Grief: The Missing Emotion

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mourningPeople often turn to addiction as a means of coping with trauma and stresses in early life. This is true of all addictions, but it’s especially true of sex. People turn to addictive substances or behaviors when the trauma and stress of their lives are overwhelming. This often happens for kids when they don’t learn appropriate coping and self-care from their parents and other family members.

One essential practice we need, in order to deal with suffering, is to grieve. We tend to think of grieving as something we do in response to death, and don’t think of it in association with other struggles and losses in life. But grieving is necessary for dealing with any and all losses … and suffering almost always carries some aspect of loss. Many men I work with have to go through a time of grieving a variety of losses they experienced growing up: nurture they needed but didn’t get, broken promises, the loss of safety and security because of verbal and physical abuse, the loss of innocence because of sexual abuse, and the loss of friends and loved ones because of divorce, relocations, and death.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Addictive behaviors and substances are a way for us to deal with suffering and loss without having to mourn. The problem is that there’s a flip side to what Jesus says … those who mourn will be comforted, but those who don’t will most likely NOT be comforted.

People in our society will do almost anything to avoid mourning. We don’t grieve well. Listen to the following quotes from Carolyn Baker about how our society struggles to grieve.

According to the Johns Hopkins medical website, “CHF (congestive heart failure) occurs most frequently in those over age 60 and is the leading cause of hospitalization and death in that age group. In over 50% of cases, sudden death occurs due to a cardiac arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat. Unfortunately, anti-arrhythmic medications may not be effective in controlling arrhythmias caused by CHF.”

Overwhelmingly, civilized people have congested hearts. Whether speaking physiologically or metaphorically, this ailment is rampant in industrial societies where conscious, intentional, unrestrained grieving is virtually unheard of and where “bereavement leave” and other arbitrary parameters around loss dictate that we are only allowed a ridiculously brief time for grieving, if any time is allowed at all. …

As I interact with other individuals around the civilized world, I am consistently astonished at how forbidden the emotion of grief has become for us. Somehow when we feel our grief, we feel more vulnerable than when we are allowing any other emotion. Our personal and cultural histories are teaming with anti-grief messages that have convinced us that if we feel our grief: we will die; we will be too vulnerable; it means that we are being wussy when we need to be strong; there’s no point in feeling it because it doesn’t change anything; if we start feeling it we will never stop, and then will become incapacitated; and on and on ad infinitum. …

We say that we want to become resilient, but we continue to shut off the heart as if resilience is something that gets engineered in the head. In fact, if resilience doesn’t begin with the heart, we can never become authentically resilient.

What do we do about this?

So how do we become bigger people now, [and deal with challenges we face]? How do we allow grief in our bodies in a milieu that counters every attempt to do so?

First, we need to understand that grief is already present within us and all around us. All we need to do is open to it. However, we need to consciously attend to our grief and create the conditions necessary for feeling it safely and thoroughly. …

[Second, grieve with others] Create with your grief even as you commune with it. Express it in art, music, dance, storytelling, and ritual. Contrary to the model of industrial civilization, grief has never been and never will be “private.” In indigenous and ancient cultures, grief was a community issue, and people understood that the processing of accumulated sorrows was necessary for the tribe. They viewed grief as a toxin that is meant to be regularly emptied out because if it isn’t, collective grief harms the community whereas grief openly expressed heals the community.

Grief softens our hearts

Can you let your heart be broken by madness over which you have no control? Andrew Harvey says that the only heart worth having is a broken one. Why? Because as Joanna Macy notes, “the heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe.” That’s called “becoming a bigger person.” If the heart is not softened, it becomes hardened, which only perpetuates the dysfunctional paradigm of civilization [that we have created].

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