The Healing of Complicated Grief
Bill Long 12/30/08
Even Though its "Traces" May Remain Forever
A few years ago I wrote an essay on this relatively recently-identified phenomenon, and I argued for the importance of using literature (especially the Book of Job) to help understand the deep, persistent, and complicated grief that envelops so many people. Recently I have engaged in conversations with people who resonated with my article, and these conversations have encouraged me not only to look more deeply at the phenomenon of complicated grief but to propose a method for climbing out of it. I use the metaphoric language "climbing out of" it because most often people speak of this debilitating grief as if they are "in a pit" or "in a hole" or "trapped in a cave." This essay complements my earlier eassay and provides a three-point method to begin the process of healing this grief. Of course I realize that no "formula" or "program" can heal; the healing process often takes years or, more likely, decades. And, I would confess that there is a subset of people for whom no advice seems to "work." But these realizations can help anchor the recovery process for most people.
I. A Realization--You Won't Die of Grief
The first (and often second and third) thoughts of people deeply implicated, imbricated, imbued and imbrued with grief are that they will never get out of the grief, that grief is excruciatingly painful and, in fact, that they will die of it. Such grief so takes away any desire to live and any belief that they will again see better days that they truly can conceive no future with any good in it. Grief foreshortens vision. And, it goes on like this, day after day. Relentless. Unforgiving. Brutal. Adamantine. But then you realize, and this is the first stage of your healing, that you actually won't die of grief. That a person won't die of grief is true, I would say, in 99% of cases. Sometimes, and I have seen it happen, a person becomes so engulfed in the loss s/he experienced that s/he actually does die. But this isn't normally the way things work out. You don't die from your grief; you only think you are going to die.
The implication of this statement is that when you finally realize you won't die of your grief, you are experiencing the first stage of healing. You won't die. "I shall not die, I shall live," is the great Easter message in the Surrexit Christus, Alleluia. You don't have to be a Christian or be sympathetic to its central message to realize that the realization that we still live, that we still breathe and make choices, is the first step towards rebuilding a life. When you realize this, you also awaken to the fact that you have choices in life--one of which is to continue in your grief. This, then, leads to the second point.
II. Reframing--Telling a New Story
I ate lunch with a teaching colleague several years ago, and he was pensive. He shared with me that something remarkable had happened in his life in the previous few days. To set the context: he and his wife had a son, about 18 months-old at the time, who was suffering from a severe congenital defect that probably would result in many surgeries for the child in the upcoming years, with no assurance at the end that the child would lead a "normal" life. The child might even die. My colleague told me that the previous night he had been bathing his son and was so overwhelmed with grief that he began to weep. All he could see in his son were all the surgeries and all the pain, all the sadness and loss that was coming down the road. But the child was in the tub, playing away, happy, squealing, pressing this ducky and pushing that boat. Then, it dawned on my colleague. He said to himself, 'Why should I live in an uncertain future of hopelessness when I have a vibrant little boy, whom I love, squawking with delight right before my eyes?' Right then and there my colleague decided that he would embrace his son, literally and figuratively, and have the joy of the now be the joy that shaped his life.
I am far from suggesting that all a person who suffers from complicated grief needs to do is magically "reimagine" the situation and all will be well. But reframing one's grief is at the heart of being able to be healed. The Biblical character of Job, for example, was immovably bogged down in grief because he just knew that his loss meant that God hated him. There were no two ways about it. He had abundant proof of God's hatred and cynicism towards him. Only when Elihu entered in chs. 32-37 and offered an alternative explanation of his distress was Job able to hear God again in ch. 38. The act of reframing is often aided by friends or a counselor; sometimes it can be done by the individual him/herself. Usually it takes quite a bit of time to do this, but the "bottom line" of reframing is that you don't have to adopt the same explanation of the loss that continually gives you your grief.
III. Reaffirmation--A Daily Job
One you have learned to reframe your grief--by giving it another name or another explanation or by choosing to construe the situation in a different way than you had previously interpreted it--, you cannot stop there. It is as if a person who just performed the most impressive dunk in a basketball game wanted to stop the action and get his reward before resuming the game. But the "game" of life goes on without interruption. Just as the basketball player, after the shot of his life, must 'rush back' to get on defense, so the person who has reframed his/her complicated grief must continue living. The way to continue living well is to reaffirm the new story on a daily basis. You can reaffirm that story through telling it to people, by making a song out of it, through writing it down, through keeping it ever before you. But you will need to frame or cloak that reaffirmation as a sort of aphorism or epigram so that you can say the essence of the reframing in a few words to yourself. It can be as short as "It is in my hands now" or "I leave it all to God," or some other such brief statement that means something to you. But the "faith" of your healing, through the reframing, must be reiterated each day. Sometimes you have to repeat it more often than once a day. But do so until it becomes as stitched to your soul as was your grief.
Grief may, in time, become the best teacher you ever had. It exacts a tremendous price from us, but it leaves us a gift that even the richest person on earth can't purchase: wisdom or insight. During the grief you can never perceive it as a gift; after the grief, you almost weep because of the nature of the gift it brings. Thus, give grief its due; let it do a number on you; but realize that you won't die of it, that the key to your "healing" is in reframing the grief, and that a daily reaffirmation of the lesson of the reframing adds to your daily recovery.