It’s storming here in Austin right now. At 10 a.m. and as dark out as if it were 11 p.m. But this morning has me writing between clients because I’ve been doing some reflecting lately on grief.
Grief is a very subjective thing. No two people process the death of a loved one alike. My own experiencing of grief has taken different forms based on the various people I have lost in life.
To me, it all makes sense because people come into our lives and teach us various things and touch us in different ways and the memory of those people accesses different parts of ourselves.
There’s another type of grief, though, apart from grieving those who have passed. It’s the grief over those who are alive but estranged. I’ve dealt with that, as well.
With that kind of grief, it’s one or the other person typically who has made the decision to move on as it were or perhaps there wasn’t an actual decision. Maybe someone is physically present but psychologically absent as is the case with dementia or someone is physically absent but psychologically present as is the case when separated from someone by geography.
The reasons for having to say goodbye can vary widely—maybe it’s the case of two people going through a breakup or divorce, maybe it’s the loss of a business relationship with someone, maybe it’s saying goodbye to a parent who is experiencing Alzheimer’s disease in all of these cases the loss is a bit more ambiguous.
Sometimes people have to say goodbye to a relative who is abusive and refuses to change, maybe we have to say goodbye to a caregiver we always wish we had but never actually got. We may even be grieving a place or let’s say a time period in our lives.
Sometimes we experience what’s called anticipatory grief where we know in advance that we will be experiencing a loss. Sometimes the grief is ambiguous where we may still physically be present, but those we are with are psychologically gone.
With grief comes pain. Sure. And it’s that kind of pain that is best to acknowledge.
Joan Didion writes about grief in her famous book The Year of Magical Thinking. Magical thinking refers to the tendency to think that our own thoughts or desires or actions can alter the happening of unwanted events like grief and mourning.
Sometimes we get into this space of imagining the person we have lost by our side, sitting across the breakfast table and lifting their glass of coffee. Or we can picture ourselves walking the streets of that city long ago and that person we once were.
There’s a magical quality to this propensity. That’s what Joan and others have attempted to describe.
Maybe magical thinking is our feeble attempt to think that we can control the outcome in either case and bring certainty to an uncertain situation—the playing out of an unwanted event or the loss of a loved one. Dr. Boss talks about this in her definition of ambiguous loss.
I don’t think there is harm in the wanting of things to be different. And the sense of wanting things to change going forward is a powerful force for motivation. But when we’re talking about the past, those are things that we cannot change.
We can’t bring back the dead. We can’t go back in time and reverse events.
We can, though, change our view of things and eventually come to a place of acceptance. And that is where the real healing can begin. With acceptance, I think, comes our only real chance for empowerment.
With acceptance what we are controlling is not so much the facts of the situation but our vantage point from which we view the facts of the event. This is part of the process of flipping the script.
Many of these concepts that I’m explaining I don’t lay claim to ownership of. All of this is heavily (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) CBT based.
Sometimes the sense of pain that comes with the sense of loss is about the perceived loss of our ability to control events and/or our environment or even to handle the blows we’ve been dealt. And while it may be true in some sense that there are things beyond our choosing, it is also true that we can choose our response to those things.