Grief and bereavement is a long and difficult journey. Even if the loss is imminent and you think you are prepared, there is no adequate preparation in the end. The agony of losing a loved one, particularly a beloved child who should have long outlived you, is acute and sudden yet also seemingly never-ending. When I lost my niece a few years ago the intensity of the grief I felt overwhelmed me. Yet somehow, in the process of both recovering from my own sense of loss and helping my sister – who had lost her only child – through her own journey which led her along the dark path of alcohol addiction, I discovered that loss can help us grow. To become more compassionate, more open-hearted and more aware of the necessity of being grateful for what we have. Of course it is a difficult and painful lesson and may seem a poor trade-off for the anguish of losing a child, but it is also a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit and a profound lesson in keeping our hearts open no matter what life may throw at us.
Grief as Teacher
The most profound lessons are often the most painful and that perhaps is exactly why they carve themselves into our psyche. When my sister succumbed to an alcohol addiction as the only way to escape from or at least numb the overwhelming pain of her loss, I have to admit I was shocked and even vaguely judgemental. I had preconceived ideas of what kind of person an alcoholic was and it certainly wasn’t my calm and unruffled sister, a suburban mom who made brownies and went to bake sales and rarely drank anything stronger than soda. I learned that grief is no respecter of class, status, gender, race or wealth. It is a potent leveller. I began to look at people I would otherwise have avoided and wonder what their stories were.
The Healing Journey
This realization was brought home to me when my sister’s drinking problem became so bad she had to admit she needed help. I realized that my own grief had made me less supportive of hers; I had closed my heart in an attempt to shut out some of the emotions threatening to overpower me, in much the same way that my sister had turned to the fog and numbness of alcohol to escape from her own. I researched New York treatment options for alcoholics and discovered everything I could about alcohol abuse and its recovery. I learned that addictions of various kinds are often used to escape the despair of depression and grief and began to feel more compassion for my by now dishevelled and unravelling sister. Looking at her, I realized her outer state was a mirror for my inner one. We had both become ‘stuck’ in our grief. Recovery from bereavement is a process and a journey, but we had stopped moving.
The Stages of Grief
Grief is a painful process, but also often a transformative one. Recovery unfolds in stages, and addictions such as my sister’s often occur as a result of trying to avoid the most intense of these stages. The different stages are generally described as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and then finally, if we have successfully moved through the others without becoming trapped in them, we reach acceptance. Of course the pain of the loss never goes away, but over time we can live with it. We can cherish our memories of the loved one without being decimated by them. We can even find ourselves shaped and refined by our grief into more aware and open-hearted people. Having an open heart it as much about self-compassion as it is compassion for others, about facing our own shadow sides that allow us to fall prey, after a tragedy or trauma, to despair or addiction. We are ultimately all of us both dark and light.
This acceptance brings with it a recognition that we are all, whatever our personal backgrounds, on similar journeys through life. Loss touches us all. Rarely can we avoid this, or the grief that follows, but we can allow ourselves to be open to its lessons. To be kind to ourselves, and to others experiencing similar suffering. To savor cherished moments with our loved ones, and keep our memories of them close to our hearts – because they at least are ours to keep.