Gaining The Courage To Grieve

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Mortality is the fundamental source of dread for human beings, the spring from which existential anxiety flows. And when a loved one passes away we’re forced to confront mortality, whether we want to or not.

But many of us resort to a clever but ultimately destructive strategy for dealing with our loss and all that painful accompanying existential anxiety, and this strategy is to refuse to grieve, to refuse to go through the terrifying process that ends with saying goodbye forever.

We refuse to grieve because as long as we remain in some level of denial around what has happened we reduce the painful existential anxiety cued off by the full realization of mortality. Instead we stay in a sort of psychological and emotional limbo where of course we ‘know’ that our loved one has passed away but we continue to rail against full acceptance of this fact. We refuse to surrender to the reality of mortality.

But mental health is a function of feeling whole in our lives, of feeling capable of approaching people and the world with all of our attention and all of our being. Unfinished business, which is exactly what an important loss that hasn’t been grieved is, interferes with our ability to approach the world with the whole of our being.

We don’t feel like we can say goodbye because we don’t want to deal with finality. Not just the finality of the death of our loved one but the fact that one day in the not too distant future we will die too, that one day in the not too distant future everyone we have ever known and loved will die. This thought is terrifying and tragic, it fills us with a deep seated dread, it shakes us at the very core of our being. It makes us question whether life has any meaning. It makes us question the inherent fairness of existence. It makes us question what we’re doing with our own lives. It makes us question if we’re in the right relationships, the right career, the right place, the right time.

At the unconscious level many of us decide it’s better to just not grieve, better to not bring all those uncomfortable questions into conscious awareness where we’ll have to grapple with them. We secretly worry that if we do confront these things squarely and honestly we’ll be overwhelmed by them, we’ll drown in them, we’ll never find our way back to land. So instead we live a sort of half here-half there existence where we don’t feel complete, where we constantly deal with a sort of low-grade psychic and emotional pain that keeps us from fully embracing life with all its opportunities and possibilities.

Gaining the courage to grieve can start with the dual realizations that mortality is an unavoidable fact of life whether we want it to be or not and that our loved one would surely want something better for us than sleepwalking through our lives due to not being able to let go of how things were. To make way for how things really are we have to let go of how they were. The fear of drowning in a sea of sorrow if we do fully enter into the grieving process is unfounded. Actually by not grieving we slowly drown in a sea of sorrow over the days, weeks, months, and years. The leap of faith is believing that there is healing on the other side of grief. And there is, we just have to gain the courage to walk that path.