Grief is a funny thing. It knows no time or boundaries. We have little control over when it decides to come up inside us. It’s like a wave that builds in the ocean and then crashes in to the shore. Each expression of grief ebbs and flows in amazing synchronicity with select moments of life and seems to have an intelligence all of its own.
Grief can arise both from a direct loss of a loved one. It can also arise from smaller changes that take place in your life like changing a job and moving to a new location or, as in our current world situation, not having the life that we thought we would be having at the moment. Life is definitely not what we thought it would be.
For me, it happened while I was reading the book, Training in Tenderness. I was asked to contemplate how compassion arises when you become aware of a sentient being in a painful situation, such as a cow about to be slaughtered. Out of that compassion, you might undertake certain actions. For instance, regarding the cow, you might become an animal activist or stop eating meat. For, when we spend time reflecting on the suffering of other beings, it becomes harder to mistreat them.
That’s when I lost it. Tears arose and the feelings I had kept pushed down for the entire week (or perhaps the entire month or perhaps since the pandemic started) came rushing in. I could only name it as “sadness.” Yes, there were words spoken between my husband and me this morning that tipped it over the edge. But, the synchronicity of the moment created the waves of sadness to arise and tears to fall on my cheeks as the waves broke into the shore. They would not be stopped.
I’m not a big crier, so I welcome the tears when they come. I think tears are healthy and a great release for emotions that are sometimes hard to express. My husband held me with compassion and we let them flow until they were ready to stop. I didn’t try to explain it. It didn’t take long for them to subside. But, in that time I felt a connection with all of the other sadness and grief that is being experienced in the world. Sadness and grief is very deep during this weird and disorienting time. And, then the sense of tenderness arose.
Opening Your Heart to Grief
Compassion, without tenderness, can become problematic. Without tenderness, compassion can become dry and conceptual and feel less than authentic. The feelings of the person giving the compassion become more important than the being to which the compassion is being given. A sense of burden and obligation can arise.
But, with a warm and tender heart, compassion helps us to connect with our collective suffering. My suffering is not special when I realize that all beings suffer in the same or similar ways as I do. We are all going through our own version of suffering and we are all vulnerable. Maybe I have more of it one day and then you do, but we all get our equal share as human beings.
Doesn’t that alone begin to open your heart? It does mine. When I know that everyone is suffering the same pain that I am, I can’t help but be more tender toward them. It’s about remembering this truth so that we act from that knowledge instead of from our own personal agendas. Nothing is really personal. It is universal.
Suggestions for Processing Grief
1. Allow yourself to feel it. When grief arises, get out your surfboard. You don’t have to ride the waves all day, but let yourself take a few waves into the shore.
2. Be kind to yourself. After a wave is over, give yourself some time. Maybe take a few minutes to rest and do nothing. Or, feed yourself something that feels nourishing. Or, take a walk by yourself or with a friend. Tune in to see what would be most helpful.
3. Keep breathing. I probably never make a list of “what to do” without adding breathing. The breath—deep breaths—are so healing to our heart, our minds, and our emotions. The breath keeps rhythm with life and, therefore, your connection with the breath helps you to stay in sync with the moment as it is.
4. Reach out to someone who feels safe. You may have a lot of friends, but, in a grief crises, there might only be one or two to whom you feel safe to share your waves. Pick someone who you know won’t try to fix you, tell you it’s going to get better, pity you, or minimize what you’re feeling. Pick someone who is comfortable with emotions—their own and yours.
5. Focus on something that’s engaging. Once you feel some relief, begin to engage with the things in your life that give you joy and inspiration. Even if you don’t feel it all the way, once you begin to engage you might find your mood lifting a little bit at a time. Don’t force it. Baby steps back to your life are great.
6. Keep opening your heart. When grief arises, there might be a tendency to shut it down and get busy with other things. Find the balance between staying in the grief too long and not feeling it at all. Leave yourself open to feel as and when the next wave might arise. There can be no grief where there is no love. And, as Henry David Thoreau wrote, There is no remedy for love but to love more.
Our Collective Grief
As I mentioned earlier, there is a collective sadness in the world right now. So, even though you might not be experiencing a loss in your personal life that would bring up grief for you, unexplained waves of grief might arise from nowhere. We are all connected and loss is everywhere. The deaths from COVID, the jobs that people have lost, the businesses that have gone under, the homes that have been lost, the celebrations that have been postponed, the ordinary lives that we no longer live. All of these things and more are affecting us at some level.
I believe that if we let ourselves feel these tremendous losses in doses that we can handle, our hearts will continue to become tender toward each other. If that is true, then, while these losses are not ones I would wish on us by any means, there will be some good that results. When the reaction is to harden, stay soft and stay tender.