I was asked by someone the other day: What is the point of grief? She explained she had lost someone close to her a few years ago, and still she did not understand why she grieved so much, why the pain was so deep, or why grief still hurt. That got me thinking more deeply about her question. I know what it is to experience grief, to walk down that road and wonder if it will ever end. To question everything I thought I knew about love and loss.
In exploring some of the reasons we grieve, I believe there is no greater purpose to grief than love. Grief highlights that we have loved and reminds us of what we have lost. Whether that is through death, through a relationship breakdown, or through a change in life’s circumstances; we grieve because we have loved someone or something, and we have lost it. It is love that creates a special place in our heart for our loved one, and it is love that shapes that place into the exact characterisation of the person we have deemed worthy of that love. But then loss comes visiting, and it takes away that person. Suddenly, we have a hole in our heart which was specially designed for that person.
Following on from love, I think it is apt to say we grieve in order to acknowledge that we have experienced a loss. It is a known tradition, across cultures and countries, to acknowledge the loss of a loved one by having a funeral; herein which other traditions come to the forefront to acknowledge loss, such as wearing black, or having car headlights on when driving as part of a funeral procession. These traditions, and variations of them, serve the purpose of acknowledgement.
Grief shapes our identity, how we view ourselves and how we identify ourselves. Grief still calls loved ones by name. wife, husband, parent, because if we were not these things, we would not be grieving now. But grief also calls us by our new identity so that in time it will be a balm to the soul and we can find new life within our new identity. Psychiatrist Randolph Nesse believes grief is a specialised form of sadness intended to help us cope with a life-altering event. Grief, therefore, is an adaptive emotion and an effective way to cope with the loss that has been experienced. It is there to demonstrate the significance of the loss and highlights how much we have loved. It acknowledges life will not be the same again. It starts to create and build a new identity upon which we build our lives from here.
‘Good, you’re over it now.’ This statement makes me mad! This week I was chatting with a person who recently had a death in their family. Amidst obvious crying and brief pauses to catch his breath, he began to share of his journey; the good, the bad, the crazy, the pain and yes, at times joy and laughter. A few months have passed since he experienced the loss, and he mentioned some of the comments he is now receiving when arriving at social gatherings or even work. It is seemingly as though people are relieved that he is ‘normal’ or ‘okay again’. He said to me: ‘Steve I went to a social event just recently. I spent most of the day building myself up to emotionally survive an hour or two at the event. I dressed well and wore the best ‘fake’ smile I could – but all this seemed to do was appease people’s belief that I am in fact ‘over it’.’ He continued: ‘Steve I’m barely making it out of bed in the morning. I hurt all the time. Deep down in my physical being is an ache I never knew even existed.’ So I reassured as best I could that he was indeed doing an amazing job getting through each day and I cheered him on for the strength and tenacity he showed by attending a social event.
In reality though, the truth is, we don’t get over grief. We learn to navigate life with it. There is no right amount of time to grieve. No right amount of time to stay home or go out or stop crying or stop laughing. Everyone is different. And that’s okay. So let’s be people who are generous with our comments, understanding with our tone and empathetic with our actions.