Good Grief

By Jeff Levy

In reviewing these past several months of blog posts, I realized that I have mentioned both my mother and father a number of times, often referring to their old age or their deaths, which occurred nine and seven years ago respectively.  I began to think more about how present they are in my life, despite their physical absence.  I think about them often and talk about them with my partner and friends.  Still, even after years have past, there are times when I speak of them and I notice my throat close slightly and my eyes blink in a way that I hope is not too noticeable to others.  I’m much better able to remember funny stories, habits, and events.  But still, there is grief.  Sometimes I can predict it like when I look at old pictures, but other times it creeps in unexpectedly.

Grief Takes Many Forms

As I have gotten older, I’m also more aware of the presence of grief in my work.  Not that it hasn’t always been there, but I think my own life experiences make me more aware of how grief and loss manifest in almost all my work.  There are the tangible losses of parents, children, partners, friends, pets and other loved ones.  And there are the intangible and ambiguous losses that are sometimes harder to identify as losses;  the loss of innocence that comes with abuse, the loss of confidence that comes with losing a job, the loss of self-worth associated with too little love growing up, loss of independence that comes with debilitating illness, and the loss of respect associated with harmful choices.

Without wanting to sound too simplistic, in some ways, almost all of our struggles can be traced to loss of some kind, even if that isn’t the reason we seek help or support.  I remember a conversation I had with a colleague a number of years ago as we philosophized about grief and loss.  At the time, we both came to the conclusion that all of therapy is in some way about grief.  And at the same time, we talked about the ever changing nature of grief and how it is not typically something that has a definable end.

That isn’t to say that we remain paralyzed after a significant loss, but more an acknowledgement that grief is not an event, or a predictable process, or even linear.  Grief is a twisting and often unpredictable journey with no known destination.  Acknowledging the ever-present nature of grief doesn’t make us morose.  More than anything, it validates a shared experience that connects us as human beings.

 Grief May Appear Differently

Sam was 30 when he came to see me after he ended a five-year relationship with his partner.  Even though the decision was his, he hated entering an empty home, seeing naked walls where pictures once hung, and listening to his new outgoing message on his voice mail system.  All of these reminded him that he was now single and the prospect of considering another relationship was overwhelming.  As we continued our work together, we spent less time talking about his relationship ending and more about his mother.

Almost eight years ago, Sam’s mother had knee replacement surgery.  Unfortunately, there were complications post-surgery and she had several small strokes.  Still, the prognosis for recovery was good, and she went to a rehabilitation center from the hospital and eventually home.  Her progress was rapid and hope was high for a full recovery.  And then she reached a plateau.  She stopped progressing and life changed forever.  Although she was still Sam’s mother, she could no longer work.  She had almost no short-term memory.  And there were personality changes that forever changed the way Sam and the rest of his family could relate to her.  Sam couldn’t understand why he was talking so much about his mother when he came to talk about the end of his relationship.

After more discussion, Sam realized that he had not really allowed himself to consider there was anything to grieve related to his mother’s health.  But now, through the lens of a current loss, he realized that he had never grieved the mother that he lost eight years ago and his plans for what his family might look like as all of them got older.  It would never be as he imagined.  While he knew there would still be love and connection, his relationship with his mother was forever different.  No one in his family framed his mother’s illness and recovery as having some connection to loss because she was still living.  There was no discussion and everyone moved on as best they could.

Kelly lost her father before she married and had children.  His death was a tremendous loss for her, and she experienced a host of emotions over the next year.  As the intensity of her grief lessened, she met a man to whom she eventually became engaged, married, and two years later had twin girls.  With each of these milestones, Kelly once again mourned the loss of her father.  He was not there when she shared with family she was engaged.  He was not there to walk her down the aisle at her wedding, and he was not there as she shared her joy around the birth of her daughters.  We talked about this in our time together, and predicted other times in her life when her father’s death many years ago might pierce the present.

I have seen Jared off and on for ten years.  He has struggled with depression his whole life and more recently, in his mid-forties, it had worsened to the point that he could no longer work and applied for social security disability.  He felt ashamed that he was depending on others to support him.  He also felt an incredible loss of identity when he could no longer work as a nurse.  Being a nurse was how he defined himself and no longer working in that capacity left him feeling intense grief; a grief that he later realized was about grieving a part of him that was no longer present on a daily basis.

Grief Is Universal

On the surface, these three people have experienced different kinds of loss, but fundamentally they are no different from one another and from each of us.  We all experience loss.  We all grieve.  And grief is a part of our experience of the world.  There are times when grief feels insurmountable and even paralyzing.  This may be part of a larger process of dealing with loss, but if unattended, it has the potential to take over.  When we feel controlled by our grief, it may be time to reach out to friends, family, and possibly a therapist—-not to rid us of grief, but to help us coach our grief to a place that occupies less emotional space and feels less powerful.

Grief doesn’t have to define our world, but it has an impact on how we come to understand ourselves and our relationships.  Grief is mitigated by many other joyous life experiences and intense moments of happiness,  but grief does not disappear.  It does not leave us.  It’s volume changes over time, getting both louder and softer, sometimes indiscriminately.

Befriending Grief

Why am I spending so much time talking about grief and loss?  I hope that by spending more time with these feelings, we can allow ourselves to experience them when they arise, without pushing them down or pushing them away.  We don’t need to feel like there is something wrong with us when we experience grief over something lost long ago, or over losses that may feel intangible to others but hold great importance for us.

There is a wonderful piece by poet Denise Levertov entitled “Talking to Grief.”  She creates a powerful metaphor where grief manifests as her dog.  She writes:  “ I should coax you into the house and give you your own corner, a worn mat to lie on, your own water dish.”  Her message, I believe, is that we should not push grief out of our lives, but rather respect it and allow it to live with us.  We should treat grief with care and compassion.  It deserves a place in our hearts.

 Ah Grief, I should not treat you like a homeless dog
who comes to the back door for a crust or a meatless bone. I should trust you.
—Denise Levertov (“Talking to Grief”)

By Jeff Levy, LCSW, CTRS

Published on December 13, 2017