Grief comes to us when we lose something that we cherish. It could be a loved one, it could be a marriage. We grieve when we lose a highly-regarded job; we suffer when we experience a massive financial loss. Perhaps we lose what we feel is a powerful position in life; maybe it’s our celebrity that is lost, or it could be a group of friends in which we were the central figure. Whatever it is that we hold in high esteem, whatever we possess that gives us a greater sense of self-worth, when we lose it, we are stricken by grief. And the kind of grief that we suffer speaks volumes about our dysfunctional thoughts.
There are many who suffer one or more of the major setbacks that I’ve mentioned above, and who do not allow themselves to go through the grief process. Instead, they ‘soldier on’, keeping a ‘stiff upper lip’, refusing to acknowledge the pain of their loss. In doing this, they internalize a ferocious series of emotions that create havoc in the body, resulting in ill-health. And not only have these people denied themselves a healthy life; they have also turned their backs on a deeply transformative process that, while intensely painful, is also the key to a profoundly liberating awareness of life.
Grief, as I learned through the loss of my son, is not everything it seems to be at first glance. We tend to attribute our suffering only to the loss of someone or something dear, but I found out that the traumatic events of the present have sinister links to the past. Grief, it turns out, is the dark force that takes you on an inner journey of spiritual transformation. Take my own story as an example.
For a long time, in my own mind, I existed in the shadows that my family cast. My husband Lance, my son, my daughter; all of them were shining lights and I held them high on a pedestal. I’d always wanted children like Zak and Annabel, the confident type, the kind who walked to the beat of their own inner drummer. Lance had always exuded confidence, and at the beginning of our relationship, I found it intimidating. Personal power in other people seemed to have that effect on me; I’d shrink inwardly, and wish I wasn’t afraid all the time. I was proud of my family, but it was an unhealthy pride; it was one that looked upon them as something I could never be. I felt small compared to them. They were perfect, strong, they belonged in the world. They had something to offer, they stood out. When we were all together when the children were young, there were times when I hung out on the sidelines, watching them play, watching them talk. In those moments, I didn’t feel like I was one of them. I felt fortunate to be in a family like this, and deep down I ‘knew’ in my heart that I’d ‘simply struck lucky’. That small invisible girl just happened to get noticed by someone special, and luckily her kids turned out to be like him.
It took a long time to mentally move out of the shadows. By taking on some very difficult life challenges, delving into my inner life, and succeeding in ways I never thought possible, things got better for me. I developed into a corporate trainer and ran my own company. I became a metaphysical teacher, a healer and a writer, and my self-confidence grew in spades. I began to feel worthy of my family members and I even began to take credit for their emotional and spiritual health. Things were going well for me. I was healed of my past. Or so I thought.
In May of 2007, when my 21 year-old son died in a car accident, all the lights went out in my world. I didn’t cope well at all. For three and a half years, I teetered precariously on the brink of suicide. I suffered panic attacks, depression and I wouldn’t participate in family events, I refused to go out, and I was angry with everything and everyone. I lost all interest in anything of this world. I completely lost all sense of who I was as a person. My heart and soul were so heavy, I could barely get up every morning, and every waking moment found me obsessed with death. As it turned out, I suffered from all the symptoms of what the psychology profession calls complicated grief.
According to research, the majority of people who have lost a loved one through death or divorce, or have lost a revered life-style, experience normal grief and bereavement; they undergo a period of deep sorrow, numbness, anger, and in some cases, guilt. These feelings fade, however, after a few months of acute mourning, and though people in this category continue to be sad, and deeply miss their loved one, they find themselves able to accept their loss and somehow find a way to move forward in life.
However, in 15-20% of cases, the grief reaction is much more intense; it is painful and debilitating and so severe, that it totally disrupts the person’s normal functioning in everyday life. Complicated grieving, I must point out here, does not in any way indicate a greater love for the deceased, a divorced spouse or a greater appreciation for a lifestyle that is lost. What it does indicate however, is a need to confront an important issue, a need to acknowledge a former loss.
In my case, every aspect of my grief was tied up with my past. I lost my childhood innocence at a very young age, and in my teenage years had become a parent to my young brother and sister. My parents were completely wrapped up in their own marital dramas and neglected their duties as full time carers to their children. These issues had major implications in my life as an adult, and more importantly they had created a road barrier in the spiritual journey that I was taking. Just before Zak’s death, I had reached an impasse in my spiritual life. My journey had shuddered to a halt, leaving me bereft. In losing my son, I was forced to confront the issues that stood in the way.
Losing Zak had opened up every sealed compartment in my mind, and had dragged out every demon that had found refuge in obscurity. I learned through my grief why I’d hidden in the shadows of my family. I discovered why I was so mistrustful of life. I realized through the grief process that as insightful as I had become, I would unconsciously refuse to listen to my own inner voice or trust my widening perceptions. Through losing Zak and going back to my past, I began to see through different eyes. All illusion fell away and I started to see the truth about life, and who I was beyond the physical, the emotional and the mental planes of existence.
At the physical level, I learned that I mourned the loss of Zak for some very unhealthy reasons. I’d had him on a pedestal; he was popular, well-loved by everyone and talented in many ways. I’d basked in his reflected glory, and when he was gone, felt small, useless and empty of grace. The carpet was pulled out from under me. Through his death, I was forced to see my own light, and recognize my own achievements. Out of the shadows, the light revealed to me how much I was loved and needed by those around me, how my role in life was a critical link in life’s intricate chain.
Complicated grief is an issue for many people who suffer from lack of self-love. When we cling to an external source to validate our existence, whether it is a person, or a lifestyle, the loss will leave us reeling. The loss will bring us to our knees, empty us, and when the time is right, the grief will take us to a place where we reconnect with our authentic selves.
Complicated grief is purposeful. A troubled past is one that has a voice. It speaks to us of ideas we were burdened by and ideas about the self that need to die. Who we were then, is tied up with who we are now. The death of those we love or the death of a way of life is finely interwoven into the fabric of the past, present and future. Grieving is a healthy process, albeit a terrible one. It reconnects us with the spirit of life, it opens our eyes and it renews the soul. If you’ve lost something important to you, allow yourself to grieve. It will be the healing of you.