Living With Loss–The Discomfort of Grief

By Ken Wells - 02/09/2021


Series One: Blog Ninety-Nine

“Grief Changes Shape, but it never ends”- Keanu Reeves

Reeves’ reflection is hard to live with but has been true in my life of recovery.  I have learned that I do not have to wallow daily in the overwhelming experience of grief. I have discovered that over the years grief does change its shape in my life.

I have learned that I never really get over the loss of experience, relationships and departure. Many encounters in life I have forgotten but there is a collective consciousness about professional, personal, and spiritual experience that circulates throughout my life awareness, triggered by the actuality of grief and loss.

Pauline Boss writes about ambiguous loss. This concept refers to loss in life that underscores the lack of closure. Examples might be kidnappings where the victims are never found, sailors lost at sea, or soldiers who die on the battlefield and their bodies are never returned to the family. These life experiences highlight the reality that with grief and loss there can truly be no closure. I have found this to be true.

Ambiguous loss is pervasive. Immigrants long for the days of living in the mother country. Their homesickness is an abiding experience of grief. The pandemic is a foreboding reminder of the unfathomable loss of life and anguish across the world over the past year. There is no closure. The cycle of life requires that we practice the art of grieving.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross organized the stages of grief–denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. We like to think of it as an assembly line of experience. Go through the five stages and you’re done, right? Wrong! Kubler-Ross was working with the stages in process of those individuals facing the end of life, not those caring for the one dying.  Grief is not linear, nor is it about closure. 

Whenever there is detachment in a relationship that is destructive, many times there is no closure, just a reframing or reshaping in the position of the relationship. There have been people I have professionally worked with intimately every day for years.  Now that I no longer see them, the relationship has not ended. I continue to visit the rolodex of memories of relational experience with them from time to time. I probably will the rest of my life.

I have dear friends who I have lost but still feel connected to in some way even though we do not talk. There is no closure. Yet, the grief is reshaped over time and reminds me of the preciousness of life and relationship. Some people have come and gone in my life. I call them M.I.A’s (missing in action). They fit the category of “whatever happened to so and so”. This becomes a way of grieving the progression of “hellos and goodbyes” throughout the span of life. I would suggest that this is a way of categorizing and grieving meaningful relationships that no longer exist.

We tend to want to hang on to what no longer exists. This is where we can get stuck in grief. For sure, life is always changing. When we hang on to what no longer is, we are not present to the reality of what is now. We move from a desired community, and when we return we discover that life has changed and that what used to be no longer is. Sometimes this can help to move on and sometimes we get stuck trying to recreate the past.

It is common to be uncomfortable with unanswered questions. Why the pandemic? Why have certain people died and others with the same challenges remain almost unaffected by the pandemic? When will it be over? Why am I an addict? All of these are uncomfortable questions that have no satisfying resolve.

Throughout life we experience incremental grieving. Today’s losses trigger grief from past losses. We do best when we sit with the pain that grief presents.  When my mother was severely burned from a stove that blew up in her face when I was young, my maternal grandfather would not come into the house to visit her because the accident triggered the painful loss of a daughter who died in a fire when my mother was a child. He chose to resist the pain by not facing it.  Victor Frankl emphasized that without meaning there is no hope and without hope there is no meaning. Meaningfulness appears when we allow ourselves to sit with the pain and experience the loss in connection with others. Henri Nouwen once wrote “the friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing… not healing, not curing… that is a friend who cares”. Often, a friend is all we need to get through the nonsensical suffering that presents itself in the course of life. The sadness, loneliness and sheer depression is the result of a pathological situation, not that you are pathological.

Unattended unresolved loss can be transmitted generationally. My parents were a part of the Greatest Generation of World War II vintage. My dad never talked about spending two years of combat fighting that included the Battle of the Bulge, a bloody campaign. Geez, just sleeping outdoors everyday for two years would be traumatic enough. Yet, the suffering and losses were never discussed. I learned a lot by reading through his war chest after he died. Unresolved ancestral suffering is passed from one generation to another. Many times I have wondered if the depression I carry was bequeathed by my father’s not knowing how to grieve the many losses that he carried from war.

Many experiences are designed to express grief. Some of the most effective are homemade. Creating a tribute rather than having a funeral can be comforting. Drawing a picture of meaningful experience around the loss and sharing it with a dear friend can be healing.  Special meals, commemorative events and life celebrations can be helpful in managing loss and suffering. For me, sitting with the individual in spirit who was lost and having an empty chair conversation has always been healing. Writing letters, wearing special clothing, listening to specific music, revisiting old digs that were meaningful to you in the experience of your loss can also be healing. Talking about your loss to someone who cares to hear can alleviate the pain. Journaling is a great tool that can help to curate meaningfulness from suffering and loss. These days some people who do not like writing have found release and healing by speaking into their cell phone and then listening to it with a supportive friend. Allowing yourself to cry, laugh, or cuss can also be important.

What is most helpful is to surrender to the experience of grieving as a life-long experience. It doesn’t have to dominate daily experience, though it may consume any given moment. Sitting with grief and allowing yourself to feel the pain is a way to find meaningfulness in suffering and loss. Life seems to be a tapestry of hellos and goodbyes. Katharine Weber wrote that “Life seems sometimes like nothing more than a series of losses, from beginning to end. That’s the given. How you respond to those losses, what you make of what’s left, that’s the part you have to make up as you go.” We must all embrace the challenge of learning to live with losses.

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