Why We Grieve and How to Alleviate the Grief
We all try to make the right choices in our lives. We work to create abundance and happiness, but despite our best efforts—flawed though they always are—sometimes we encounter consequences or just apparently random events that bring us to our knees. Despite all we can do, still we are affected by the death of those we love, our own sickness, divorce, natural disasters, financial reversals, the incomprehensibly wayward choices of a child, and more. In short, life can be very hard and confusing.
Many people become mired in the mud of grief, where they marinate into a condition of bitterness from which they often do not recover. What can we do in the face of loss and grief? How can we feel our pain without being overwhelmed by it?
Let’s look at why we grieve, and how we can benefit from our understanding. I will discuss some of the causes of our grief, and then how we can address the causes so we are not consumed by the pain.
CAUSES OF GRIEF
1. A Loss of Imitation Love.
The vast majority of us live in a world where the buying, selling, and trading of Imitation Love is the norm. This trading is so common that we don’t even recognize that it’s happening. We never achieve genuine happiness with this arrangement, but we do find some temporary relief of our pain, which results from a lifetime of insufficient Real Love.
In a world of Imitation Love, everyone around us becomes a potential trading partner, and we use them diligently if unconsciously. We weave an intricate web of such partners, all to sustain our survival, and if one of these sources suddenly vanishes—someone dies, we’re fired from our job, and so on—the balance is disturbed. Our pain increases, and we grieve over our loss.
Just as Imitation Love is a counterfeit of Real Love, so grief has its counterfeits. Unconditional love is relatively uncommon, so most of our connections with people are a matter of trading Imitation Love. In those cases “grief” can be little more than a sense of desperate loss of a “dealer” in Imitation Love, much like a drug addict who literally “grieves” the loss of his drug.
I know a man whose “happiness” came solely from money and power. When markets changed, and he lost nearly all his money, his grief was harsh and deep. It was “only” a loss of Imitation Love, but it was all he had.
I know a woman, Margaret, who had a terrible relationship with her mother. The mother was constantly critical and controlling toward Margaret, but even though Margaret hated that treatment, it also gave her a sense of identity—she was “important” to her mother—and an infusion of energy from all the drama. This emotional energy—sick though it always was—was a significant part of life for Margaret, who had very little connection with any other people. When her mother died, Margaret grieved sincerely. She simultaneously hated and “loved” being with her mother, so when her mother died, she grieved the loss of what she valued—however distorted that sense of value was.
2. Gain of Victimhood
Most people have no source of Real Love in their lives. In their pain, they reach out for whatever source of Imitation Love they can find, using whatever Getting and Protecting Behaviors enable them. Acting like a victim is a powerful behavior that harvests a crop of power, attention, drama, emotional energy, sympathy, and more.
Victimhood is so common in the world that it has become accepted as normal, and those who perfect the act are highly regarded, almost worshiped. If you pick up trash on the side of the road, contributing both to the beauty and possibly safety of the community, you’re likely to receive no notice at all. But if you scream that you were injured (especially if blood is visible), treated unfairly, or suffered the arrows of bigotry, you’ll have the sympathy and even the honors of a great many people—largely dependent on the involvement of the media.
So most of us work at being victims—using a broad variety of tools, some so subtle that we are never discovered. We revel in it. We enjoy the sympathy and other forms of attention. Thus motivated, nearly everything becomes a justification for our victimhood. We complain about the traffic, our bosses, our spouses, our children, our coworkers, and more. Watch victims in a group, and they actually COMPETE for who is the biggest victim. “You had a hip replacement? I’ve had BOTH of mine replaced.” “You have a child who whines? My child is a drug addict and hasn’t called me in six months.”
The bigger our pain, or the greater our loss, the more we push ourselves to the center of the victim stage, and certain events tend to win the prize we seek. If a family member has died, or we have cancer, or we’re embroiled in a bitter divorce, our trauma is highly visible and undeniable, so our victimhood is raised nearly to a state of exaltation. Now everyone MUST honor us for our loss and pain. If we loudly and longly grieve, we expand and prolong the rewards of victimhood, so it’s very tempting to grieve in order to get these forms of Imitation Love.
I am NOT saying that everyone grieves for selfish reasons, but an element of this is involved much more commonly than most would suppose.
3. Loss of Hope for What Might Have Been
Susanne called me in tears to say that it was the first anniversary of her mother’s death.
“Susanne,” I said, “I know you’re sad. Do you want to stay sad, or would you like to understand your sadness in a way that could help you get out of it?”
“I guess I would like to understand it.”
“I remember getting phone calls from you a year before your mother died. You said that she criticized you, argued with you, and made you feel bad about yourself—all the time, every time you talked. You hated it, and you asked me how you could make it all stop.”
“I don’t think it was that bad.”
“If you want to change the story in your head, you can, but I was there when you told me all that—on many occasions. There’s no doubt about the truth. You hated every minute you spent with her—in your words.”
“Then why am I sad?”
“Many times you told me how you WISHED your mother could be different. You wished you could figure out how to have a relationship with her. You wished that right up until she died, but when she died, your wishes died with her. You’re not sad about what you lost, because you really hated what you had with her, but you are sad that now your dreams are dead. You’ll never—at least in this lifetime—have the relationship with her that you hoped was possible.”
The fears flowed again. “You’re right. She’s gone, and now I can never feel from her what I always wanted.”
For some people, their sadness at a time of loss—their grief—is largely about their guilt:
“If I’d done more to take care of her, she wouldn’t have died.”
“I was so stupid. I made so many mistakes. If I hadn’t, we wouldn’t be going through this bankruptcy.”
“My last words to him were unkind. And then he was dead. Oh, how I wish I could take that moment back.”
“I saw the warning signs, but I didn’t pay attention, and now I have no job.”
“I just didn’t see this divorce coming, but now I realize how blind I was. I could have prevented this. I feel so bad, and now there’s nothing I can do.”
5. A Loss of Real Love
When we are truly connected emotionally and spiritually to another person, the power of that connection is unspeakable. They become part of us, and we of them. Our relationship is a manifestation of—even proof of—Real Love. How, then, could we be that emotionally connected and not experience a sense of loss when that person dies? Impossible. So when someone we genuinely love dies, grief is unavoidable. There is a pure sadness that is to be fully experienced. It actually enriches us, confirming the depths of the connection we had.
One clue to which kind of grieving we’re experiencing is the duration. If we wallow excessively—who can know how long “excessive” is?—we prove that what we had with the departed soul was not a genuine connection but the loss of a drug. Why? Because if we were capable of such an unconditionally loving connection, we also possess the maturity to soon focus that loving power on others, for their benefit.
Grief can be healthy, but it can also become debilitating. Many people wallow in grief—deep and long—to the point where they can’t function, can’t have relationships, and can’t talk about anything else. What can be done to diminish the depth and duration of grief?
1. An Understanding of the Causes of Grief
See the earlier story about Susanne. Once Susanne understood the real cause of her grief, she was able to let go of the sadness fairly quickly, much faster than she would have without that understanding.
And so it works as people understand the other causes of grief. If people recognize that their grief has a cause other than the loss of Real Love, they also realize that their grief is often selfish, based on lies, and unproductive. At that point the “other” causes uniformly lose much or all of their power to prolong the grief.
2. Finding and Trusting Love
Rita came to me in utter despair after the loss of her mother. Her grief was profound enough that she was not in a rational state, so unconsciously I chose not to initiate a discussion of the potential causes of her grief.
I sat next to her and simply hugged her gently, without words, for many minutes. Her body progressively relaxed, her sobbing slowed and then stopped, and her breathing became deep and regular.
Finally, I asked, “Rita, in this moment—without thinking—how sad are you?”
She lifted her brow in a moment of surprised realization before she answered, “I’m not.”
“Hmmm,” I said. “How DO you feel?”
“There’s a lesson here. When we feel loved and peaceful, our feelings of pain—sadness, guilt, grief, whatever—tend to evaporate. Without thinking about it.”
The instant we focus on loss, we’re feeling both the pain of the present and—more prominently—terrified of a future that is filled with the pain of now. This fear is deadly.
"If you cry because the sun has gone out of your life, your tears will prevent you from seeing the stars." Rabindranath Tagore
We can’t change the future, but we can change how we feel right now, which changes our view of the future. If we’re in pain now, we can reach out for the love that dispels sadness and heals wounds, and when we’re at peace, our fear of the future disappears.
Our grief is about ourselves. It’s about feeling alone or guilty or robbed or whatever. It’s about OUR loss of a person or potentially desirable condition. John Donne the poet was referring to the European custom of ringing the church bells when someone died in the village when he said, “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” In almost all cases, we grieve for ourselves. We simply feel unloved and alone.
The solution, then, becomes pretty obvious. We need to feel loved, and Real Love from any source can be healing. We need to find it and then trust it. Some people, however, bury themselves so deeply in grief that they won’t—or cannot—accept love. All you can do is offer it to them. So, instead of saying the usual meaningless phrases to one who has suffered the death of a loved one—“I’m so sorry for your loss”—offer love:
Touch her gently on the arm.
Hug him, meaningfully.
Say, “How are YOU doing?”
Say, “What can I do for YOU?”
People need us to demonstrate a real concern for their happiness. Ask them how they’re doing. TELL them that you have no agenda. We have a tendency to tell people how they feel. We tend to say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” assuming that they even feel a loss. How could we know that? The other person might actually feel a large measure of RELIEF at their spouse’s death. They might have suffered through a contentious relationship for 45 years, and now they’re relieved by the “loss.” I’ve met a lot of people in that situation.
We demonstrate real caring when we ask people how they feel. Give them a chance to talk about it. Ask them what concerns they have. You might discover, for example—I’ve made similar discoveries many times—that her primary concern is how the lawn will now be mowed. You might know a neighbor kid she could hire. Ask her if there is ANYTHING you could do to help. Could you clean house for a week? I know a young mother whose most powerful memory at the time of her husband’s death was a neighbor who came over and simply said, “I’m here to polish all your children’s shoes.” He knew that was something that had to be done before the funeral, and it was something the mother wouldn’t have the emotional energy for.
As you ASK people how they feel and what they need with no agenda, you’ll learn a lot. And mostly, they’ll feel your love. We are not responsible to make someone’s grief go away. If our goal is to “make” someone feel better—as “good” as that sounds—we have an agenda for ourselves, and they’ll feel that. It is our job only to love. We can’t eliminate people’s grief, but we CAN hold their hand while they’re experiencing it, and that can make a big difference.
It’s always about Real Love. Why is this so, especially in the case of grief? Because grief is simply a form of fear—fear of loss, fear of pain—and nothing eliminates fear like love.
When people suffer a loss—by death, or financial misfortune, or whatever—they tend to generalize their suffering to a belief that they’ll never be whole again, never happy. It does not work to simply tell people that they need to be grateful. But you can help them get there, and the same principle can be useful to you in your own grief.
Again I’ll use the example of Susanne above. What I said to her above was helpful, but I also talked to her on a subsequent occasion.
“I still miss her,” she said.
“I believe you,” I replied. “Why did you call me?”
“I feel better when I call you.”
“You care about me.”
“Yes, I do. Anybody else care about you?”
“Yes, several people in the Real Love community.”
“And now you have a choice. You can remember the feeling you get when you feel loved by me and by others—a feeling based on reality in the present moment—or you can focus on what you don’t have, what you can’t have, and what you wish you had.”
Long pause. “I know you’re right. I understand what you’re saying, and I can feel it.”
It didn’t happen immediately, but as Susanne learned to be more grateful for the love she had, she learned to live in the moment and let go of the pain of the past and her fears of the future.
Love is not static. It’s a transitive verb, involving action, with everyone blessed both by giving and receiving. We are healed and empowered by receiving love, but even more so by giving it. Sometimes we are elevated above our grieving by giving love to others—filling the hearts of others at exactly the time when it would seem that our own hearts are about to burst with pain.
When we’re in pain, we need to experience the healing of love, and—although it might seem counter-intuitive—loving others is one way of jumping into the flow of love. A good friend of mine died, and as I comforted and served his widow, I found peace and solace for my grief.
In Section 2 above of Alleviating Grief—Finding and Trusting Love—I suggested ways that people in grief could find love. When you provide that love, you can experience many of the same benefits.
5. Eternal Perspective
When people die, it’s common for their loved ones to hear:
“It’s all for the best.”
“He’s in a better place.”
“God just called him home.”
Most people derive little comfort from these expressions soon after the death of their beloved. I’ve spoken with many of them, and in some cases they wanted to strangle the person who said these things.
In the short term, most people want simply to be loved. Only later do they want to be taught anything. In most cases, I know the spiritual beliefs of people I might attempt to love in their grief, and when the time is appropriate, I might speak to them in a way that would not be confusing to them. Allow me to share a story that I have used and paraphrased on a number of occasions, which communicates an attitude helpful both to those who grieve and to those who offer comfort to them.
Many years ago I took my young children a beach in South Carolina. After learning the art of building sand castles, they delightedly occupied themselves for some time. At one point I wandered off a short distance, but before long I heard them pleading loudly for my return. I hurried back to find them frantic at the realization that the tide was coming in and beginning to lap at the edges of their beautiful creation. We began to build a wall around the castle, and soon we had created a most impressive barrier.
As you might imagine, however, our wall did not intimidate the tide, which continued to inch its way up the beach. Despite our inspired exertions—I had never seen them clean their rooms with such energy!—the incoming flow of the sea steadily chewed up our wall, then the edges of the castle, and then collapsed the structure entirely.
The kids were crushed. They wept, and for several moments I allowed them to experience the natural grief of losing something they had worked hard to create. But then I said, “I really had fun building that castle with you. Did you have fun building it?”
With that shift of focus, their look of grief began to disappear as they nodded their heads slightly.
I jumped up from the sand and said, “I’m going to go and find some crabs. Who’s going with me?”
In an instant they were running behind me, the memories of the broken castle already fading behind them.
When my children wept, why did I not grieve with them? Because I had a different perspective than they did. I realized that there would be other castles, other days. I knew that in the grand scheme the castle mattered very little, so I didn’t get caught up in their short-sightedness. But I didn’t mock their perspective. I just helped them see the value in the joy we had experienced together while building the castle, and then I moved on to the next experience we would enjoy as a family.
In short, I didn’t get caught up in my children’s emotions because I had faith that they would learn from their experience and broaden their perspective. It is for the same reason that I avoid getting caught up in the emotional trauma of adults who are ensnared by their victimhood or their anger or whatever else is destroying their happiness. This is an important concept for anyone to understand when they are listening to unhappy people who are describing the details of their situations.
On many occasions people who are gaining experience in Real Love have asked me some variation on this question: “I’ve learned that once you allow yourself to become too emotionally involved with the person who is talking to you, you can’t really see them or love them. So how do you become more detached while you’re loving someone?”
The answer is that you don’t become more detached. The key is to achieve a condition far more profound and effective than that. When people come to me unhappy and emotionally disturbed, I don’t detach from them, just as I didn’t detach from my children when they wept over the loss of their sand castle. I simply try to see their situation in its true perspective, love them, support them, teach them where possible, and have faith that with enough love and support they will eventually broaden their perspective and lose their pain.
I have faith that eventually they’ll realize that with enough Real Love and experience all their problems are little more than sand castles. This is not just wishful thinking on my part. I have seen so many people banish the unhappiness in their lives as they have grown in love and wisdom that my faith has been amply confirmed.
Every day all around us there are sand castles being eroded by the incoming tide. There will always be crises. There will always be grief and pain. You can’t change that. What you can change—what you can learn to choose—is the way you perceive the sand castles in your own life and in the lives of those around you. You can choose to no longer live in a state of constant panic and pain but instead to look for the broader and truer perspective. You can choose to learn and grow and find the love and joy that are available in every experience.