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The Lessons of Grief

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The Lessons of Grief

Honoring who and what you love.
Joan Z. Borysenko Ph.D.
Joan Z. Borysenko Ph.D. More by this author
May 01, 2010 at 10:00 AM

The first lesson of loss is the allowance of grief. You might have heard about the animal psychic who was contacted by scientists from a prominent zoo because they were having trouble with the elephants. The giant creatures, taking their cue from the most senior female among them, had stopped obeying commands. Nothing the keepers did got any response, so finally, at their wits’ end, they took the unusual step of consulting a psychic.

The woman asked if any elephants might recently have left the zoo and learned that one of them, the oldest female, had been moved away a year or so previously and subsequently died. At the psychic’s request, the remains were located and the skull was brought back to the zoo. There, the elephants, especially the senior female who’d had the closest relationship to the dead animal, gathered around and touched the skull with their sensitive trunks while giving full expression to their grief. Once this was accomplished, they returned to their former state of compliance with their keepers, and life at the zoo resumed its normal flow.

Before the elephants could continue with life, they first had to honor the loss of a dear companion. And so it is with human beings. Allowing time to grieve what was, and to honor its spirit and continuing role in our life, is essential wisdom for making the Hero’s Journey home. Trauma specialists like Peter Levine, author of Waking the Tiger, know that when it flows, life is a continually self-renewing stream of energy, charging and discharging. But when something so devastating crosses our path that we’re overwhelmed by it and can’t physiologically discharge in response, the stream turns into a whirlpool that holds us back and wears us down. Stress-related illnesses become common at such times, and zest for beginning creative new initiatives wears thin.
Life is renewed only when held energy can leave our bodies, often in the form of discharged emotion such as the tears of grief or the physical shaking of fear. Letting go is initially just this: a physical exhalation of held energy.

There’s no prescription for how long grieving is supposed to last. We break free when some combination of time, grace and mindfulness come together to create enough space to hold on to the memory of what’s dear without losing ourselves to it. And that’s a fine distinction.

When we can’t let go, some part of us turns into a pillar of salt, just like Lot’s wife. Whatever we can’t let go of holds on to us in an eerily ghostly way, so that we, for however long the holding lasts, become ghosts of ourselves. We become what we behold—so if it’s the dying past we continue to look upon, we feel perpetually as though a part of us is also dying.

I spoke to an Israeli man who’d lost his only son in a suicide bombing and whose life had effectively stopped at that point. He angrily said that he couldn’t “move on” with his life, as others had advised, because nothing could “replace” his son—nothing! He was right, since nothing ever could replace his son, but he was also wrong. To move on doesn’t mean to replace, or to cherish less, the memory of those who are dear to us. Moving on isn’t disloyalty. It’s not a failure to acknowledge the ways in which our lives have been indelibly touched and enriched by whom or what we loved.

There’s a wooden plaque on my door that reads: “Whatever we love becomes part of us.” What we love, and therefore honor, helps make us who we are now. We can’t ever let go of that, any more than a tree could let go of the sun, rain, earth or wind that nourished and grew it.

About Author
Joan Z. Borysenko Ph.D.
Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., is one of the leading experts on stress, spirituality, and the mind/body connection. She has a doctorate in medical sciences from Harvard Medical School, is a licensed clinical psychologist, and is the co-founder and former dir Continue reading