When I wake up in the morning, it always occurs to me that I may die that day. I don't expect to live. I don't demand that I live. And, I do not feel that I have a right to live because life is a gift.
I have come to accept that life itself does not end when my life ends. I've been alive long enough so I appreciate that now is the time for the next generation to blossom. I don't want society's resources to funnel into keeping my particular life going, as blessed as I am. I recognize that there are stages in one's life, no matter how able medical technology is to keep us going in what should be our last stage.
I got this way because of what I learned as a griever. The nature of grief is a topic in thanatology that I teach and it draws upon various theories in psychology that explain it as a "process." I know all about the different kinds of grief that are written about (complicated, disenfranchised, dysfunctional, etc.) and the many techniques to address them. I am aware of the various programs at esteemed institutes of higher learning that address the conundrums of grief and the sorrows of the griever. However, what I write about in this column is what I have come to learn as a practitioner of grief, not as an educator. There is a difference.
I came to the art of grief unwillingly at first but have since embraced it as how to be in the world. At age 35, there was the death of my 2-month-old daughter; at age 47, the death of my beloved husband; and two years ago, the suicide death of my mother. You can say that I am initiated.
For those of you familiar with the five stages of grief as defined by Elizabeth Kubler Ross, this column is a departure. I agree that it often takes the death of a loved one, news of a terminal diagnosis, or any of the myriad ways in which we experience sudden loss to trigger grief. I do not agree that grief is a series of stages whose ultimate purpose is acceptance, as found in the Ross model. Nor do I view death itself as a catastrophic event to battle.
Grief, for me, is much greater than personal loss.
While grief is suffering and heartache that can be unendurable when it is acute, it is experienced because of the depth of our love and attachment to others, ourselves, our ancestors, our earth, and our culture. It is the rug pulled out from beneath our accustomed order and control of things. Grief is an authentic expression of that which makes us human. It is not just a reaction or feeling to loss that comes and then eventually goes. It is instead a current in our lives that takes into account our awareness of our mortality. Grief is an acknowledgment of the way things are — that we are born knowing that our lives are finite yet what is asked of us is to live fully. Grief is an accurate witness to life.
The problem with grief is certainly not grief itself but when the goal is to fix it as if it's a malady and to learn nothing from it except how best to medicate it. Grief becomes poison when we fear expressing it and instead hide it, deny it, and apologize for it. Ungrieved grief turns into depression and a numbness to our own suffering and to the suffering to others. Finally, the absence of acknowledged grief creates a global crisis such as the one we find ourselves in today.