by Juanita Ryan
I was a twenty one year old nursing student when I first came across the term “grief work.” The phrase jumped out at me as I was reading an article on family dynamics and mental health. I remember responding strongly to the concept of grief as “work.” The idea made a lot of sense. The article was about families who had lost a family member. The study focused on how these families responded to grief and the impact this had on their health as a family unit and as individuals. In brief: those who did the work of grief experienced growth. They grew closer to each other and gained a sense of resilient hopefulness about life. Those who did not do the work of grief grew more distant from each other and more isolated from the outside world, and they became more helpless and hopeless in their outlook on life.
This was a theoretical introduction for me into the world of grief work and its direct impact on our mental health. In the years since then, I have had much first hand experience with the work of grief. And this basic understanding that grief is work—important, vital work—has given me the permission and motivation I have needed to stay with grief’s demanding tasks. My experience has been that when I am in the midst of the pain of grieving, basic concepts about what I am doing and why I am doing it can keep me anchored and hopeful.
In the past several years I have come to see grieving as part of the fabric of ordinary life. For me, grief work is an ongoing life task. This is not the morbid statement that it might seem at first. It is actually a statement about my quest to keep my heart open, compassionate and tender. It is about resisting the urge to turn away from my own pain or from other people’s pain. Grief work is not something reserved for life’s “big” losses and changes. Anytime we face a painful reality, we are doing grief work. Anytime we “let go” of something or someone, we are doing grief work. Anytime we open our hearts to receive comfort and support, we are doing the work of grieving. The opportunities to engage in these tasks are around us and within us every day.
These three tasks are perhaps the most basic tasks of grief. Facing painful realities, letting go and opening our hearts to receive comfort. They are the tasks I want to explore briefly in this article.
First, grief work means facing painful realities. The most basic component of our mental and spiritual health is staying grounded in reality. Maintaining basic mental and spiritual health means that we are not living in paranoid delusions or in escapist fantasies or behaviors. The problem, of course, is that pain is something we instinctively pull away from. That is why something as basic as grief requires work. We have to choose to pay attention because our instincts are to deny, minimize and pretend. We have to come back to the truth—whatever that truth may be. The person we love is using drugs again. We have hurt someone with our judgmental thoughts and unkind words. The abandonment we experienced early in life had a deep, long-lasting impact on us. Our loss of another person through death or divorce or unresolved conflict matters a great deal, because they matter and we matter and relationships matter. The children who are living in poverty in our country and around the world are suffering. Painful realities. We want to look away, numb ourselves, pretend, deny. But the cost is too high. How will anything change or heal in our lives or in this world if we do not do this work of coming back to truths that are painful? Every day we must choose between hardening our hearts with our defenses and escapes or opening our hearts to difficult truths in the hope that healing and change is possible.
We seem to be willing to do almost anything to avoid facing painful realities. We may call ourselves selfish or self absorbed. We may tell ourselves no one likes to be around someone who is serious. We may tell ourselves and everyone around us that we are “fine” and work hard to believe it. We may cheer ourselves and others up. We may get lost in distractions that turn into addictions. We may tell ourselves that there is nothing we can do about all the suffering in the world, and then avoid any real news about real suffering. We may turn away and turn away and turn away again from painful realities. All of this actually takes a great deal of energy. It is more work in the long run than the work of grief. I did all these things on a regular basis for many years. But it was costing me. And it was costing the people close to me. I wasn’t real. I wasn’t fully present. Something was missing from my closest relationships—what was missing was me. When I started waking up to the quiet tragedy that my life was, and pursued help, and began to face painful realties, I slowly became more real, more present, more available. As this was happening, it became clear to me that I had hurt my husband and my children and my friends by living life with a defended and partially hardened heart. I had not intended to do this. I didn’t know I was doing this. But I was doing it. I do not want to do this anymore. And so, every day I do what I can to open my eyes and my heart to reality—with special attention to the realities I am inclined to turn away from—in the hope that I will live each day present and available to myself and to others.
A second task of grief work is the task of letting go. There are many things we let go of when we grieve. When we do the work of facing painful realities, our temptation may be to try to “fix” the painful things we see. When we fall into this trap we move from one set of defenses to another. We move from denying and minimizing painful realities to believing ourselves responsible for and capable of fixing these problems. So, first and foremost, the letting go we do is the letting go of our grandiosity. As we let go of trying to play God in our lives and in the lives of others, we are able to live instead from a place of humility and grace. We are able to remember that God is God and we are not. We are able to live as God’s much loved children, in trusting dependence on God. There are many other kinds of letting go in grief work. We let go of our loved one who is caught in addiction, entrusting them to God’s care. We let go of the loved one who died or left. We let go of blame and resentments. We let go of shame and self judgment. We let go of idealized images of ourselves and others. We let go of fears and distortions about God. We let go of our defenses—our self sufficiency, our intellectualizing, our self righteousness. All these various experiences of letting go will be met with an urge to hang on. We may find ourselves thinking: “But this is all I have left. This anger or this attempt to control or this shame or this insistence on self sufficiency are all I have.” It may feel like our hands and heart and our very self will be empty if we let go. We cannot help the dread we feel as we face this void. It is, of course, only as we open our hearts and hands and let go that we have room to receive the gifts God wants to give us. It is an act of great courage and trust to let go. It is one of the most difficult tasks of grief work.
For me, the experience of letting go is sometimes like a frozen stream deep inside my heart and mind which gradually starts to thaw. What I was hanging onto by keeping it frozen, melts and flows away. I cannot grab onto it. I cannot control it. I cannot keep it. Often, my tears flow with the newly moving stream. Sometimes it can feel like everything that matters is flowing away. One time, I felt like my very self was turning to liquid. I was in a great deal of distress and talked to God about my distress. When I did, I saw an image of a stream flowing out of me, and of God’s loving presence flowing into me.
This brings us to the third task of grief work—the surprising task of opening our hearts to receive. Those of us who have hidden behind the defense of always giving and doing for others, will find this task particularly challenging. Those of us who have a deep-seated belief that we do not deserve to receive good gifts, will also find this part of grief work to be challenging. The gifts we might receive include the gifts of the love and support of others, the comfort of God, the gift of freedom from the heavy burden of believing ourselves powerful enough to solve the problems of others. We might receive the surprise of finding that the loved one we lost through death or some other form of separation has a new place in our hearts and lives. We might find courage replacing fear, hope replacing despair, forgiveness replacing resentment, humility replacing shame, compassion replacing judgment. We might find that God is giving us a new heart—that God is doing what is promised in an ancient Scripture—that God is removing our hearts of stone and replacing them with hearts of flesh.
Some time ago when I was in the midst of difficult grief work, I felt as if God were asking me to hand my grieving heart to him. With some hesitation, I pictured myself responding to this strange request. What I “saw” next surprised me a great deal. I expected that God might mend my broken heart, or at least hold it together. But God took my heart in his hands and gently broke it all the way open. My sense was that God was breaking through the hardness of my fears and defenses, breaking my heart open to the soft, tender flesh. I then thought of the story of Jesus feeding thousands of hungry people with one boy’s small lunch. The boy offered his lunch to Jesus. Jesus took the lunch of bread and fish and blessed and broke it and multiplied it to feed the crowd. This is what Jesus will do with our grieving hearts when we are ready to offer them to him. He will take our hearts gently into his loving hands and bless them and break them open—breaking through all the hardness of our shame and blame and fears and defenses down to the core of the real flesh—restoring to us our tender, compassionate hearts. And when our hearts are tender and compassionate, God can use them to feed others who are hungry for the nourishment of love. If I were to state this task of grief work more completely I would say that it is the task of opening our hearts to receive so that we can, in turn, give out of our abundance—so that we can comfort others, not as we long to be comforted, but as we have been comforted. So that we can value others, as we have been valued. And love, as we have been loved.
These basic tasks of grief work have become for me a repeating cycle—a deepening, enriching cycle. When I first started on this journey I could only face a little bit of pain, and I could only let go a little, and I could only receive a little of the grace and love which God had to give me. But, having received a little of that grace and love, I came back to the tasks of facing painful realities and of letting go with more strength and hope. I was able to see more and let go of more and then, most wonderfully, take in more of God’s good gifts. This process continued until the good gifts I was able to receive began to include the gift of joy. There in the midst of grief work I found the last thing I ever expected—joy. The joy of being loved and knowing it deep down. The joy of loving others with tenderness and respect. The joy of receiving and giving. The joy of living with an open heart.