Being with grief

When I was 25 my best friend Kelvin was murdered when we were in Thailand. I remember grieving a lot and deeply in those few days whilst traveling alone to Bangkok from rural Thailand and catching a flight home for his funeral. During this time I touched places I had not visited before, depths where I was not only crying about my friend, but crying about every single thought and feeling that would arise in me. In these places I felt profoundly sad, yet also very whole and singularly me in a way I had rarely, if ever, experienced before.

I made my way through the funeral, being with Kelvin’s friends and family, holding it together, trying to support. I left the graveside and got into the car of a friend’s father, and he began to drive away. Suddenly I felt intensely that I wasn’t finished there, I asked him to stop the car and got out, saying I would get a ride with someone else. I walked back to the grave, knelt by it, and after a short time there a great wall of grief began to take me, like the side of a mountain breaking and falling away. It was huge. It was intense. It was taking me. It was good.

Suddenly I was ripped out of that place by someone lifting me up from under the arms, a voice telling me “it’s ok, it’s ok”, but really telling me “don’t do that, don’t go there”. It was a strange and very wrong feeling. A wound upon a wound. A well-meaning but misguided older man from Kelvin’s footy club had sought to help me by pulling me out of the intensity of that grieving place which was most likely distressing for him to witness.

I feel like something got stuck inside me that day that has been slowly released over the 14 years since, at times when I think of Kelvin or tell a story about him. Perhaps it’s still being released today as I write this.

It concerns me how often I see natural and healthy grieving processes pathologised in our society. I see it expressed by my clients who tell themselves they “should be over this by now” when someone they love has died, they undergo a separation from a lover, or experience some other deep loss. These attitudes are unfortunately held in place by a society that seems to increasingly feel that if we don’t get over things quickly and in a “dignified” way that there is something wrong with us.

Whilst I do believe there are ways to fine tune and pass through the grieving process more quickly, the process itself needs honouring, patience and nurturing. Every loss for every person is its own particular journey which need not be judged against another. If we truly travel this journey we don’t just get over our loss, but grow a deeper acceptance of life and a more open, loving and compassionate heart. I am appalled at the ease and rapidity with which grieving people are offered pharmaceutical “solutions” to their pain and suffering from loss. It can seem to me like a wasting away of one of life’s great initiations and the richness that is offered through becoming intimate with grief.

To be clear, I’m not vehemently anti-medication or judgemental of those who choose that path. It just seems to me that there are other pathways which our society less and less understands the value of. It tends to turn away far too quickly from these other possibilities. Instead it chooses responses such as medication because they are much easier than what it takes to support someone through a time which, though valuable, can be protracted, devastating and truly dark. I would love to see us regain our knowledge of the transformational nature of grief, and create attitudes and support systems which better reflect its value to individuals, and to society.

May we travel our grief with grace, respect and true dignity…and receive the gifts offered to us.

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