only a moment,

but love can never end.

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