an interview with Robert Bird
Grief is not easy. It is not quick. It is not painless. Few of us welcome it into our lives. It comes uninvited. We prefer that it would leave as soon as possible. But what pain we add to our lives if we refuse what this uninvited guest has to offer! To learn more about the dynamics of grief we interviewed Robert Bird, a hospital chaplain who has worked extensively with grief issues on mental health units and in addiction treatment programs.
STEPS: What is the experience of grief like?
Bob: Well, people mostly think of the psychological dynamics of grief—the sadness, the depression, the loneliness—but there are a lot of physical manifestations of grief as well. It effects our body. Our body is always trying to maintain homeostasis. But, when we get into these gut-wrenching emotional losses, it throws the body totally off. Some people who are grieving a loss, for example, have great difficulty with eating or other simple forms of self-care. The loss of appetite—that’s a physical impact of the grief. Physically a lot happens during grief because grief is a kind of stress.
STEPS: And I suppose with all the psychological and physical effects, there are also some spiritual effects of grief.
Bob: Definitely. Some people experience God as particularly close and helpful during times of grief. But others find that grief opens up many spiritual questions. These are, of course, made more difficult if they are not understood by friends and family. If you say “let go and let God” to someone who is grieving, they may get angry. They may respond “you don’t know what I’m going through.” And it is a pretty understandable response. If friends, or a congregation or a preacher are not responding to our needs, we may feel left out, isolated. And we may feel that God’s gone too. If people abandon us, we may believe that God is abandoning us as well. This spiritual trauma can compound the difficulty of any grief process. It may not be until we get into the thick of the grief work that we experience God again as present, safe and supportive of us.
STEPS: How long does grief take?
Bob: There’s an old slogan that says “time heals all wounds.” It’s just not true. Time doesn’t heal anything if you don’t deal with the emotional pain that is connected with a loss. Grief can take as long as a lifetime if you don’t address the emotional wound. What happens when you don’t do the emotional work is that one loss gets piled on top of another and you accumulate grief. The result can be major mental health consequences. Accumulated grief can be very difficult to work with. It can be enormously painful.
STEPS: When I first became aware of grief as something that people experienced in life, I thought that it was just about what happened when someone died.
Bob: Well, death is certainly an occasion for grief, as is divorce. And those are the kinds of things most people think about when they think about grief. Often when you start asking people if they have any grief issues, they will respond “Well, nobody in my family has died.” But this overlooks the fact that all of us face multiple losses in life. Our losses—-and our understanding of the grief process—often begins early in childhood. I’m thinking of a little girl who goes to school and somebody hits her and treats her badly. She comes home crying, sobbing. Her mom who is fixing dinner says “Here honey, here’s a cookie. You’ll feel better.” It might not seem like a big grief issue, but the failure to grieve—-and the failure of the parent to help the child grieve—-can lead later in life to many problems. The mom stuffed a cookie on top of the grief, but didn’t listen, didn’t connect, didn’t help her grieve. So the child learns early on that food kind of helps things out. Not everyone who experiences something like this will grow up to have an eating disorder, but children learn very quickly whether or not it is okay to grieve and, if it’s not okay to grieve, that can have lasting consequences.
I had a colleague who was an 85 year old recovering alcoholic. He came to me one day and said “I’m really worried. I just can’t seem to feel anything. My mom and dad both died. I buried my wife about 6 years ago and I just think ‘what’s wrong with me?’ I can’t even cry. I can’t feel anything.” So, I asked him to tell me about his childhood, about his home and his extended family. He told me that as the result of an accident of some kind his mom and dad both spent significant time in the hospital when he was about ten. During the hospitalization he stayed with his uncle. While he was there, his grandmother died. He was very close to her. She was one of the most important people in his life. The uncle took him to the funeral and, when he began to cry, his uncle grabbed him by the shoulders and said to him: “Look, men don’t cry.” There was the key, the beginning of many years of avoidance of grief. The resistance to grieving began way back there. It was not, of course, just this one incident that caused a life-time of avoidance of grief but it established a pattern that had lasted his whole life.
STEPS I suppose that in addition to this kind of social sanction against grief there is also a powerful internal resistance to grief work?
Bob: Absolutely. Many of us resist grief because we fear that if we do the work of grief, our emotional intensity will dissipate and the thing that we lost will not matter anymore. But what can happen is that we become prisoners of that pain. We can do many things with grief. Sometimes we turn grief into resentments or bitterness. It becomes the reason we give ourselves for the insanity of our addictions. It makes the insanity of addiction understandable somehow. Not really, of course. But it seems like that. Nothing leads to relapse faster than resentments. And nothing creates resentments faster than ungrieved grief. Addictions can be a way of holding on to the grief, rather than working towards its resolution.
We are the only one who can get out of the prison. Our society is great at writing self-help books and teaching us how to be a success. But our society does not know how to help people when they lose something. That is what grief facilitation is all about—-helping people to experience loss in ways that lead to growth. There are many kinds of losses. The loss of a childhood. How many people struggle with that! Abusive parents. Frequent moves. Recovery is full of losses. In families of addicts, people pretty much know what to expect. Things can be really bad—but they are often predictably bad. When dad was coming home drunk, other family members knew what to expect and had developed strategies for protecting themselves. In recovery, all of this is destabilized. Old, sometimes deeply entrenched coping strategies-—strategies that used to work, or seemed to work—-are now useless. That can be a huge loss.
STEPS: Most people associate grief with bad things that happen, but you are suggesting that sometimes positive change can also create grief.
Bob: Oh, yes. Take a simple example. Suppose I have a new job and I am moving from one city to another. Suppose everyone in my family is excited about the move. Suppose everyone agrees that this is a positive development in our lives. Even in these really positive circumstances there are still losses. I’m moving away from the old neighborhood. Some of the relationships I have invested in over the years will not survive the transition. I will be losing all of my relationships with local doctors, therapists and other service providers. Or suppose I graduate from college—-that’s a pretty positive change! I don’t see my friends anymore—-they have moved all over the place. Similarly when a person first gets into recovery—-a change that we, of course, see as positive—-there can also be lots of losses. There is something I call ‘addictive loss.’ All of a sudden I don’t have my wonderful friend, the one friend that used to make everything okay, the one substance or process that made me feel good and helped me navigate social situations. Losing alcohol or any other addictive substance or process is a huge loss. Grieving these kinds of losses is really important for recovery to be sustainable. If we don’t recognize it as a loss—and consequently don’t grieve—we set ourselves up for relapse.
STEPS: In Step 6 of the twelve steps it talks about “becoming entirely ready” for God to remove our defects of character. Is part of that “becoming ready” the process of grieving the loss of our defects?
Bob: Even losing a defect can create grief. For once we will have to face the shadow side of ourselves that we have never wanted to face. We will have to look at those things we have covered over with the alcohol or whatever. The same dynamic is part of recovery from codependency. People who have a history of codependency used to hear people say “you are so helpful.” But, now that they have started working on having some sane boundaries, people aren’t saying that any more. Instead of saying “You are so nice” they may say “I wish you were more cooperative.” That’s a loss! When we start to take care of ourselves in appropriate ways some people will not like it and we will experience losses in those relationships—losses that need to be grieved.
Lots of positive changes lead to grief. Pastors changing churches. Moving to another ministry. I’m doing my grief work now about retirement. I left the hospital last August. I’m in a whole new world now and for the first couple of months it was tough. I was feeling pretty bad and I wasn’t sure what that was about. But I was grieving all the losses of not being there. I lost the daily contact with good friends, my colleagues. My sense of self worth dropped a bit because I wasn’t as actively involved in what I had been doing for the previous 22 years. It was a loss for me. Now I’m finding my way into other areas that interest me. But I had to realize the losses and grieve them before I could begin to move on.
STEPS: It seems to me that one of the problems we all face when we do grief work is that when we start grieving one loss, the pain of other losses seems to get triggered. And all that pain can get combined or confused somehow.
Bob: I had a women in her 70’s come to a grief group once. She had come because of the death of her five year old granddaughter. She came because of that grief. Halfway through our sessions she came to a group meeting and said “I woke up last night in the middle of the night weeping uncontrollably and I sat at the edge of the bed. My husband didn’t know what was going on and I didn’t know what was going on either. He held me and I wept for an hour. All of a sudden,” she said, “I realized that, although I thought I was weeping for my granddaughter, my grief was focused elsewhere. I remembered that 25 years ago my husband and I were going overseas as missionaries and I gave birth to a stillborn daughter. Because we had to get packed and get to the ship, I never had the time or freedom to grieve that loss.” Twenty five years later she was starting to come to terms with the loss of her stillborn daughter. Grief work does not go away just because we get busy. Or because we ignore it. It is surprising how often grieving over one thing can trigger the pain of many different losses. Maybe that’s why we are so afraid of grief—we are afraid that if we start to grieve one thing we will find ourselves grieving too many losses. I tend to shame myself in times like that by saying I’m overreacting. But it’s not overreacting. It’s responding to a lot of grief that has piled up over time.
STEPS: It seems like all kinds of problems can result from a failure to grieve.
Bob: Unresolved grief can put people into mental institutions, it can put them in a hospital with physical problems and in many cases it is the engine at the heart of the addictive process. Let me give a simple example to illustrate how it works: a young couple divorces. There is an incredible loss there. One jumps into another marriage without processing all those feelings and grief. Is it any wonder that the second marriage goes sour? They are not coming into it healthy emotionally because they haven’t grieved the loss. The tensions in this second marriage create the threat of another loss on top of the first ungrieved loss. One spouse may find themselves depressed, the other may turn to alcohol.
People who have managed to avoid their losses for a lifetime need some special help. One of the better ways—not the only way, but to my mind one of the better ways to get help—is through participation in a grief support group. It is there that people can realize that they have to do some difficult emotional work. It’s a safe place to start doing that work. When accumulated grief starts to come to the surface it can feel overwhelming. But, in the supportive environment of a grief group, people can start to work on those losses and find real freedom.
STEPS: How does God fit into this picture? Is God expecting us to be cheerful and get on with life? What’s the biblical evidence to suggest that God’s not like that?
Bob: Jesus is a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Jesus grieved. The text says he sweat drops of blood. We will probably never fully know what that is all about. But it was surely grief. Jesus stands right beside us during all of the horrific things we have experienced. We just don’t know he’s there. I couldn’t do ministry if I believed that God becomes displeased and kind of looks away from us in times of grief. That’s the way people are. People don’t want to be around someone who is grieving. But God is not like that. You’ve seen that picture of God knocking at the door. Sometimes the door is shut because we just can’t handle the pain yet. God understands that. It may take us some time to unlock the doors that are protecting us from the grief, but when we do so, we will find God has not abandoned us. Jesus insisted that there was blessing connected with grief: “blessed are those who grieve.” Most of us experience shame about our grief—about the sadness, the anger, the volatility and all of that—but Jesus connected it with blessing.
STEPS: It’s amazing how powerful the instinct is to think that God wants us to be all done with grief. Like we need to find someone hurting more than we are and help them rather than spending more time at our little pity party. I guess I really shame myself sometimes for my grief. All this comes to me first. Then when I think about ‘what would Jesus do’ it gradually comes to me that when it was time to grieve, Jesus grieved. What kinds of things do we need in order to be able to do grief work well?
Bob: Safety is central. We either need to be with someone we trust, a therapist for example, or in a group setting. Nobody is going to come knocking on our door and say “you probably have some losses, lets’ do some grief work.” So we need to take the initiative to find a safe place to do the work. Given safety and support, people tend to move into the grief rather than run from it. Some faster than others. Some opt not to. They want to go it alone. They’ll say things like “I just can’t stand hearing these awful stories.” But most people who experience safety and support will start doing the work and good things will come from that.
What I teach in groups about grief is all stuff that I have experienced myself. In a recent group I realized that I had a lot of unresolved grief about my father. So I picked my relationship with him to be the focus of my work in group. I was able to do many important things that helped me resolve my relationship with my father. You never really finish with the past. I think of it as being something like what happens when you throw a rock into a still pond. Concentric circles start to build, move out and out and if the lake were infinitely wide there would always be a circle that marks that initial trauma when the rock hit the surface. At the moment of a loss, the circle is small, the pain is intense. But as we do the work of grief, it moves out a little and becomes less intense. That is what happened to me as I did the grief work that allowed me to come to closure with some of the things about by relationship with my father—my life took on a new glow.
STEPS: Tell me more about the payoff for doing grief work. Why do the hard work?
Bob: Well, the payoff for me—and I can only really speak to my own experience here—is that it can provide you with a whole new outlook on life. Grieving is the road to health. Doing the hard work of grief has freed me to make the emotional statements that need to be made, to say the things that need to be said, and to work through the forgiveness process. One of the biggest results of doing grief work is to fly free from all of the things that have happened to us—perpetrated by someone else. I know what people often hear at church about this. There are all kinds of sayings that grieving people have to put up with. “You won’t be forgiven if you don’t forgive.” “Are you still struggling with that?” “Have you prayed about it?” It can be particularly difficult if the issue is forgiveness. It’s very easy to say we should forgive. But forgiveness that happens quickly, before we have grieved the losses associated with it, is an empty shell. Forgiveness is, in part, giving up the hope of changing the past. It is grieving that we can’t make things different than they were. It is recognizing what you did or didn’t do to me and deciding that I am not going to let it hurt me anymore. You can’t do that casually, it’s too complicated, too difficult. But, as we grieve, we are gradually freed from the bondage of the past and are free to fly again.
Robert Bird, an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church, has been a hospital chaplain for 22 years. He has led grief groups for inpatient addiction treatment programs and mental health programs. He is a member of the Red Cross’ national SAIR team (Spiritual Care Aviation Incident Response) which responds to aviation disasters.