THE BLOG
09/27/2013 04:47 pm ET Updated Nov 27, 2013

Grieve and Be Grateful: The Aftermath of the Colorado Floods

We must drop unguarded into the holy bath of grief, inside of which all truly happy men and women must bathe to transform the great losses of life, in war, sicknesses, the loss of homelands and the loss of one's confidence in human decency into a wailing that ends in poetry and elegant praise of the ability to feel. For desire, mistaken for love, without the capacity to truly feel the losses that actual loving entails, is what makes murderers of people who have no home friendly enough to allow them both the complete sadnesses and joys their love can feel. -- Martin Prechtel, Stealing Benefacio's Roses

As anyone who has endured trauma or tragedy well knows, life can change in an instant. The date of occurrence then becomes indelibly imprinted on your psyche, and for the rest of your life you'll relive the heartache and grief on each anniversary. For my family, the date is Sept. 12, 2013, the day the 500-year flood roared through our yard and our life, destroying our home and changing us forever.

As we've walked through the rubble of these past days, my husband and I have each charged full force into different aspects of repair: He's thrown himself into saving our house and rebuilding our land, and I've sunk into the world of grief and emotional recovery. Both paths are necessary, and our division is consistent with how many couples navigate trauma; the practical and emotional attention are essential as we figure out how to move forward. So while he's mucking through four feet of mud and building pumps to attempt to dry out our crawl space, which continuously fills with water, I'm in our temporary home with our kids, guiding them through the muck of our internal mud. And this means teaching them about grief and gratitude.

The best way I can teach them about grief is to model it myself. As I'm someone who hasn't had trouble connecting to the shadow places and moving toward the uncomfortable feelings as they arise, this isn't difficult for me. What is difficult, however, is knowing how much to share with my kids and how much to process after they've gone to sleep at night when my husband returns from our house after a day of fighting the water or early in the morning as I'm lying in bed thinking about the 10-foot serpent that raged through our land just days before. It's at those moments that the full force of the loss hits me with such power that it feels like I'm going to split apart. But I don't split apart. I grieve hard and long, allowing the flood to wash through me. And when the quiet whisper of our mainstream culture slithers in that says, "It's not that bad. Some people have lost their entire homes, or even their lives. Get over it," I tell that voice to take a hike and return to the essential task of grieving.

Because your pain is your pain. When you're suffering a loss, it's not helpful to compare to others' losses. We live in a culture of comparison, so whether we're comparing joys -- like an engagement or a new baby -- or losses, we're conditioned to validate the experience only if it's "better" or "worse" than someone else's. So when the voice traipses through my brain that tries to invalidate or dismiss my loss, I shush it aside and continue to allow myself to cry as hard as I need to cry. This is my pain. This is my loss. We have loved our land deeply, like a good friend, and she's now been ravaged by the destructive force of Mother Nature that I've heard about but have now witnessed with my own eyes.

And here's the secret about what happens when you allow grief to surge full-force through your body: When you're done grieving, a genuine space of clarity and gratitude opens up inside. I cry, I rage, I fall apart, and then I'm okay. When my clients ask how I'm able to work so soon after the loss, I tell them that there's a place inside untouched by the floods, a place that is my anchor and my true home regardless of what happens to our actual house. It's the place that's held afloat by the love of my family and friends, by my healthy marriage, and by my own spiritual practice. When I grieve without inhibition, when I surrender to the torrential flood that shakes and rocks me body and soul, this enduring and unchangeable place reveals itself. It's then that I'm flooded with real gratitude as opposed to the platitude of gratitude that results from listening to the unloving and false voice that says, "Buck up and get over it. You have so much to be grateful for."

Grieve and be grateful. Both can be true. The deep grieving clears the debris and opens the channels for real gratitude to enter. In our black-and-white culture that doesn't allow for two or more emotional to exist simultaneously, we encourage people enduring loss to "look at the bright side" or attempt to offer comfort with statements like, "It will be better than before." While this may true, when someone is in the trenches of grieving a profound loss, the only thing they really need is the space to grieve.

After each wave of tears, my eyes and soul are clear again and my gratitude overflows to reveal what stands before me: My incredible husband and our love which has only grown stronger through the years, our healthy, sweet, resilient boys and the true shelter we bend over them like the weeping boughs of a willow tree, our home which, although damaged, still exists, our neighbors, many of whom we had never met before Sept. 12, who came out of the woodwork to help us minimize damage during the flood and clean up afterwards, the hoards of volunteers who have shown up at our house to muck out the mud, our hero-cat, who woke us up at 6 a.m. to alert us to the danger and has accompanied us to our temporary dwellings, offering infinite comfort as we try to create a sense of home.

As often happens during tragedies, the non-essentials fall away and the very best of human beings shows up. We dwell in a neighborhood of love, on a planet humbled by disasters that are peeling us away and inviting us to build communities anew from the place inside each of us that knows what truly matters. And it's only one thing: love. The love we extend to one another through action when our small worlds are swept away on a flood of loss are lifelines of connection. Let us take each other's hands as we rebuild our homes, our neighborhoods, and our world on a foundation of goodwill, giving, and love.

Sheryl Paul, M.A., has counseled thousands of people worldwide through her private practice, her bestselling books, her e-courses and her website. She has appeared several times on "The Oprah Winfrey Show", as well as on "Good Morning America" and other top media shows and publications around the globe. To sign up for her free 78-page eBook, "Conscious Transitions: The 7 Most Common (and Traumatic) Life Changes", visit her website at http://conscious-transitions.com. And if you're suffering from relationship anxiety - whether single, dating, engaged, or married - give yourself the gift of her popular E-Course.

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