In his book, Love’s Executioner, acclaimed psychiatrist and novelist, Irvin Yalom writes: “[the therapist] enters the life of the patient and is affected and sometimes changed by the encounter”. In my work with patients experiencing grief, I have undoubtedly been changed. In this kind of work I’ve come to understand that grief is not an experience but a force of nature.
This idea began to take shape when working with a female client in her 30s. She was smart, both academically and emotionally and her insight was remarkable. In therapy she worked persistently to be a better, more authentic version of herself.
There was a time that she walked into my office tearful, angry and thoroughly frustrated. “How is it possible that I’ve yet to work through this,” she asked. She went on to recount a recent experience she’d had while talking with her sister in an effort to plan a party. She explained that while talking decorations and guest lists, she was acutely aware and consciously choosing to silence an internal scream that pleaded with her to implement some “damn boundaries”. She described the somatic sensation of a “familiar pebble growing into a dense stone” in her throat, which were followed by a flood of the same hot tears that had streaked her 7-year-old face when her parents announced that they would separate.
I explained, as those 30ish year old tears fell once again in my office, “you are working through it right now. This is how grief works”.
While grief is most commonly talked about as it relates to death and dying, the reality is that it is incited anytime we experience a loss. This client was being whipped around by the forces of grief that accompanied the loss of a fantasy — the fantasy that parents stay together forever.
Grief is an experience that has been dissected and studied formally and through ritual for centuries. As humans we are wired to seek relief from pain and we employ all kinds of antics both conscious and unconscious to do so. The majority of us prescribe to the idea that if we can understand what is happening, we are more able to manage it. Hence, many have attempted to understand and define grief.
The understanding of grief that is most standard is that posed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in the late 60s.
Kübler-Ross opened a dialogue about death with hundreds of people as they were dying. She then reflected on these conversations in her book, On Death and Dying. Kübler-Ross suggested that grief is a process that includes 5 identifiable emotional experiences or “stages”:
Denial — Anger — Bargaining — Depression — Acceptance
These stages are probably familiar to you, as they are a kind of gold standard. But, as they have been adopted into popular culture, so too have inaccurate and unhelpful assumptions about how they might work. Fueled by the insatiable desire to understand and feel in-control, a common myth has emerged…a myth that my client had bought into. The myth is that grief is a finite process with a beginning and end. That grief concludes in a ‘forever’ stage of acceptance. That it can be finitely “worked through”. But, that is not how this thing works.
There is nothing nice, neat or linear about grief. Grief is erratic, messy and perpetual. Grief is a tornado.
When grief strikes, we are whipped around in the most violent turbulence of the tornado; the funnel that uproots houses and displaces livestock. The initial vortex of grief sends us thrashing through all the above mentioned stages, berating us with feelings that can create a sense that to hope for relief would be foolish.
The reason our heroine above was beset by that very old longing is because experiencing loss means living in the tornado. Grief is never complete and put away. The loss of her parents’ marriage meant something devastating when she was a child, and something completely different but equally as devastating as she imagined how things would be different if her mother was planning her father’s retirement party. What it would be like if she and her sister got to be daughters celebrating and not PR reps navigating the politics of a decades old divorce.
She got sucked back down into the tornado’s vortex where feelings and memories spiral maniacally. It’s true that over time most people find a means to adapt to the “new normal” of major loss. It’s true that she had done that too. But, that’s the thing about the non-linear nature of grief. One minute you don’t notice the spin of emotions that you are riding out at the top of that funnel near fluffy clouds…and the next, the force of grief is whipping you around again.
So, how do you find relief in the throws of grief, new and old? The solution is simple but not easy: you feel into it.
Although counterintuitive, it is healthy to be angry, nostalgic and relieved all at the same time. You can know and believe that just like you have before, you will rise up the tornado’s funnel and return to a place that allows space for awareness, reflection, and longer more serene periods of acceptance. The stone in your throat morphs back into a pebble. And tornados are a beautiful force to behold.