by Dale Wolery
It doesn’t seem like grief would be the kind of thing that would be easy to ignore. But, grief is painful and all of us have an enormous capacity to defend ourselves against pain. As a result, sometimes our losses—and the grief connected with our losses—escape our conscious attention. We can remain oblivious to our need to grieve and ignorant of the impact losses have on our lives—sometimes for extended periods of time. Because our culture minimizes the importance of grieving, going for years without grieving a loss is common. Too often we are consciously or unconsciously encouraged to set our John Wayne-like jaws and ride tearless into the sunset. This happened to me. It took me almost 40 years to begin grieving the death of my father.
For almost four decades I dysfunctioned my way through life without even suspecting that my father’s early death was having a powerful effect on the shape of my internal and external worlds. When asked about my parents or specifically about my father I would report—without emotion and without any understanding of the consequence of this event—that he had died when I was almost five. In spite of the fact that his death created a hole in my soul and chasms in my intimate relationships, I simply lived outside of this inescapable reality. I assumed that I was as normal as the next person. I just happened not to have a father. No big deal.
But, it was a big deal. At the time, I was unable to experience the loss. I did not have the support I needed to face the pain. So, I went on in life almost as if nothing had happened. But I was not okay. Even if I seemed fine. Such significant losses have consequences—life molding consequences. When a crisis eventually forced me to dock my life’s ship in a therapist’s office at age 41, I knew I was sinking. I had no idea that some of the holes in my hull could be attributed to father loss. Ignorance in my case was not blissful. It was devastating. I soon learned that holes below the waterline were sinking my life even if I didn’t know they existed. Over time it became clear that I hadn’t just lost a father—I’d lost a model for manhood, a pattern for male and female interaction, a guide in life’s storms, and the tender love and essential structure which fathers can pass on to sons. It was a long list of losses. All still ungrieved. And all having a powerful effect on my life.
I now believe that the grief work I have done—and continue to do—is the kind of work that is a necessary part of anyone’s growth process. Losses ignored shape us—with or without our conscious awareness. The hard work of processing losses in the dark, winding tunnel of grief is painful. But, the alternative is a misshapen life with even more pain. Unfortunately, ungrieved losses always find a way to distort our intimate relationships. The living, creative joy of our souls is blunted by unresolved grief, impacting our capacity to relate freely.
A working definition of grief work which I have found to be helpful over the last decade is: “The process of consciously moving the pain on the inside, through words, to comfort on the outside.” This is not, of course, a technical definition but it describes pretty well what the process feels like. The grief process requires soul-searching, talking, listening, and receiving comfort from others. Often our personal awareness of our losses is so blunted by our protective defenses that it is necessary to get help from a skilled listener—a professional counselor—if we are to make progress in our grief. It took several years and two counselors before I really began to connect with the ungrieved grief over the loss of my father. And, just to emphasize the obvious, grief postponed does not become easier. It gets more complicated with time. More entrenched. More entangled with our relationships. It is hard work to grieve old losses. Hard work.
Fortunately, the payoff is significant. Some of my grief over the death of my father has led to pure developmental gold. At the encouragement of my counselor, I arranged to sit down with two of my father’s brothers. Uncle Wayne and Uncle Lloyd sensitively walked me through Dad’s short life, looking at pictures and reviewing for me never-heard anecdotes from his life. The passion, pride, and love of these brothers was so evident and our mingled tears of grief so powerful! In the process of telling these stories I regained priceless pieces of my lost father. Those sacred moments now shape me as surely as my loss once did. Grief work is often surprising that way. We expect it to only be about loss, but in the process we receive many new gifts and become new people.
Loss, like the uprooting of a plant, separates us from nourishing connection with the soil. The necessary extra attention which is a part of grief work slowly returns the plant to life-sustaining soil. Regaining life is the surprising reward of appropriate grief. I’ve been surprised by the freedom in my soul and relationships which grieving has made possible.
All of our losses are not the result of someone’s death. Significant losses—those requiring a correspondingly intense grief process—are the losses of love and respect we experience in our formative years. A distant or demeaning parent, for example, can create losses as difficult to grieve and as formidable to recover from as the death of a parent.
As you seek out a grief group or counselor—and find a safe and skillful soul in which to confide—I pray that your journey will be filled with all the surprises of one who literally recovers life.