The Hidden Lesson of Grief


I’ve been thinking about grief ever since my last post about the loss of my dog, Bear. I kept wiping away tears as I wrote it, then again when I read and responded to the kind comments I received. Where do these tears come from? Is this only about missing Bear or is something else going on? These questions remind me of something the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard once said: that much of the grief we feel when someone dies is for ourselves.
This feels profound and somehow comforting. But what does it mean? Consider this: loss and loneliness are about how we feel. The one who’s gone isn’t hurting any more. It’s we who are hurting, and we don’t like pain. Is Kierkegaard saying some of our grief is self-pity?  Because something we love has been taken from us and we will never derive pleasure from it again?
Could some of our grief also come from anger at forces over which we have no control which have arbitrarily taken something we want and love away from us? Don’t we express our outrage in words like, “Why did you leave me? Why do I have to go through this pain? It’s not fair!”
And doesn’t much of our pain come from regret and guilt too? Perhaps we think we weren’t grateful or present enough to the one we loved.  Or sometimes we were selfish, impatient or angry. Or didn’t try hard enough to understand and communicate.  Or weren’t giving enough.
I find Kierkegaard’s insight comforting, partly because it reassures me that everyone experiences similar feelings, and partly because this knowledge gives me things to do that make my loss easier to bear. I can’t bring Bear back to life, but I can feel sympathy for my ego whose desires have been thwarted. I can stop beating myself up for being angry when he had accidents on my rugs, or for sometimes taking his unconditional love for granted. And I can start looking for the unconscious factors which are prolonging my grief.
My tears are messages from my body and psyche that I am suffering. As Nisargadatta says, “Suffering is due entirely to clinging or resisting; it is a sign of unwillingness to move on, to flow with life.” Apparently I don’t believe I deserve release, joy and forgiveness.  Apparently I don’t love my whole self. This is the hidden lesson of grief, and learning it can help me move on.
The next time I cry I can ask myself: What am I resisting?  To what am I clinging? Do I cling to my Orphan’s self-pity because her sadness brings me sympathy? Do I like my Warrior’s anger and self-criticism because they make me feel wise, stoic and tough? Does feeling guilty make me believe I am a responsible, caring person?  Do I need these grief-inducing ego-boosters in order to believe I am worthy of love? And the big question:  can I accept my dysfunction as a natural by-product of the human condition and forgive and love myself anyway?
Lest we be tempted to believe we’re being self-indulgent to take our inner lives so seriously, we can remember these wise words from Parker Palmer: “Self-care is never a selfish act, it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others.  Anytime we can listen to our true self, and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.”

Join 5,851 other subscribers


0 Responses

  1. This is profound, Jean, and very timely for me as well. I’m conducting a workshop on forgiveness and find your words to land squarely on the nail’s head. When we close our hearts in anger, it is we who suffer from the pain and in clinging to a need to be right about our choice to deny love to another, we deny it most of all to ourselves.
    Your wisdom shines brightly and I thank you for these marvelous insights.
    So sorry for the loss of your beloved Bear. Our pets are like family and losing them hurts as much as losing a family member. May your heart be held in peace and love.

    1. Thank you, Judith. Your comment makes me want to explore the connections between grief and forgiveness, both of self and of others. Anger and self-righteousness do seem to be common factors to both don’t they? Our egos seem to love them both so much despite the suffering they cause us.
      People seem to have always had trouble forgiving others, but the resistance to forgiving ourselves seems unusually pervasive these days. Maybe the collective ego is finally awakening to its shadow and in its shame is punishing itself! Maybe this is a natural, intermediary step in the evolution of the psyche. Maybe the self-induced pain and self-loathing will eventually bring us to an awakening to the Beloved, or Sacred Self within whose love for us is unconditional. Perhaps having once felt that love our need to deny love and forgiveness to ourselves and others will begin to fall away.
      Good luck with your workshop on forgiveness. Wish I could be a fly on the wall. I know I’d come away inspired, as I always do when I read one of your posts.

  2. Hi Jean, Our dog Daisy woke me up to go outside and while I waited I read your thought-provoking post. Please look for a story in your emial today since my fb messaging is down. Here are 3 reasons why I think we grieve. The first is for the same reason it rains (and I’m not simply trying to wax poetic) (well, at least not completely). When I was in the throes of grieving over the abuse the grief was guttural, visceral—my whole body wept. And at its height it racked me like a relentless storm. And during those times when it trickled to a gentle rain, I would find myself wanting to read everything I could on sexual and physical abuse. My intellect valiantly tried to attach thoughts to the feelings. This was a natural, comforting act. It brought relief by shifting the weight off my soul and up to my head. It drew the grief from my body to my mind which, like a faithful dog, tried to ease my suffering by helping me try to make sense of it. In a strange way, trying to figure it out is a kind of play, and the dog’s I’ve been around when I’m sad would sometimes sit quietly by my side, but other times they would wag their tails and want to play—dog play therapy…And while my mind creatively (and by that I mean beautifully and wisely) tried to come up with reasons for the grief—lost innocence, violation, massive betrayal (the main abuse happened at a family reunion), ultimately I grieved because it was the good and natural thing to do—like rain when the conditions are ripe for rain. It just rains…The soul is wise, and when it needed a break from the pain it asked the mind to carry the load and when the load got too heavy for the mind, mind asked the body to bear it, and when my body couldn’t take it, it cast the burden on my heart, and of course, my heart broke. Which brings me to the second reason—while some of us cry alone (private grief is very healing) grieving draws people together just as drops of rain seek to form one puddle. There is a magical, magnetic power in our tears. When we witness someone else crying we are moved to tears. We automatically move to embrace—to touch hearts—literally touch chests—trying to merge hearts into one. For grieving draws souls together. Lastly, I think we cry because of the moon. Really. Just as the moon draws the tides, and draws water from the soil to the roots of the trees, sometimes the moon draws waves of tears from our hearts hoping we will linger long enough to find treasures on the shore of our suffering, hoping we will bloom into a weeping cherry tree with soft, pink blossoms, each petal a transformed tear. ( Oh dear, the story’s trying to come out here, I’d better go.) To sum up quickly, I may not always know why I am crying—sometimes the tears seem senseless, almost silly (we cry when we laugh after all) and so sometimes I need to know I may be crying because of some hidden pain, or because of the moon, the rainy season, or simply because I am lonely and seeking comfort—and all of these reasons are known as wisdom. Cheers and thanks for sharing your wonderfully insightful post. Please forgive the length of my comment. Joseph

    1. Hi Joseph,
      Your sharing of your experience with grief shows me that there are different ways of experiencing and working with grief depending on what causes it. For example, your grief was caused by physical abuse; mine by the death of my dog. Hence, your body and physical imagery, such as rain, the heart, the moon, a cherry tree, played enormous roles in your grief and healing. In my loss of Bear, tears were the only physical manifestion and the bulk of my work centered around exploring parts of my psyche that had experienced loss in the past: especially my little wounded orphan, whose father died when she was eleven and who has felt very sorry for herself ever since. It’s interesting, however, that despite the different reasons for our grief and the different ways we experienced them, we both came up with the healing image of a child! That’s archetypal! There are many paths to the same destination.
      Thank you again for your thoughtful and always creative contributions.
      Blessings to you,

  3. Wonderful, thought-provoking post, Jean, and relatable to almost everyone. When someone’s life is snuffed out and cut short I believe the grief is both selfish and sympathetic for the one who will not realize all of what life offers. When it is one who is in a suffering state. I can say clearly that it is a selfish grief, which by the way I believe is a normal reaction. The “human condition” you speak of is fraught with limitations, selfishness, self-pity, anger, a basic mistrust of the cycle of life and its twists and turns, but most of all a general dysfunction caused by that which we can never fully understand and resolve or reconcile in our minds. I try not to beat myself up over that which I cannot comprehend but like you, my guilt takes over in an attempt to hijack my inner self – it’s an ongoing battle to keep the wolf from the door. But somehow we go on… with “time on earth” being the teacher that lessens our pain so we have the strength to face the next inevitable crisis. The times between these crises are when we have to enjoy life…and there is much to enjoy.
    R.I.P. Bear, you were a source of joy to anyone you touched!

  4. Hi John,
    I love your comment: “It’s an ongoing battle to keep the wolf from the door.” That’s perfect!! And you’re right: time on earth, experience, growth, just keeping on keeping on, does lessen the pain and remind us to enjoy. The Buddhists have a saying that our goal is “joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.” That seems to me to sum it up pretty well. The major lesson I’m getting from that just now is to allow myself to feel all the joy that comes my way without losing my compassion for my suffering or that of others.
    Thanks for your sweet eulogy to Bear: he was indeed a source of joy to all he touched.
    In gratitude for your kind and thoughful heart,

  5. Perhaps you read the story a woman wrote on my blog My Brother:Forever Young. Here’s what I wrote as an intro:
    A reader, Vicki, sent me a note recently. She said she was writing a story about her brother, Billy, but was experiencing great difficulty. She wrote, “I want to do this, but it’s so painful. I’m having trouble seeing through my tears.”
    I told Vicki that I’d had a similar experience writing about a loved one. I’d learned that I needed to absorb the grief, experience it fully, accept it as a living part of me, rather than fight it.
    “I learned that the tears are the answer not the problem, Vicki. Let the tears flow. Follow them. Those tears will take you to the deepest place in your heart where lay the most profound love you feel for your brother, Billy. I wish for you a lifetime of tears.”

  6. Hi Charlie,
    I did read that story; and enjoyed it very much.
    Following the tears to the deepest places in your heart is such wise advice. Tears are indeed the evidence of our deep love, empathy, compassion and caring as well as of our self-pity, anger, guilt and regret; and, as you say, they are the way to healing. In my experience, it was so easy to love Bear, but difficult to love myself. So lately, I’ve been following my tears to the painful feelings which have been blocking the love for myself that still waits for me in deep places I have yet to discover.
    Best, Jeanie

  7. Very special. How often I give my “suffering” weight and meaning, as if to make my life more substantive. What permission these insights give us to live free and light…and still be substantive. Not to say that grief and other modes of self-indulgence do not have their place and healing comforts, especially in community, but to stay aware and present to our limits is a powerful way to live. Beautiful.

    1. Hi Beverly,
      I’m sorry for not getting your comment and my response published in a more timely manner. It was a technological oversight which I just discovered!
      I thought your comment was very wise and thought-provoking and I thank you for it. I’m so glad you saw these insights as permission to live free and light. I love that. That’s how I understood Kierkegaard too. And yes, grief and suffering can be very self-indulgent, but I believe that with awareness we can transform them into compassion for ourselves and others. That is, indeed, “a powerful way to live.”
      A sincere thank you for your kind words,

Leave a Reply to Charles R. HaleCancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Recent Posts