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Grief: Does Time Really Heal?

Grief can be felt as a wide variety of different bodily and emotional sensations. According to the American psychotherapist, Dave Richo, grief arises from a combination of 3 emotions – sadness, anger and fear. We feel sad that something has been lost, angry that is was taken away and fearful that it will never be replaced. These emotions can be experienced in any order or simultaneously in any combination. Our felt sense of what is happening to us might well be less easy to define than this – more of an indescribable longing, a yawning gap in our awareness or profound disconnection with our core vitality.

Although there is a healthy reason for us experiencing these feelings, most of us find it uncomfortable at best, unbearable at worst so it can be tricky to believe that there might be something helpful hidden in the murky depths. What are the healthy reasons for the emotions? The feelings alert us to our human choices in how we respond. So, they provide us with an opportunity to transform the crisis of grief. That transformation is what we call healing.

There can be a strong temptation, especially in the early hours and days of our grief, to want to get rid of the seemingly undesirable emotions and bodily feelings, to somehow dismiss them so that we can ‘get back to normal’ or get back in control of ourselves. When we do this, though, it actually sabotages any efforts we might make to heal. In this scenario, time will not heal because we’re not allowing that to happen. Other strategies and behaviours that don’t work include ignoring the emotions in the hope that they’ll go away, or distracting ourselves with TV or media, intoxicants or busyness and overworking. Any form of denial or avoidance of our human body/mind response – the sadness, anger and fear of the grief process – will only compound our suffering and delay our healing.

Whether or not time really does heal depends on how we use it. For healing to take place, we need to:

  • allow and process the emotions that arise.
  • tend to our changing physical needs
  • heed the messages the emotional and physical pain is bringing us

Allowing the grief

This involves letting the feelings and emotions come in their own way and in their own time. In the same way that we don’t deny or push them to one side, we don’t push them to happen either. If you’re concerned about bursting into tears at inconvenient times, it can be helpful to find ways to seek privacy when you need to, to confide in those you trust and ask for their support. This is so that you can continue with what you feel you can reasonably manage in life and allow your grief at the same time. Tending our grief in this way can be a little bit like seeing it as a distinct entity, an energy, that calls for respect and holding. It can work to simply let it be present, to be accompanying you, to call to you for some nurturing attention when needed.

‘Cradle everything in awareness’ – Jon Kabatt-Zinn

Physical Needs in bereavement

Grieving consumes energy and often leads to us needing extra rest and sleep, sometimes surprisingly copious amounts. We might feel like we need more solitude than usual, or more company, or an unpredictable variety of the two. Similarly, we might need extra food, or a reduced amount of food or we might oscillate unpredictably between the two.
Messengers of grief

To demonstrate how we might heed the messages the emotional and physical pain is bringing us, I’ll use the example of someone we love dying as the loss we are grieving.

Firstly we need to have spent enough time on allowing our emotions and attending to our physical needs so that we begin to feel we can be a witness to what’s happening in our grief process – to simply observe. We’ll be starting to feel less reactionary and in a more still space of calmer abiding. We’ll be able to show ourselves some kindness and compassion. The hardness of grief will be transmuting to the softness of sorrow.

It’s at this this point that we might feel able to consider these three questions:

What is/was the nature of our relationship with the person who’s died and others around them and us? (When someone dies, it often alters the relationship dynamics in families, friendship and working groups.)
What, if any, unfavourable or unhelpful patterns or habits are calling to be addressed?
What actions (if any) need to be taken? How can I reshape my life accordingly?
Our answers to these questions lead us to the healthy reasons we’re feeling grief – the conscious choices we now have in how we respond and move forward. It is human to notice blame, grudge or grievance showing up in our thinking, towards ourselves or towards others. Will we respond outwardly with these, or will we see ways to proceed with love, openness, acceptance, forgiveness or renewed determination?

In letting time heal our grief, the process is not about obliterating unwelcome emotional and physical pain, but in rebuilding ourselves by recycling the original materials according to the messages our grieving brings us. It’s a process of donating ourselves to the work of grieving. This includes surrendering to the inevitable inconsolability of some aspects of what’s happened, to providing a safe holding space for it rather than letting it sabotage us: ‘This is how it is and I can continue even with that there…’ This is the transformation – the reintegration – that we call healing. Time can and does indeed heal when we’re able to use it in this way.

(Image courtesy of Takashi M on Flikr Creative Commons)