Mainstream American culture wants to kill grief.
My mother died last August. I am still grieving, but much more privately now. Even though it's been barely six months it's clear that, for the most part, I am supposed to appear bouncy and happy and project that I have "moved on" with my life. Ha.
My relationship with my mother was a jumble of gratitude, love and unending struggles toward forgiveness, alternating with colossal annoyance and resentment and more unending struggles toward forgiveness (that went both ways). But the less-than-perfect dynamic of our relationship didn't make losing her any easier. I still cry every time I reach for the phone to call her before I remember she's gone. My mother's absence from this world remains at once constant/overarching and sudden/stunning. My mother's absence keeps blasting up at me randomly, like I'm forgetting I live on a field of geysers. That is grief.
We think of grief* that lasts beyond a very short window (funeral, visitation, a short leave from work if we're lucky, or maybe six months of "reasonable" sadness if we adhere to some guidelines) as a weakness; a spiritual failing; a mental illness; a temporary, linear process of inconvenient but required steps toward a past state of non-grieving that should be gotten through quickly. We'd better be back at it and ready to produce within a week or two, by God, or something is wrong!
Death makes people uncomfortable. Mourning reminds us of death. So no one wants to see grief and mourning. Except for violent TV and movie deaths (for fun!), we want only life and happiness. This comes partly from our Puritan roots, which value stoicism, and that we adhere to unconsciously. The cultural message is: It's weird to mourn. That cultural message is unhealthy and unnatural.
I've had people say to me, seeing me have emotion, "But aren't you a Buddhist?" As if the practices of Buddhism eliminate emotion. Have you ever heard the Dalai Lama talk about himself? He always humbly points out his own wandering mind and human emotions. Buddhism does teach that attachment leads to suffering. But what "attachment" actually means in this context is widely misunderstood in the West. It certainly does not mean that we should not grieve the loss of our loved ones.
In fact, Buddhism also teaches that repulsion is the other obstacle to happiness, along with attachment. In truth, repulsion is another kind of attachment. By turning away from death and pain we solidify our attachment to only what we perceive as good and "positive," and reinforce the imbalances that cause us to truncate and repress normal, necessary grieving.
We seek "positive" experiences and reward people when they display "positive" affect, reject them when they don't. Grief does not look "positive."
But death is inevitable. To be repulsed by death is to be repulsed by life itself. Both poles must exist and be in balance. Light and shadow. Yin and yang. Dream and waking. Winter and summer. Persistent turning away from pain and death, from suffering and difficulty, will eventually cause illness and loss of one's capacity for true compassion. Embracing death and the grieving of death is a necessary aspect of our present evolution of consciousness.
11 Healthy Ways to Grieve
Mourning practices vary by culture. Many cultures in the U.S. have retained intact their traditional death and grieving rituals and practices. The suggestions below are not meant to replace or contradict those. These suggestions are primarily intended for those of us who's rituals and practices have been thinned by time or stoicism and truncated into those few days near the death and funeral.
- You don't have to be in a rush to remove the body. Barring violent death that precludes control over the body, you get to decide how you want immediate post-death activity to look. Families need to discuss this in advance when possible. Some people feel a deep need to sit with the body of the loved one. If so, it's the job of those with fears of the dead body to move aside and deal with those fears elsewhere. Death rituals in many cultures have developed to meet the need to care for and remain with the body. This should be honored and re-imagined for us in mainstream North America. When my mother died, our hospice Chaplin came and we sang my mother's favorite hymns around her body. I'm not Christian, but my mother was, and my relatives mostly are, so that was okay with me. It was a beautiful and healing experience.
- Once the body is gone, don't immediately purge the all evidence of the dead person's presence in the place of dying.
I've seen this happen a lot. It can be jarring, especially to children. Follow the advice of hospice professionals: straighten the room, remove medical-looking objects, make the bed up nicely and put an object on the bed that was important to person who has died -- a book, a photo album, a stuffed animal, whatever seems right. If the person died at home, you can keep this area available for loved ones to visit for as long as feels right. If your loved one died in the hospital, talk to the hospital social worker about how long it's possible for the room to be kept this way. Even an hour can be very helpful.
- Make an in-home memorial to your dead loved one.
This can be something as simple as a photo on a table or shelf, with a small array of objects that remind you of the person. It can be a nice place to put seasonal objects from nature, like flowers and pine cones. This activity is especially healing for children. It's perfectly healthy to use this area as a place to talk to your departed loved one, to say a prayer or mantra and even to have a meal.
- Make a connection to the natural world.
The Earth can ground you, and provide a channel for your pain to move through and be transformed. I made a very modest memorial garden to my mother just a few days after she died. Shopping for flowers the day after her death I saw a beautiful butterfly feeding on just the kind of flower I was looking for, lantana. I knew that butterfly was the spirit of my mother appearing to comfort me. Sure, part of my brain thought that was a wacky thought, but I chose to ignore that and let myself have the comfort. Why not? Now I have a place to visit her, right in my yard, and when a butterfly visits it I feel so much love and comfort.
- Don't feel pressured to purge the closet.
One woman told me that at five months post-death her departed husband's sister was threatening to come over and remove his clothes herself, insisting it was time for the woman to "move on." At five months? Really? Go into that closet. Inhale the scent of your loved one. Take comfort. Cry. You decide when (and if) you want to let go of those things
- Allow yourself to feel.
Welcome to your body. It has feelings. Feelings are sensations in the body, not thoughts in the head to be judged. If the chatty monkey of your brain tries to talk you into squashing down your body's sensations, ignore it. Ground into the Earth and let the pain move through you; embrace it. Surround that pain with love and light. Cradle the pain like a baby in your arms. It will heal faster by being loved than by being ignored. Everything does.
- Rest your body.
I was very lucky that I could take time off from work after my mother died. I had a job that provided flexibility and a wonderful friend who provided amazing support. So many people don't have that (don't get me started!). To the extent you're able, rest your body. Neuroscience is showing that body and mind are one. You need to rest and recalibrate. Lay down.
- Embrace the mystery.
We can't truly understand death. Sometimes there is no good answer to "Why?" That why question is not helpful. It's a trap. Get out of it. Drop the thought. It may float by once in a while. Just acknowledge it then let it pass. Move your awareness to your heart, get grounded and rest. There are also ways to dive into mystery in a healing way, such as studying death and dying in other cultures, joining a dream group, going to services of your choice, or being in nature.
- Wear black if you want to.
Just do it if you feel like it. Honor your loved one. Some of those old mourning traditions were helpful. You could put a mourning wreath on your door. Or make a memorial web page. Public acknowledgement of grief and loss help normalize the state of mourning for all of us.
- Don't put a time limit on your pain.
This is your process. All time estimates are arbitrary.
- Get support. Just because grief is natural and healthy doesn't mean it's easy. Childbirth is natural, too, but few people do it all alone by choice. A good professional midwife or doctor and excellent postpartum care can make all the difference. So with birth, as with death. Both are the most transformative events in human life. Both are transitions to the other side. A good hospice professional (and these come in Buddhist and other flavors, not just Christian) can midwife the death. A good grief counselor can midwife the "postpartum" period after your loved one's birth into death, and your birth into this new life without your loved one.
Death is dark and mysterious. And it is an integral part of life. It is good and necessary to mourn.
- *Traumatic grief is different from "ordinary" grief. When a death is violent or very unexpected, traumatic grief may occur, though it can also occur when a seemingly normal death happens. Don't judge yourself. If you think you need assessment and possibly assistance please seek professional help.
- SAMHSA Mental Health Treatment Services Locator: http://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/MHTreatmentLocator/faces/quickSearch.jspx
- National Suicide Lifeline number: 1-800-273-8255
- Find Grief Support Groups: http://www.hospicefoundation.org/supportgroup
- For support after Miscarriage and Infant Loss: http://www.nationalshare.org/online-communities.html