Week 46: Processing Grief
So many people die this time of year, and 2018 is no exception.
As days become darker and darker in the Northern Hemisphere, the time of year to go within approaches. A warmth — a different warmth than that of summer — starts to fill the air as the holidays draw near. In a way, this season of hibernation offers a fitting time to leave this world.
In my own sphere, a teacher’s husband, a parent’s coworker, an old classmate’s mother, and a good friend’s rabbit have all left us within the past few weeks.
For those left behind, reorientation to a new world — one missing a loved one — usually follows. And it usually involves grief.
Nick Cave, a well-known musician who lost a son a few years ago, writes:
“It seems to me, that if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. That’s the pact. Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is non-negotiable. There is a vastness to grief that overwhelms our miniscule selves.”
Late artist Hyong-keun, who painted all the artwork in this post, wrote:
“When we get emotional, it’s because we’re feeling all emotions at once: joy, sorrow, grief, and happiness. Sorrow is the inverse of joy. In other words, the ultimate beauty is joy and sorrow, simultaneously. That’s why art — especially the most beautiful art — is always sad. Maybe that’s why our saddest moments and happiest moments both bring tears to our eyes.”
In their reflections, musician and painter alike speak to the reality that, in this world, lightness and darkness are intertwined. I resonate with their words because they render grief, or sorrow, as something that is, without judgement, inherent to our world. In other words, they portray a full circle of feeling that is beyond good or bad.
As a sine wave represents constant amplitude on both ends of an oscillation, our capacity to feel heavy darkness is our same capacity to feel the highest of joys. From the other perspective, the extent to which we can feel — dare I say tolerate, as it is sometimes so deep to handle — real love is the extent to which we can be with pain.
Even if we are not experiencing sorrow, the presence of love within our hearts means that grief lives there too. One day, something will happen and, like a tidal wave, it will rise and crest. And, even if we feel sorrow to no end, it means we care — it means we have love glowing inside us, and it means that love will one day find a way to surface again.
Although physical death is perhaps the most common precursor to grief, it isn’t the only one. For life itself is, along with beginnings, celebrations, and creations, also full of small deaths: leaving a stage of life, separating from a partner, moving away from a home. In a way, every transition is a kind of death.
Some of those deaths are welcome, some are unwelcome, and some are bittersweet.
My own 2018 has been full of transitions upon transitions. In the past few months, I’ve moved within LA, made career choices, and helped my mom after her two surgeries. These adaptations have, for me, been emotionally alright to navigate. But in that regard, they have been in minority.
Especially when it came to relationships (aren’t relationship shifts always the hardest?) and going through my own maturing, some bumps went deep into my stretch zone, and one or two endings extended beyond it into loss I didn’t know how to handle. Even traveling, which I would normally think of as a temporary, superficial transition — and not even an ending — brought up choppy, hard-to-navigate emotions this summer.
None of these more challenging transitions involved the physical death of a loved one…and still, sadness can run in deep, overbearing currents.
Just as grief isn’t limited to ‘real’ death — the departure of a person — it also does not recognize linear time: we can feel decades-old grief that didn’t have a chance to complete — and even future mourning — that can be just as deep as grief connected to the now.
This year, I finished a course in Ojai, California called Body Into Being. The course, which was intended for practitioners who work with clients (birth trauma resolution specialists, craniosacral therapists, polarity therapists, masseuses, social workers, etc.), equipped us with what I like to call ‘being’ tools…because in this age of stimulation and repression, we’ve kind of forgotten how to be with ourselves.
But the blueprint for it is always in our bodies. So basically, in this course, we learned methods for better connecting with our little bodies — ways to feel grounded, meet emotions and let them process, and feel energetic fields between ourselves and others.
By just taking this course, I gained access to an old wound I didn’t know existed — namely, the loss of a childhood that ended early. This is an example of sorrow connected to the past; sometimes, we don’t have the resources, capacity, or time to process loss. So we move on with life, and that grief lives underground, only to surface when it has a container strong enough and safe enough to meet it.
And then there’s grief that holds on to the inevitable future. For my whole life, I’ve had a tendency to think about the yet unhappened deaths of people I love, worrying that it will happen unexpectedly.
When I was young, my mom would pick me up from daycare, take me home, and go to work again. As a single child to a single mom without many resources, I was inevitably alone sometimes. But every time she was late — either in picking me up or coming home — and I could not reach her, I would actually think she died. She would eventually appear, and to a distraught child.
Which is to say that grief, although always arising from a past place — meaning there was some reason or another I was like that, as other children in similar circumstances wouldn’t jump to such conclusions — can be projected into the future, too.
Since this project is centered on 2018, I want to explore grief I’ve been working with this year. One in relationship to the other parent.
Earthquake lesson: California is situated on two shifting tectonic plates, or pieces of earth’s crust. When the plates glide against each other, an earthquake happens. Sometimes a crack, like the San Andreas fault, forms, showing on surface level the shift between the two plates.
For years, two tectonic plates have been shifting far beneath the surface of my relationship with my dad. But this summer, the fault line finally exposed itself.
In early July, he took me out to a birthday lunch. The topic of my cousin’s upcoming September wedding came up, and I mentioned that my mom, who he’s been divorced from since 1996, was invited.
Now, this cousin is his nephew — his sister’s son — and not my mother’s nephew. He became angry that she was invited, especially without his sister asking his permission. But my cousin was close to my mom when I was little…what to speak of the wedding being his own.
So, over lunch, my father started saying things like, “If I wanted to see her ever again, I never would have divorced her.”
He has a right to his own feelings, and if it really suits him, he can hold on for decades to ungrounded convictions. To enact them in front of the child though, is inappropriate. Can’t he see her face when we looks at me? I may have his coloring, but my nose, my facial structure — they’re all from her. What to speak of all the internal influence and support I’ve received from her.
Looking back, their separation did not hurt me — it was the constant degrading and revenge-seeking, usually using me as a pawn, that left damage.
He used to say things like, “Here comes the bitch,” to seven-year-old me when my mother drove in to pick me up. He used to demand my mother drive me the hour to his house — he had custody of me every other weekend — and insist on exchanging me in the parking lot of a grocery store, determined that my mother never see the house, in a gated community, where her child would be staying.
It was only for revenge. He nurtured this hatred for my mother because she took him to court to make him pay child support, which he was withholding because he was worried she would spend it on herself.
This year, I’ve spent a lot of painful time realising that I have a few relationships held together by a willingness to carry burdens not my own, to put in more than my share of the work, to listen to excuses, and to feel sorry for someone going through a lot.
And my father does have a lot to feel empathy for. His own youth was broken off when his father died at a young age. As the only male left in a family that lived in a women-stay-home-country, he had to work and go to school simultaneously in order to provide for them. Even today, he is an extremely hard worker, and he has supported many, many people financially.
He is also very kind and very, very loving beneath all of his scars. I think it makes sense for him to feel how he felt about my mother taking him to court: given his history as a poor boy trying to protect and defend his family in India, someone trying to take his resources would feel threatening.
The few times he speaks of his own father, his voice is tinged with love and longing. He has not lived a life of who he is — rather, what duty is has made a home for itself in his 68 years.
Still, whatever the unresolved history, putting a child in the middle of conflict is damaging.
I have massaged through a lot of the damage, understanding that there is a reason I was born into a family of this dynamic. Even though remnants of hurt remain, I’ve learned a lot, and I would not choose another family.
I’ve even learned so much as to know I am not okay with anyone degrading a parent in front of their child, even if she’s now an adult. And luckily, because I am an adult, I have choices I did not have as a child.
So, after uneffectively asking him not to go there, I walked out of the restaurant.
And I haven’t really talked to him since. I saw him at my cousin’s wedding, and I saw him when I said goodbye to my grandmother. I exchanged customary pleasantries with him. He texts every once in a while, sending me one of those life lesson stories that Indian parents always send. But all of it skirts the issue.
I have a choice to make. Ignore an old man’s behavior and just see past it for the short time he has left on earth? Or be firm and couple love with distance, knowing that it benefits us both?
Loving deeply and yet holding a firm boundary takes internal strength — strength that I’m not even sure I have. It is easier to maintain distance with bitterness, not warmth. And it takes understanding that the boundaries we hold are for the benefit of ourselves and for the other person’s growth. They should not be a threat or a punishment.
Still, it does feel heartbreaking to have to love someone from a distance. Even though resolving his decades-old anger towards my mother would probably create more miracles for him than it would for me, I don’t mind if he wants to keep them. All I ask is to for him to not voice it in front of me.
The hardest part of all this isn’t even the distance. It’s in knowing that his own dad died of a heart attack at 42, and that my father is now 68. I don’t want him to leave while we are somewhat estranged. I also can’t fix his own problem. What does one do?
I find myself harboring a grief related to this fault line that appeared in July. But I tell myself that the fault line is just an indicator of something much deeper — for years this problem was there, and for years I just masked it over. Because of that, were we ever even close? If I were to be ‘normal’ with him, wouldn’t this only be a band-aid? The shift has to come from him.
I also find myself harboring that grief that I have a tendency to harbor — the one that lives in the future. What if he dies tomorrow?
I’ve noticed that, as I tap into a hard-to-be-with-feeling that’s connected to a person — like my dad — or a circumstance, it’s easy for me to become pulled into that feeling on an existential level. This all-encompassing grief is not connected to a time period or event, but perhaps with our very conception onto this earth.
I had always thought that stewing fully in an emotion was the best way to let it process and release. By taking Body Into Being, I realised that when we don’t know how to manage the intensity of a feeling, trying to steep in it does nothing but isolate us. It keeps our nervous system spinning in a place that has no containment, no source to meet and hold that hard place.
So I’m learning to practise how to go to the edge of a difficult space. It’s just like a tender body part: when a muscle is sore, we don’t push into it! We gently put our hand on it, applying enough pressure for it to begin releasing. We sit beside it, like an old friend. It is only by meeting this edge that we can slowly increase our capacity to feel the whole feeling in a contained way.
Because fire requires a hearth to both encourage and contain it. If uncontained, it will become destructive. We too require the hearth of capacity in order to both feel fully and also remain non-destructive.
And if we can’t go to the edge by ourselves — if it’s that painful, there’s nothing like support from others who know how to sit with a person and hold space.
Processing grief, and any other challenging emotions, is about contacting our imprints with space to see what they’re going to bring us. Going to the edge without jumping overboard retains that space. Then, we are touching history — the history of that old wound — in the now. We’re not going back there, cause we can’t anyway.
Lastly, when we grieve in relationship to another, we are also grieving a piece of ourselves — who we were in connection with that person, or that place, or that relationship.
Maybe someone made us feel very connected to our own selves, maybe we felt a zest for life when we were with someone. Maybe someone helped us feel safe, or secure, or cared for when we couldn’t feel that way alone.
Which means that when it’s time to move on, we can dig our heels in the ground. Or we move on with the motions of life…without truly moving on within. Sometimes we know we don’t want to move on.
So it’s vital to keep connection with that part of ourselves — that part connected to another — and not abandon or reject it. We carry that part of ourselves along with us in the ebb and flow of time, just as we carry the other person in our hearts. That part of us — the one that another person helped us access — is still within us, even if we ourselves find it hard to reach.
Life is messy. There is no pretty bow or ‘lesson learned’ to tie onto the package of grief…if it could ever fit into a package.
We are little people, and these emotions are big and inevitable. As is love, the reality that gives grief a chance to exist.
The only way to make ourselves vessels large enough to process grief is through continuous connection with others, others who can ground us and relate to us and help us touch the edges, and, when they pull too hard, help us retreat to a safer place. That is love. Grief is born of love, and love is, in turn the only presence that can hold grief, like a baby, and let it cry.