Good Grief

Good Grief…

Max Geyer was a gentleman, an archetypal family guy, a real giver and a lover. After commencing formal post-graduate studies at the age of 59, Max would often joke that he needed to live until the age of 200, just to read all of the books that he had accumulated. Sadly, this wish didn’t come true and we bid farewell to Max in August 2017.

As I stood alongside so many others at his funeral and watched as his coffin departed, never to be seen again, I welled up inside with pain. A pain that was so deep that words aren’t able to adequately describe it. When we experience such a loss, what is it that wells up inside us?

Later that night, while sitting alone and reflecting on the day and on my friendship with Max, I experienced both an intense feeling of heartache and also found myself chuckling and smiling (as I recalled some of Max’s quirky ways). What was that about? Our bodies often physically react when we feel this type of emotional pain, why is this? Is it a lack of control? Could it be the mystery of our unconscious telling our bodies; “you need this”?

Many questions emerge following the loss of a loved one and the associated grief; how do we make sense of this?

Perhaps such ‘sense’ can only be made paradoxically and with faith? Is it only when we accept a way of living that is capable of holding thoughts of ‘both-and’, that we can begin to make sense of grief? Without faith[i], how can we cope with the challenge of this paradox? We can have no ‘knowledge’ of what happens when we die, it is a mystery? Feasibly then, faith is a way of dealing with such a mystery? Faith (not answers) helped me make sense of Max’s death, otherwise how could I make sense of such a loving human being taken from this world?

So, what of this paradox of grief?

Firstly, we know grief hurts. It’s the type of pain you may feel in your heart, chest and gut, often simultaneously. Yet as Tournier (1981) suggests, intriguingly grief may also “create an occasion or potential for growth, learning and creativity”; although this is not guaranteed, nor is it necessarily causal[ii]. With such contradictory potentials, of both pain and growth, making sense of the paradoxical nature grief is challenging. How so?

Not surprisingly, grief caused by the passing of a loved one is considered one of the most stressful events in life. In fact, according to the well-respected Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, two of the top five most stressful things we can experience involve the loss of another person. So, if we follow Tournier’s suggestion, two of life’s most stressful events could lead to growth and learning; it sounds incongruous? Perhaps also incongruously, yet at the same time understandably, is that we spend much of our time striving to prevent, avoid or deny grief. Is this because we don’t acknowledge the idea of dialectic[iii] in our sensemaking. Why do we seek to prevent the pain in living?

The initial period after a loss may bring with it an assortment of seemingly uncontrollable and unrelenting emotions and feelings; of sorrow, sadness, isolation and of loneliness. There may also be fear; of our own mortality, of the unknown and of the uncertainty in how life will now play out. All of these feelings seem to come naturally and, although they are not necessarily welcomed, they are mostly expected. Knowing that these are feelings we are likely to experience after a loss, why do we still find it challenging to make sense of them?

Could it be that because as a (western) society we have become so attuned to making sense of things predominately through the lens of logical, reductionist and cogent thought? Does this cloud our sensemaking? How can something such as grief, so permeated with emotion and feeling, be understood (only) in this way? There is no ‘both-and’, when the answer we seek is black or white. What might it mean for ‘sensemaking’ if we were to consider an understanding of grief, where both black and white coexisted?

As we begin to explore this, let’s take a deeper look at what we mean by grief.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross is one of the pioneering authors on the topic of grief and loss and her contemplations on the topic are helpful. In On Grief and Grieving (2014), Kubler-Ross and co-author David Kessler describe grief as:

“It’s the opening up to the exquisite pain of absence. It’s the moment when you stop trying to move on or change how much it hurts and just let it out.” (p.xiii)

Kubler Ross’ first book on the subject was On Death and Dying (1969), it was the pre-curser to On Grief and Grieving. It included the ‘five stages of grief’ which are; Denial Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. I will look at just one of these, depression, in order to explore the paradoxical nature of grief.

However, before I do, I want to highlight that while the five stages are both plausible and useful, a word of caution for those who are easily tempted into standardised approaches for such challenges in life; these stages are not (necessarily) linier, nor predictable, and they are certainly not guaranteed. Kubler-Ross suggests that they are much messier than that, however at the same time, they can provide a useful way for us to understand and explore what is happening when either we, or others are experiencing grief. For example, she notes about depression associated with grief:

“As tough as it is, depression can be dealt in a paradoxical way. See it as a visitor, perhaps an unwelcome one, but one who is visiting whether you like it or not. Make a place for your guest. Invite your depression to pull up a chair with you in front of the fire, and sit with it, without looking for a way to escape. Allow the sadness and emptiness to cleanse you and help you explore your loss in its entirety. When you allow yourself to experience depression, it will leave you as soon as it has served its purpose in your loss. As you grow stronger, it may return from time to time, but that is how grief works” (p.22)

Could it be that depression from grief, understood paradoxically, is something that, while it may ‘cleanse us’ and create the potential for growth (Tournier), is something we would likely reject if presented with such an offer?

If we can move forward with this paradoxical idea of grief and its potential in mind, what ought we do if our aim is to support others who experience grief and hence create their own potential for growth, learning and creativity?

Firstly, I’ve written previously about the need to be cautious when ‘helping’ so to avoid the pitfalls of ‘fixing’ people. This sounds like such simplistic advice; not to fix and instead to listen to & ‘meet’ others, however it’s much harder said than done, especially in western societies. Yet, it remains fundamental if our aim is to support others. How may this play out?

I recently read this story about a man whose wife had experienced severe depression for some time and she regularly had thoughts of suicide. He was honest in explaining the challenges he experienced as he aimed to help and support his wife, admitting that it;

“Doing something” meant reminding her of all the reasons it was worth staying alive – how good we had it, how much our families loved us, how much there was to look forward to. It almost became a script, a choreographed dance: she told me she felt suicidal; I tried to overwhelm her feelings with why she shouldn’t feel that way. It never convinced her of anything. But on that afternoon, exhaustion had beaten me down into shutting up. I sat quietly and held her hand.”

This exhaustion meant that;

I hadn’t said a word. It dawned on me how little I had been listening to her, without judgment or rush to action. She didn’t need me to tell her that everything was going to be OK. That didn’t help. She needed me to hear her pain. Being heard somehow made it more manageable.

On that afternoon, I finally learned that when any of us is in pain, the greatest gift you can give is to listen, patiently and purely.

What a telling insight into how to support others experiencing depression. An insight gained by way of experience and reflection. I wonder, why it feels so counter intuitive to many of us to just sit and listen? Also, why are we so quick to leap into action, rather than allowing people to ‘wrestle in the mud’ as they experience pain? Perhaps there is much we can all learn from reflecting on this story?

So, what else can we do if our aim is to support others through grief, even if it may feel uncomfortable and counter intuitive? McKissock and McKissock (2012) in their book Coping With Grief suggest that:

“It is important for support people to understand the benefit of crying, and not only allow it, but on occasions facilitate tears by asking the right kinds of question – those that most others avoid for fear of upsetting bereaved people” (p.25)

How common is it for us to reach for a tissue when sitting with someone experiencing grief, with the aim solely (and quickly), of stopping the flow of tears? What is our aim in interrupting this experience of grief?

As McKissock and McKissock further note:

“In conjunction with emotional responses to grief there are a host of physical responses, all of them designed to reduce pain to a manageable degree. When someone we love dies, our body produces a number of narcotic-like chemicals similar to heroin and morphine. These pain-killing chemicals help to produce the numbing experience most of us feel at the beginning. For those who cry, these chemicals are released in tears, which is why it is important for others not to try to prevent crying” (p.24)

Beyond trying to stop tears, we are often also compelled to ‘help’ in order to relieve others from the pain associated with grief. This may for example, see us quickly stepping in to take on chores with the aim of providing reprieve from mundane activities. However, this is where we need to further remind ourselves of the paradoxical nature of grief, and as McKissock and McKissock posit:

“Gardening, housework, bathing the dog, mowing the lawn, washing the car are all activities that can help. However, these are usually the things that family, friends and neighbours tend to do as their way of saying ‘I care’. It would probably be more helpful if they did these things with us, instead of for us.” (p.27)

It would seem that if we are to support others in grief, we need to surrender our own needs or desires and instead envisage the needs from the perspective of others, as tricky and contradictory (‘both-and’) as this may be.

Experiencing grief, particularly after the loss of someone close, can be one of the most painful and stressful experiences in our lives, yet may also lead to growth. This is not a thought that is easily grasped nor embraced. Our western society is dominated and entrapped by messages of ‘prevention’, of ‘no or zero harm’ and of a ‘never-ending search for happiness’. While it is not plausible to me to conjure up the thought where I actively seek pain and grief, what I recognise is that when grief does come to visit, it brings with it a gift, that if accepted, just may “create an occasion or potential for growth, learning and creativity”.

Good grief, what a conundrum.

How do you make sense of grief?


Robert Sams

[i] As described by Ellul in his exert Belief and Faith: “Faith constrains me above all to measure how much I don’t live by faith; how seldom faith fills up my life. Faith puts to the test every element of my life and society; it spares nothing. It leads me ineluctably to question all my certitudes, all my moralities, beliefs, and policies. It forbids me to attach ultimate significance to any expression of human activity. It detaches and delivers me from money and the family, from my job and my knowledge. It is the surest road to realizing that “the only thing I know is that I don’t know anything.” Faith leaves nothing intact. The only thing faith can bring me to recognize is my impotence, in incapacity, my inadequacy, my incompleteness, and consequently my incredulity (naturally faith is the most unerring and lethal weapon against all beliefs).”Source: J. Ellul, Belief and Faith. You can download the paper this quote was noted in HERE (accessed 28/09/2017).

[ii] As Tournier, in Creative Suffering (1981, p.18) notes when referring to the work of Dr Haynal: “There is a relationship between the processes of bereavement, loss, deprivation, and creativity. He carefully refrains from saying that it is a relationship of cause and effect. The person matures, develops, becomes more creative, not because of the deprivation in itself, but through his own active response to misfortune, through the struggle to come to terms with it and morally to overcome it – even in spite of everything there is no cure.

[iii] “Dialectic, then is not just a way of reasoning by question and answer. It is an intellectual way of grasping reality, which embraces the positive and the negative, white and black… It includes contradictory things that do not exclude one another but coexist. Hence a system of vigorous thought ought to take account of both the yes and the no without ruling out either, without choosing between, since every choice excludes on part of reality.” Source: J. Ellul, What I Believe, trans. G. W. Bromiley (London: Marshall Morgan and Scott Publications, 1989), 31. You can download the paper this quote was noted in HERE (accessed 28/09/2017).