Grief: Nature’s Gift

Grief: Nature’s Gift

The very idea of grief as a gift prompts many to ask how something so painful can be a gift. The answer must begin by acknowledging that nothing in life—as it is lived—falls into neat, simplistic categories of either/or. Grief, like all life events, is most often both/and. If we appreciate the logic and symmetry inherent in nature’s wisdom, we more readily acknowledge the seeming contradiction that grief is both our most painful experience and our internal healer. We are not thrown into life’s sea of loss bereft of hope: we trust that because loss is inevitable and pervasive throughout our lives, we have been given this gift of grief. What is this gift, how do we recognize it and how do we engage it?

The Gift of Grief: The Internal Healer

      Grief, the natural response to all loss, is an integral part of the vital energy of life—the inherent creative energy that powers all aspects of growth throughout life. This inner healer teaches us that life’s journey is a double path of loss and gain. We recognize this gift of the healing life force through the myriad thoughts-feelings-sensations experienced as our grief story unfolds. And although painful, it represents the hope of our healing.  When we heed nature’s requirement to actively participate in the healing process, we learn that we get to the joy through the pain. We engage the gift as we embrace the power of our internal healer, acknowledge that hope is always hope-for-what and willingly, albeit reluctantly, participate in the difficult healing work-of-grief (not to be confused with the psychological concept of “working through issues”). See full paper The Unfolding of a New Year

The Healing Work-of-Grief

The work-of-grief, best defined as using energy to heal the pain of loss, guides the process of discovering and creating different ways to be happy in the wake of devastating loss. Nature’s gift of grief invites us to gentle down for the long “rollercoaster ride” ahead—not a smooth path to “all better”, not “stages” and certainly not “closure” or “acceptance”. 

The Rollercoaster Ride

The shock and surprise that marks the early, short chapter of our grief story ushers in the long chapter of confusing, tumultuous disorienting yearning—a deep, profound longing and searching for the life that was. While we know at a very primal place that our life has forever changed, we do not –yet—know how we will change, but we intuitively grasp that the death of one person was also the death of a life—as we knew it. We yearn for “someone to understand” but, seemingly, no one does!  Perhaps, no one really can! Healing the pain of loss is as individual as the uniqueness of each person and each relationship.

The uniqueness surfaces in how we identify our “self”, how we define the relationship and how we view our participation in the events leading up to and surrounding the death. Among the many lessons that the gift of grief offers, perhaps none is as crucial as the ones we learn about our “self”. Loss announces to us our human imperfections and within the vulnerability of our deep sorrow, sensitive truths about our very identity may be revealed.

Identity—the Evolving Self

     Our identity is not immutable. It is an evolving sense of self, born in stories we tell ourselves and rooted in messages and expectations gleaned from others. Our sense of self continues to evolve—throughout life—in the shadow of our intimate connections. Perhaps none is more intimate than our personal sense of self: how do we recognize ourselves in any given situation? Were we who we thought we were? Did we find disappointment, regret or a sense of not good-enough?

Death profoundly impacts our sense of identity and, for a time, we may feel our “self” open, exposed, alone and vulnerable: we struggle, in our aloneness, to make sense of our loss and our shifting sense of self. It is in this most painful process of reviewing relationships within the context of the whole death experience, that nature’s gift offers opportunities to grow. The growth surfaces as we reluctantly give voice to the existential awareness of the “terrible intimacy of grief”—the encroaching possibility that we are not quite who we thought we were. See full paper The Dance of Relationships

The Terrible Intimacy of Grief

As we focus on the time leading to the death and specifically examine how we participated in that process, we yield to what it reveals about us—often, we find ourselves wanting. We engage the mantra of regret that begins with “what-if” or “if-only” and we wonder why and what might have been.  Sometimes we weigh ourselves on the scale of our inner critic, reflecting on the ways in which we violated our internal moral standard—a critical attribute of our self-identity. This questioning of oneself often leads to the ultimate unanswerable question: If I had done XYZ, would it have changed the trajectory of events and perhaps, more important, would it have changed the outcome? In short, could different actions have altered what was?

It is important to ask these questions and to be open to all answers or views that arise. We gradually acknowledge that we cannot change what was and, although humbled by it, we honor the truth as it surfaces and come to appreciate that the truth is not so much a condemnation of us as it is a testament to our limited human capacity to influence the course of life events. The gift of our grief moves us toward the inexorable resolution of our grief.

Toward Resolution and End of Our Grief Story

We come—eventually—to know that we do not have the power to change human destiny, that death does not play by our rules of “fairness”, that who we are is always in process, that the universe will unfold as it must and the unanswerable question of “why” is precisely that: unanswerable. We embrace the wisdom revealed in the terrible intimacy of grief and appreciate anew our evolving sense of self. We release the pain of our grief, holding fast to the memories connecting us—in a different way—to what was.

We acknowledge that it will take time, energy and patience to resolve the seeming contradictions, renew our sense of “self”, revitalize our vital energy and honor the rebirth of our optimism. And so, we embrace our human imperfections and inadequacies wrapped in the mystery and wonder of our humanness and within the shadow of inevitable and pervasive loss, we accept nature’s gift: grief—the internal healer. We walk the painful road of loss and grief, review what was, consign it to our personal history and make of that history a springboard—not an albatross—launching us toward what is yet to be.

Share your story as you ponder this question: How has the gift of grief awakened your introspection and self-exploration?


























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Grief and the DSM5

Welcome to Sarah’s Corner, a place for everyone to learn and grow together.

As promised, my first weblog will explore what has happened to grief in the 5th revision of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders” (DSM) and more important, how will this influence people experiencing grief?

A Brief History: The DSM is the manual of the American Psychiatric Association that describes the standards and criteria for defining and diagnosing mental illness. Since it was introduces some three decades ago, it has been used as a guide by psychiatrists, primary care physicians and others who treat psychiatric illnesses, conditions or disorders. Today, most insurances companies require a DSM code for reimbursement. The newly published 5th revision (DSM5), released early this summer, is the latest iteration of the manual.

The publication followed much controversy about many  of the changes, having to do with what is increasingly called the “medicalization” of life experiences. It seems that over time and imperceptibly, we have given physicians the moral authority to decide when the vicissitudes of life may be declared abnormal and labeled within the language of sickness, i.e. a syndrome/disorder to be “treated”.  Perhaps this over-arching reach by Medicine is best illustrated in the title of a new book by Dr. Allen Francis: “Saving Normal: an insider’s revolt against out-of-control psychiatric diagnosis, DSM-5, big pharma and the medicalization of ordinary life”. The title says it all…by an “insider”.

Testament to this encroaching medical model as the predominant model to describe and “diagnose” all things human, is the change involving the grief experience. My specific focus today concerns that very controversial change. Many professionals who work with bereaved persons actively engaged this controversy while changes were under consideration… no avail! So, grief–that most human of human experiences–has effectively become a “mental disorder”: Major Depressive Disorder. It falls soundly into the waiting arms of the drug companies.

The change that is most disturbing has to do with what was called “the bereavement exclusion” in prior iterations of the DSM. This exclusion meant that if you a had experienced a loss within a year, you did not “fit the criteria” for Major Depressive Disorder. That exclusion has been removed and you could be diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder as early as two weeks following a loss…and certainly be ordered antidepressants.

Here is some of what Dr. Allen Francis–whose new book I just mentioned–said about the change: (he is the psychiatrist who chaired the 4th revision of the DSM, which included the bereavement exclusion): “After 40 years and lots of clinical experience, I can’t distinguish at two weeks between normal grief and mild depression….this is an inherently unreliable distinction….and I know damn well that primary care doctors can’t do it in a 7-minute visit….they prescribe 80% of all antidepressants and will be most likely to misuse the DSM-5 in mislabeling grievers”.

They did not listen…not even to the plea of an “insider”.

As I reflect on what has happened to this most human of human experiences, I invite your thought and reflections, questions or comments as you read this first blog:

  • Shall we trade the ancient wisdom of the solidarity of connection that heals the pain of loss for a “disorder” to be “treated”?
  • Are we willing to label the precious memories that sustain us through our grieving “a psychotic feature”?
  • Will we forego the opportunity to grow through our suffering to the joy of different ways to be happy?
  • Are we willing to give grief to Big Pharma?

These are some of my questions and reflections…please share some of yours with me.

My next weblog will return us to griefadifferentway. I will discuss what I mean when I say that grief is a “gift”…..many an eyebrow is raised when I say that, so we will explore it next time; meanwhile, grief as Major Depressive Disorder within two weeks after a loss??

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