Leslee Tessmann: Sacred Grief

Book: Sacred Grief


Just the Facts Ma’am: Separating Fact from Fiction

If we are interested in having an unconditional relationship with our grief, surrendering to sacredness over and over again, we need to start from nothing. To get to nothing, we need to separate reality from illusion. However, most of us wouldn’t consciously give grief this kind of consideration. We hardly take the time to separate reality from illusion with our friends and loved ones. Why on earth would we want to take the time to sort all that out as it relates to our grief?

Well, for starters, just as with others, a relationship to grief based on illusions or myths can lead to disappointment, upsets, and frustration and frequently promotes more suffering than peace. When I say myths I’m not referring to the work that has been done to define the tasks and stages of grief. Those aren’t myths. They are observations from countless hours of professional counseling and research. The myths I’m talking about come mostly from us. They are the stories we tell ourselves along the way to avoid or ease the pain, like:

  • I should be over this by now.
  • It shouldn’t hurt this much.
  • If I give in to my pain it will never end.
  • If I cry, that will mean I’m weak.
  • I have to be strong so that I don’t upset others.
  • Men don’t cry.
  • I should know how to handle all these feelings.

The harsh fact about these myths is that, rather than ease our pain, they actually add to it. Furthermore, as long as we believe that they are true we will create a barrage of self-induced suffering that grossly exceeds what the natural process indiscriminately gives us. The suffering arises when we assess where we are in the process, how we are handling it, and who is or isn’t comforting us, blah, blah, blah. Here’s how it goes

We start to feel some emotion and automatically decide whether it’s good or bad. If it’s what we label bad we push the sensation down to protect ourselves rather than allow it to come and go. Then we create a thought, or myth, to explain to ourselves why we shouldn’t feel what we’re feeling. Our need to understand then becomes more important than experiencing what’s happening because we’re convinced understanding is the means to avoid the pain. But the pain hasn’t passed and sooner or later the sensation returns and the whole cycle of judging, suppressing, and trying to understand what’s happening starts all over again. Now, piled on top of the pain, is the deep, constricting ache of suffering rather than the peace of allowing the pain to just “be.”

Given what I’ve just described, the whole idea of fabricating or buying into myths is insane. But we can’t stop the insanity or suffering until we take responsibility for creating it. Only then are we left with “just the facts, ma’am” about the natural unfolding of our grief and here are some of those facts.

  1. Grief presents us with a vast array of emotions human beings typically label negative. These emotions include pain, sadness, depression, confusion, frustration, guilt, blame, and anger.
  2. Grief also presents us with an array of emotions human beings typically label positive. These emotions include relief, love, forgiveness, and peace.
  3. The grief process is not linear. It ebbs and flows and is as flexible as life itself and as you and I. It is neither stagnant nor constrained to being any particular way.
  4. Grief has no sense of time or space. It has no concern with a schedule or way of being expressed.
  5. Grief is as much a part of our natural lives as the bliss of falling in love, the profound moment of childbirth, the sensual experience of lovemaking, or the satisfaction and delight of having a dream manifest itself in reality.
  6. Grief is not selective about who gets to experience it. No one is exempt.
  7. Grief holds no human being more or less capable of moving through its process than another.

If any of these facts sound familiar it’s because they are as relevant to life as they are to grief. Everything comes and goes. Just as pain comes and goes, so does joy and every emotion inbetween. In each waking moment, human beings shift and change. Rarely are we in the same mood or state of being at the end of the day that we start with in the morning. If we relate to grief the same way we relate to the people in our lives, with expectations based on our illusions or myths rather than how they are in any given moment, we are left with an experience of suffering created by no one but ourselves.

So, what is it that would allow us to create a relationship to grief that is not based on myth? Well, first of all, as I mentioned earlier in this chapter, we need to take responsibility for the assessments that constantly cross our minds. Then we give up our attachment to the decisions and past experiences that led to those assessments and rest comfortably in “don’t know.” Buddhists call this empty mind, or beginner’s mind. It is the space of creation where anything is possible and the perfect breeding ground from which to create a completely new relationship to grief. One that is not based on myths, but one that shifts and flows with the natural, universal wisdom and knowledge inherent in the grief process.

Now let’s explore this deeper. If we are creating this relationship from nothing and we have language, we can use that language to create a thought or idea that enhances our lives rather than adds to our suffering. That thought or idea then becomes the “context” to our experience. I address context at length in the next chapter but touched briefly on it in my story when I described driving up to my parents’ home after arriving for the funeral. I was afraid to go inside and the thought that came to mind was “Sacred. It’s all sacred.” I can’t really explain why that particular thought was there, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I now had an idea—a context—that could surround all the ensuing events. I didn’t want to miss out on a single moment because I wanted to honor and respect my father and this celebration of his life and death.

Another thought or idea that makes a difference when it comes to relationships is “conscious commitment.” Relationships flourish and expand when there is a commitment that has us stay with someone or something for its natural duration. We have many relationships we maintain at different levels of commitment: co-workers, neighbors, friends, parents, children, siblings, and so on. Many of our daily interactions have an automatic quality to them. We don’t think about how we are going to interact with the postman, grocery store clerk, or beautician. When we see them we say, “Hello.” “How are you?” “Have a nice day.” “Take care,” and then go on our way.

Then there are other relationships in our lives where, to some degree or another, we are aware of our commitment. These relationships include spouses, partners, children, and close friends. They don’t just come and go and we are completely clear that we are “in” these relationships. We invest time and energy with the intention to deepen and sustain them and they are the relationships that we may already relate to as “sacred.” They contribute to us, we contribute to them, and it is because of this that we actually remain in these relationships.

Consider what life would be like if we were consciously committed to all our relationships. They would take on many different forms but we would be genuinely interested in and respect the other person exactly as they are in every moment. This conscious commitment would bring a curious quality to every interaction with whoever happened to be there in that moment—the kind of curiosity experienced when one holds a sleeping baby and notices with awe its tiny features and peaceful presence.

If we can believe that it’s possible to commit this way to every relationship in our lives, it follows that we could choose to consciously commit to anything in our lives, including to our grief. It would also follow that if we are completely committed then we could also learn to trust, respect, and accept our grief. Like our other relationships, it would have a beginning and an end, ups and downs, moments of sheer confusion and frustration, and moments of pure ecstasy and joy. If all of that is possible out of just declaring a conscious commitment to our grief, what would have us so adamantly resist that which has the capacity to bring healing and peace to our lives?

Remember my story and the early decision I made to suppress my grief when my grandmother died? In retrospect, I can see that I also operated from that same experience and decision in my personal relationships. I began to suppress my feelings and not share about them with the people in my life. Rather than act from a conscious commitment to those relationships, I was still compensating for an extremely uncomfortable experience in the past. Granted, I was a child and my choice back then, although unconscious, was logical. But today I’m not a child dealing with my grandmother’s death. I’m an adult who is capable of making conscious choices about who and what I am committed to now.

And so it is with all of us. We are all completely capable of giving up our attachment to the young decisions we made that created reference points that no longer serve us. We then come face-to-face with the dilemma all human beings face. Given the fact that there are endless beginnings and endings throughout our lives, we have to grapple with the reality that grief demands a considerable portion of our time and energy. It happens frequently and takes on many forms: divorce, lost jobs, broken relationships, death, retirement, watching your 5-year-old get on the bus for their first day of school, watching your 18-year-old go off to college or your children get married, or perhaps having a loved one go off to war and never retrun.

All of these events present us with the opportunity to recognize our grief and move through it, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly. It is frequently there and right alongside the grief is the opportunity to choose how we are going to relate to the spectrum of emotions that begin to ebb and flow. We can also declare our commitment to the grief process. Am I in or am I out? Will I push and strategize my way through this as quickly as possible or will I latch onto my grief with the grip of death and indulge it for all it’s worth? Am I open to taking the middle way, not grasping nor indulging, and let the sensations come and go? Am I willing to honor it for as long as we both shall live?

This moment will present itself many times over and each time we can choose to step into the unknown and vast space of nothing. When we work with the facts, our reference point for what is occurring is nothing and we can create anything. When we work with what is happening based on our past decisions and self-created myths, the reference point is our opinions, assessments, and predictions. One path breeds peace, the other breeds suffering. Which path will you choose the next time grief enters your life?

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