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The River of Grief: Pain That Teaches

Most of us are not very good at grieving. We deny loss, we judge emotions, we fear getting lost or stuck, or “wallowing,” or we fear judgment or unsupportiveness from others. Maybe it’s the legacy of eons of human history in which we were so exposed to disease, social chaos, natural disasters, psychological trauma, and capricious death, that we had to learn and teach our young emotional stoicism to just survive. Maybe it’s our American culture of individualism, hyper-masculine, capitalism, gladiatorial social relations. No matter what the cause, if we look inward, most of us will find a good measure of ambivalence about grief. Yet, without learning the skill of grieving, we’re left profoundly exposed to the vagaries of this life and all its losses. We must learn to be better grievers.

So, here’s how I define grief:  “Grief is the emotional process of letting go of that which is already gone.”




Although grief is an emotional process, grief itself is not an emotion.  Rather, it involves emotions and emotional states (anger, sadness, depression, numbness), but is not defined by, or limited to, any of them. Grief is not sadness. Grief is certainly not depression. Grief is the way our whole system—head, heart, and body—adjust to the present reality, in which something that we are attached to is now gone, whether that’s a person, a situation, a cherished idea, or an image of ourselves. Grief is not about the object or person we’re attached to; rather, grief is about the attachment itself. And when we can’t withdraw our attachment from what’s gone (allowing that energy to attach to something that is actually present, we will suffer).

This does not mean, though, that grief leads to callousness or forgetfulness. Actually, grief is the process by which we arrive at acceptance, and acceptance is not a state of amnesia. We don’t forget what we love (particularly true of intimates), but we are able to hold the reality of their loss without overwhelm, without an impossible burning pain, but rather, with a softer poignancy. We move from contraction, as if from a sucker punch in the gut; to expansion, to openness, to reengagement with life.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the grandmother of the field of grief studies, talked about stages of grief, but not as a fixed sequence. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance were her original categories, and they do describe the different elements of the process of grieving, or arriving at acceptance. But in grieving a loss, we can move among them, sometimes with one being stronger and more prominent than another, sometimes cycling through several, repeatedly, but inasmuch as acceptance is deepening and stabilizing, we are moving through the process. (Again, grief is the emotional process of arriving at acceptance.)

So, to describe these different “stations” of grief:

  • Denial: The numbness and shock that acts to protect, an insulating denial of the reality of loss. This can be punctuated, as when we get the terrible call about a car accident, or it can be a long stage of refusing to believe some reality, such as the fact that our mother never really gave us the emotional care we needed (where it feels impossible to give up our attachment to an image of her as a warm caretaker).
  • Anger: We start realizing the truth—we really have lost—but feel it as a violation.  Perhaps it’s anger towards a boss who crushed our dream of advancement. Maybe it’s towards our God, who would inflict such pain by taking a loved one. Or maybe it’s towards existence itself, for being so cruel and impersonal. Anger requires an object, and when we identify what seems to be the victimizing force, we hate it, trying to destroy it or get it away from us. Unlike denial, we know what it is, and recognize the loss…but someone’s going to pay for it.
  • Bargaining: We engage the what if…?” and “how about I…?” in relation to, well, reality.  “What if I am always friendly and never angry with people? Can you then give me my dream of career?” “If I make the bodhisattva vow to save everyone, will you spare me from loss?” We know what we’ve lost or are losing, but can’t allow it in as a full realization, a digested reality, so we try to find a sense of control by bargaining. When that fails—bargaining never actually works—we can go to the other stages, get furious, go to denial and conveniently “forget,” or collapse into depression, feeling, “This all is futile.”
  • Depression: The collapse in the face of the reality of loss, but without yet full openness, full integration. Depression is where we recognize our loss, and can’t let go without feeling we’ll be destroyed, and yet haven’t the energy to marshal anger, denial, or bargaining (which are all more energy intensive states). In depression, reality has flattened us, and we can’t get up.
  • Acceptance: We are able to experience the loss and not, as the martial artists would say, “lose our form.” We don’t need to do anything with the reality because it’s no longer threatening or crushing. It’s just how it is. If grief was grammar, instead of following “I’ve lost them/it” with “But!” or, “How could you?!” or, “It’s can’t be!” we simply put a period at the end. “Yes, I have lost.” Period. Nothing is left to do, nothing is left to solve, we’ve realized the truth, and gone through the twists and turns to settle into an open acceptance (not resignation). We still feel, though. We may feel the pain, the sadness, and it may go on for some time—with profound attachments, we may end a long life with the poignant feelings—but are not essentially affected. Personally, I’ve grieved the 9/11 attacks, and yet when I remember it, I always feel a pang and teariness. But unlike my reactions right afterwards, I don’t need to do anything about those pains. I, as it were, am able to “keep my form.”

When grief is viewed, or taught, as a thing rather than a process, a process that starts somewhere and moves to a resolution, we get a distorted view and can’t recognize the the directionality, the current, of the process, of the movement from pain to poignancy, from contraction to acceptance.

I think of the image of the underground river and lake to understand this nature of grief.  At the lake, the water seems still, and cold, and dark (if you’ve been in a deep cave, you know how profoundly dark it can get), and unmoving.  It seems that if you get in, that’s all you’re going to experience, forever. Especially if you get a bad guidebook which says, “Endless lake, no outlet, strongly advise short dips only or death may result,” you’re not going to feel safe to dive in, even if there’s no other possible route out of the cave. You’ll stay on the shore, shivering.

But what grief actually is, is a river that, yes, is very dark at the lake origin (of sadness, pain, depression, incredulity, numbness), but which has a current that pulls out, through dark caverns, then out into the sunshine and openness. True, sometimes we can get stuck.  Sometimes we seem to be back in the same place. And we keep hitting rocks and sharp edges, inevitably. But grief is not static.

Our hearts and bodies know how to adapt to reality if we let them, i.e., to grieve. This requires us to brave letting ourselves down into that cold, seemingly uncertain water—to allow us to feel all the feelings, to give up control of the experience—and to use our heads to support (rather than sabotage) the process, by shouting encouragements from the shore, by collecting allies, by reminding your grieving self that there really is an outlet, and that the process is how you actually get to an acceptance that allows you to fully engage your life, not as it must be, but as it is.


Marty Cooper

Marty Cooper

Marty Cooper specializes in working with depression and anxiety. He helps clients gain insight but also practice skills for overcoming depression and anxiety.

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