Healthy grieving may seem an unusual concept; yet it is a vital life skill, and an important stepping stone to wisdom.
On July 3rd my beloved pet Golden Doodle of 12 years passed into her next life. I knew it was coming. I had been preparing for it for some time as she went into heart failure and slowed down. I was conscious about how much it was going to hurt and how much I would miss her. This was not a surprise. And yet, still it sits in my body with a dense heaviness of what my family calls “missingness,” so much so that it’s almost unbearable at times. Grief can fill the body with fatigue, exhaustion, and a lack of motivation to go on with life at times. There is a Buddhist principle that I believe is missing from our culture that would help all of us grieve well if we knew that death was actually a part of life:
Everything you love you will lose.
Everything that lives must die.
It’s so simple. It’s elegant. It’s absolutely without a doubt true, and helps make the experience of healthy grieving so much more accessible. So why don’t we teach this to our children in our society? It would help to align expectations with reality. It would alleviate feelings of, “why me?”; “they were taken too soon,” “this wasn’t supposed to happen this way,” “it’s not fair,” and on and on. These are the statements I have heard in my 30+ years in the medical field as a hospice and ICU nurse, as a primary care provider in family practice, and as an end-of-life doula. We hate loving and losing, and we hate that death “cheats” us from our dreams of ongoing happiness with our loved ones.
In the Mayan culture, it’s said that cancer, autoimmunity, pain, and tumors are “petrified sorrow.” If you were in a village in Guatemala, you would consider it your responsibility as a member of the community to “witness” the sorrow of your fellow community members. “Liquifying sorrow” is the role grief plays through tears and the expression of sadness, pain, despair, loneliness, longing, missingness, and fear. What a beautiful way of coming together to make sure grief doesn’t cause disease in the form of petrified sorrow. This is the art and science of healthy grieving.
Sophie, my beautiful companion, passed in just such a way. All of my children and their partners and some wonderful family friends flew in and were present with her during her last days on the planet. On her last day, I woke up and spent the day making sure she was able to be with all who loved her and all she loved and giving her the experiences she loved in this life. We took her to Lime Kiln State Park and she poked around slowly saying goodbye to her favorite haunt while her younger brother and sister chased each other up and down the hills, through the forest and into the water. At the end, she connected with each and every loved one present with such love and devotion she unified all of our hearts as one. We buried her in a grave we dug, wrapped in a shroud we chose, covered with flowers we placed with memories of what she meant to each of us. Her sister got down into the grave and spent some time with her. Her brother stood guard on a rock nearby, holding a safe space for us to grieve. We built a cairn for her that we added a rock to each time we returned from one of her favorite hikes or places in nature. She surrounds us with memories and love shared.
The day after she passed, my husband and I took the other two dogs for our usual morning walk and stood on the trail at various times holding each other and sobbing. It was cathartic. It was liquifying our sorrow. It is moving our grief from within to without. “Better out than in.” When I can manage it, I will print some of the photos I very intentionally took as she was failing and make a collage for our wall. We will have a “Sophie” ornament Christmas tree this year with photo ornaments of her life with us. We will continue to share our memories with each other of love and laughter and allow the tears to flow so they don’t solidify internally.
When I run my deep immersion trauma healing retreats, I have found that this is a large reason they are so powerfully healing. The gathering of men and women in a group to rewire the brain, reframe old stories of pain, and clear trauma is actually a process of “witnessing the sorrow of the community.” This process of relating to the story of another in a way that helps you realize that every story is actually yours, is healing. It’s community building. It’s health promoting. Crying into a pillow at night and soldiering on with a brave face is actually the agreement our culture has created. Everyone has a short window of time that their tears are tolerated, but not truly witnessed in a way that says, “your story is my story, and I too can feel what you feel.” That is validation, and it comes with a tremendous power granted to the person being witnessed as well as to the witnesses.
During this month of independence, I invite you to witness anything that you have lost and check in with your body to see if it needs to be “liquefied.” If you find something that needs to be released, please seek out support for having it witnessed, so you can release it fully. If you want some expert guidance for trauma release, you can join me in our September Deep Immersion Retreat. There you will build community that will fill this role for you for the rest of your life. It is critical for all of us to rediscover the art of healthy grieving.
So much love,