I used to be a Lutheran. Then I changed and became a Christian Mystic Taoist. So my first question is how many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? None. Lutherans don’t change. How many Taoists does it take to change a light bulb? You can’t change a light bulb. It can only be true to its own nature. How many politically correct clergy does it take to change a light bulb? We’ll never know. Politically correct clergy don’t tell light bulb jokes!
In a past life I was the Project Manager for the Primary Care Network at Mercy General Health Systems. That meant that my job was to know everything that could be known about a doctor’s office– and then to change it. So I spent time with staff, job shadowed doctors and interviewed patients all in attempt to be more efficient, more effective and more customer focused. Then I would present my wonderful ideas for change.
This is where my lack of human understanding would always rear its ugly head. See, I thought that if I explained what was happening and how it was going to happen and all of the reasons it would be so much better that everyone would be happy two go along. Wrong. You see everything I was doing made great sense intellectually, but I was completely disregarding the fact that change is an intensely emotional activity. I was simply disregarding everyone’s fear and pain and assuming everyone would now be happier and more content.
By the time I left Mercy General I had learned a lot about the process of change – the grief and loss that must be met with mourning, the fear that can propel or paralyze, the joy and anticipation that can lead to even more change. Change is an opportunity for growth, an antidote against inertia and proof that we live in an ever evolving and creative cosmos.
Organizational change is a challenge, but there is other change that is far more difficult, more painful. In my last blog, I talked about the aging process. I challenged us all to embrace growing old gracefully as a sign of hope for those who follow us. I focused on what we gain as we age. Today in true Taoist fashion, it is only appropriate to acknowledge what we lose. Because loss is real. Aging with grace isn’t about denying that loss, it’s about acknowledging it, grieving it and then continuing to go on living.
Aging isn’t the only thing that brings about painful loss. There are accidents and injuries, divorces and layoffs, violent acts and natural disasters. There is death. And there are too many Detroit Lions football games.
Change can overwhelm us when there are too many of them too soon – and when they come not as something we choose and to some extent control, but as something that controls us. These changes are especially painful.
You know what I’m talking about. None of us totally escapes crisis in our life – those unexpected breaks in our equilibrium, those sudden changes that leave us overwhelmed and anxious. We move through shock and denial, bargaining and depression until we return to some sense of reorientation.
What is the Worst Kind of Grief?
And what is the worst kind of grief? Your own. The worst kind of grief is whatever grief you are experiencing. The worst pain you will ever experience is your own pain.
Life is hard. And life is hard because we hurt. We hurt physically, we hurt emotionally and we hurt spiritually. Pain is present from the very beginning of our life until our last breath. First we are pushed and shoved out of the warmth and security of our mother’s womb into a cold and uncertain world.
And from that day on we will know pain as an unavoidable aspect of life – as we cut our teeth, as we learn about gravity, as we realize why we were told not to touch the stove or play with knives. (Side note, when I was two years old I actually tried to shave my tongue. Any idea how much a tongue bleeds? Hard to bandage, too.) We know pain as we stretch ourselves to learn new skills and in the process fall flat on our face. Pain accompanies our journey as we maneuver our way through the sicknesses and injuries of life and keeps us company as our bodies age, reminding us we are mortal after all.
Then there is the emotional and spiritual pain that can bring us to our knees faster than any physical injury. As we are emptied of everything else – hope, dreams, desires, belief – it is the pain that comes into the void and fills us to overflowing. It arises in times of crisis, trauma and loss and serves as a cruel reminder of our own powerlessness and lack of control. And it is universal. None of us can participate in this world and not know its sting.
We have few role models, however, for learning how to deal with the sting. Our society does not encourage emotional awareness, let alone emotional expression. Instead we are offered a continual array of ways in which we can avoid feeling our pain or feeling anything at all. When any glimmer of emotional turmoil threatens to come our way we can choose alcohol, drugs, sex or food instead. We can distract ourselves from our own emotion by yelling, blaming, or trying to appease somebody else. When sadness, fear, anxiety or loneliness threaten to descend we can run away, go shopping, or turn on the TV.
Feeling the Pain
The idea of actually FEELING our pain can seem strange and even frightening. But the only real way to get through it is to finally experience it. Fully. Unflinchingly. In all of its terribleness and terror. And the truth is, we can. We can feel our pain without exploding, going crazy or dying. And when we do, we realize our pain is not endless.
Half of the battle with grief is just accepting the grief and letting ourselves grieve. We have to accept our grief because other people might not. Other people will mistakenly think that we should have “gotten over it” or that our personal loss shouldn’t be “such a big deal.” We may run into people who are so uncomfortable with grief themselves that they would rather not talk about it. Whatever the reason a lot of people will say or do things to discourage us from grieving. So we can’t depend on others to give us permission to grieve. We have to give that permission to ourselves.
And as we allow ourselves to grieve, we move beyond being a victim. It’s actually much easier to let the voice of the victim drown out the pain. The victim is the witness who carries our story and that is a very important role. As Michael talked about last week, there are times we need to tell our story. There are times people need to hear our story told. But our story is not all that we are. And when we choose to see ourselves as the victim in our own story, we choose powerlessness. We choose to remain stuck right where we are. We choose to do nothing to help ourselves or to help those around us.
Ultimately, we have to grapple with the pain itself in order to move through it. I can complain about my bad luck all day and all night, but until I’m willing to experience my pain, I will never know joy. For the same energy I use to avoid embracing my own damaged self with all of the hurt it carries, is the same energy that keeps me from embracing my own original joy and wonder.
For many of us who prefer to stay in our heads, this may not seem like good news. We cannot think our way into healing and health. We cannot think ourselves out of our grief. It takes great courage to listen to the damaged self, to stay with the painful emotion, explore it, and own it.
The Process of Grief
Grief is a very individual process. There is no roadmap. We all have to go through the stages, but we will do so in different order. We may thing we’ve worked through a stage and then suddenly find ourselves in it again. That’s okay. It just means there is something else that needs to be worked through. We need to let ourselves do that work.
How long does grief last? As long as it takes. In one sense our grief will always be with us. Those things that we’ve lost – people, pets, jobs, abilities, youthfulness – they will never be replaced. In another sense, grief does end. Eventually pain subsides, memories bring more smiles than tears, and the future appears more hopeful than foreboding. There is no one-size-fits-all timeframe for grief. There’s only your unique and personal timeframe. That’s the only one that should really matter to you.
A Personal Story
Every year on February 1st I take time to intentionally sit with my pain. It is the anniversary of the date my son Malachi Aaron was delivered stillborn. He was a perfect little boy with 10 fingers and 10 toes, my chin (poor kid) and his brother’s nose. And his umbilical cord wrapped tightly around his little neck, twice. It was horrible in every sense of the word, pain more intense than I had ever felt before. Physical pain. Emotional pain. And especially spiritual pain. I felt as if a part of my very soul and very being had been severed from me. This is the feeling I still know when I return to the cemetery every February 1. A deep and abiding ache that I surrender to once a year. A bleeding wound that I take time to expose, to kiss and to nurture and then to gently rewrap in bandages of remembering.
In fact, an important part of my healing was in creating a time to intentionally feel the wounds once more. In the midst of my grief there was a part of me that didn’t want to be okay again – that didn’t want to let go of the pain. I didn’t want to simply blink and then pretend that everything had returned to normal. And yet my normal routine was beckoning me and the time came that I had to return to life. And so I returned. But I returned not to the same old world I had known before, but to a world where I knew nothing would ever be the same again. I returned having survived something I didn’t know I could survive with strength I didn’t know I possessed.
Today spiritual pain is recognized as a very real factor in our total well-being. Health care providers are taught to recognize signs and symptoms and to help bring healing. Even the Joint Commission on Healthcare Accreditation requires that routine spiritual assessments be part of every hospital patient’s care.
Spiritual pain is about feeling separation. It can include loss of meaning, loss of hope, and loss of one’s own identity. It can include anger, a sense of betrayal and abandonment, and a disruption to one’s core beliefs.
When we allow ourselves to move into our spiritual pain, to experience it fully, we can find new meaning and understanding in the midst of it. A community that welcomes individual questions and doubts can offer consolation and the promise of building relationships of care and of witness to one another, while assuring us of abiding grace and unconditional love.
This is what we seek to know and feel underneath all of our life long struggles. “Our problem,” according to David Richo, “is not that as children our needs were unmet, but that as adults they are still un-mourned. The hurt, betrayed, bereft child is still inside of us, wanting to cry for what he missed.” Because without that expression and the release it allows, we stay stuck. We don’t let go of the pain. We continue to feel stressful neediness. In fact, that neediness tells us nothing about how much we need from others. What it tells us is how much we still need to grieve a barren past that cannot be changed as it urges us to call upon our own inner sources of nurturance.
Pain comes out of nowhere, hitting us when we least expect it in the place that hurts us the most. When we do our grieving work, when we admit our powerlessness and express our mourning, when we whine and complain and yearn and yell and then take another step forward, we realize that we always have alternatives, no matter what our predicament might be. Knowing we always have choices keeps us from getting stuck in depression, apathy or the paralyzing stance of the victim. Instead we get on with our lives in powerful and productive ways.
When my oldest son Jackson turned 9 I remember his being overwhelmingly sad at bedtime one night. When I asked him what was wrong, he said, “I’m already 9 years old. I’ll probably be moving out of the house and going to college when I’m 18. I’ve already lived half of my life with you. It’s just all happening so fast.”
As we grow, there is much we leave behind. But as mature human beings, there is also much we can recapture. As we live our lives more fully and deeply, we can even move outside of ourselves in order to enter into the brokenness of life so that we might reach out to other people in their grief.
Entering Into a Broken World
It was the sight of pain that jolted the Buddha out of royal complacency and set him off on one of history’s greatest spiritual journeys. It was the sight of pain that made Moses give up his privileged status to lead a political and cultural revolution that is called the Exodus from Egypt. It was the sight of pain that stirred Jesus to follow the call of social activism in such a way that his teachings would influence history and get him killed.
There’s a story of two men in a hospital. One is able to sit up and the other can only lie flat on his back. Day after day the man who sits describes the picture outside the window – the trees, the sunshine, the children playing. His descriptions give the other man comfort and consolation as he struggles with his own failing health. One day the man at the window dies and is moved from the room. The other man asks to be moved to the other side of the room. He is very excited to finally see for himself the wonderful activity taking place outdoors. But when he is moved there is only a wall. The nurse explains that the man who had died was blind.
Indeed, one of the most significant changes for grieving people happens on the inside. Nearly every grieving person becomes more caring and compassionate with others who experience loss. They know what it’s like to lose something or someone precious and are much more sensitive to other people’s needs. Look to your own heart for your motivation. When you are ready and when you feel it deep inside, reach out to help someone else who may need it. When people give of themselves, they also receive.