Grief work is the mourning of unresolved, past pain in our body-minds. Clearing these historical love wounds frees our hearts.
Sharing our grief with others is healing and supportive. Ultimately, however, grief is our own to bear, especially because any single grief event can activate what I call our “treasure chest of woes”—any of our ungrieved losses. Each loss, therefore, is an opportunity to clear out our hearts.
The degree to which we’ve tended to our heart’s pain in years past influences the quality, duration, and depth of our current loss, and therefore the extent of our grief work. For this reason, every experience of loss is an opportunity to cleanse both past and present pain from our body-mind, to which this short poem speaks:
A flint, igniting
A world of woes
In my breast.
The result of passing through wholehearted grief is to be able to love more deeply and broadly. This is because heartache is cleared by grief and because our capacity for empathy and compassion grows from heartbreak when we stay present with it. When we can embrace and strangely rejoice in our own grief, we can show up courageously for others in pain and help them into more love.
We gain this capacity for kindness by compassionately showing up for ourselves and being supported by others in distress. In this, we don’t so much try to fix another’s pain; instead, our empathy is able to connect with their depths to hold space for their organic migration into clearer waters. This doesn’t mean we have to stay silent; it does mean that our words are connected to our heartfelt empathy, which in turn is attuned to the somatic experience of the bereaved.
This comprehensive presence or attunement from another can be palpably felt. I think we all can sense this quality in another. We know when we are in their presence. They are the kind of person who has stayed present through the storms of loss and struggle in their own life without turning away, forging them into a living work of art, depth, and wisdom that can’t be gained through study or knowledge alone.
These people are the depth healers through times of collective crisis, holding space for the pain to be expressed and released so it doesn’t fester and contribute to PTSD, apathy, and the enduring suffering that result from not dealing with grief.
Grief is also intrinsically related to anger. The two are Yin and Yang emotions, respectively, and intimately influence one another. What we have not grieved will often manifest as violence, acting out, and malevolent anger. Allowing ourselves to grieve is therefore a form of self-care and a radical path to joy. Conversely, what we have not allowed ourselves to be upset about also can show up as perpetuated sadness, depression, and a muting of our vitality, which is a kind of numbing not to be confused with the muted (Yin) aliveness of healthy grief. Many will turn this anger against themselves, resulting in self-harm and depression. This dynamic is captured in the expression “depression is anger turned inwards.”
If we can’t befriend our grief, we can’t as truly and deeply embody joy or gratitude and the capacity to love in integrated fashion. Khalil Gibran conveyed it this way:
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain . . .
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Love, then, is forged from embracing and skillfully working with all our emotions. In particular, growing in love derives from the heart-breaking-open power of grief, such that grief and joy are different sides of the same coin. The more we care about things and people, the more we grieve when we lose them, which is inevitable. As a result, the more we grieve the more our hearts open and broaden, eventually filling in with compassion and empathy, as long as we stay open and process our difficult emotions effectively.
To hold back from attaching and caring is to suffer another kind of pain—that of not living fully. Grief work, then, gives us the antidote, the radical security, to care for our world and to live more fully. Grief work is psychic medicine to recover from life’s inevitable losses and disappointments. Because we have no sustainable choice but to grieve in the face of loss, grief is the portal into wholeheartedness and the other side of suffering: passion, creativity, connection, depth, compassion, and belonging.
Grief Does Us
Loss is humbling. Grief instills humility in us, the humility of not being in control, not winning, and of being taken down to the the ground, to the level of humus, from which the word humility derives. Grief brings the humility of vulnerability and openness, so long as we stay true to heartbreak’s breaking us open. Grief’s action to take us down and deeper, to slow us down, and to break our hearts open is how it engenders deep, abiding love in us. Compassion and empathy come with this territory.
Grief work confers another boon: it teaches us simplicity because it schools us in “doing without,” which is the letting go process. Grief is a kind of desert, one that ripens us into being more robustly humane. In grief, we fall away from many usual interests and distractions; we learn to survive and then thrive from this void. This way grief helps us minimize and thrive, as we gain more by facing our heartache than numbing it away with entertainment and frivolous distractions. This helps us reduce our carbon footprint and pollution of all kinds.
When we pass through grief we realize something else: we don’t grieve as much as grief grieves us. We also don’t choose (for the most part) how long we grieve. It shows up and stays as long as it needs to. There does come a time when we might gently effort ourselves out of grief, once we’ve endured its depths. In its nadir, grief transforms us by dissolving our pain, lightening our heart-load, and leaving the inner path from our core self to our expression in the world more clear and potent. Who embodies this clear and robust path, rich with “spiritual” groundedness and wisdom (gained from staying true to moving through pain), is the kind of person that can support others through loss.
To stymie grief is to sabotage love. It is also to consolidate pain inside us, which then acts like a radioactive toxin that continues to emit pain inside us and to the world. This taints every aspect of our lives, especially our relationships. This “radioactive” pain, however, is different from the pain we befriend and accept in embodied grief. Because the former is unconscious, it is expressed as violence, abuse, fanaticism, and misplaced anger . . . all of which amount to projection and displacement of emotion for a failure to embody the root of these disseminations, which is the acute pain of our grief.
We see, then, the importance of befriending inevitable pain once it has arrived.
Grief is crucial for full-bodied, comprehensive love. For grief helps to mitigate love’s shadow that isn’t accessed, and many times is enforced, by the love we already have in hand. It may be that love is all we need, as the root cure for unnecessary human misery and the destruction we cause to the planet. Yet, because so many focus primarily on the bright and easier side of loving, love’s shadow—as the result of our failure to embody grief—continues to act out and wreak havoc.
We see love’s shadow, for example, in the violence perpetrated by some gurus, priests, leaders, “spiritual” pundits, and other luminaries — those who show their bright side without dealing with their darkness. It’s for this reason that when I used to seek out gurus and self-help speakers, I would eventually ask them all one, same question: “How do you address pain?” Those who sidestepped the question, or avoided embracing it face-on, were inevitably the teachers I let go of. Speaking of which, I now add practicing good thinking to the list of crucial factors to dealing with pain and becoming a sustainable lover.
Grief is not virulently dark. It only becomes infertile and lethal when we don’t accept it. When we do, it makes our psyche, and indeed our body, fertile—sustainable to grow more genuine and holistic love and care in the world — because this kind of love is made of integrated light and dark, joy and pain, just as Gibran relates.
Like plants that need both sunlight for their foliage and darkness for their roots, without addressing both the light and dark sides of love, we can’t thrive and become what we deep down know we are capable of in our heart of hearts. If we don’t tend to our inner work, we can’t create what Charles Eisenstein calls “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.”
Grief As Guru
For these reasons, we should not just try to get through grief, but pause with it. We can summons the courage and curiosity to see what it has to teach us by letting it have its way with us for a time. This learning, however, is not only didactic, but almost unspeakably somatic in the way that it clears our pain. For this, we only need to allow ourselves to feel and follow grief’s pain deep into our hearts; it knows what it’s doing and secretly promises to leave us better for it.
The great poet Rilke invites us to consider: “Why would you try to reject any discomfort, any misery, or sadness? After all, you don’t know what these forces are working inside you.” And for grief’s intellectual and aphoristic wisdom it confers, we can be aware of and reflect on how grief and heartbreak operate in us, as I have attempted to summarize in this writing and to which I dedicate more comprehensive coverage to in this audio.
Running from grief because it seems too painful is short-sighted. Embodying, accepting, and finding the most appropriate ways to address the painful emotions that come our way ensures that we become the fullest human beings we can. Our lack of wisdom to welcome and embody grief shortchanges our humanity and, in my opinion, is a root cause for our inability to generate the real-deal compassion needed treat one another and the planet more kindly.