Professional Student of Life
Adventures in personal growth
May: Making Sense of Grief
The longer I live, the more I think about death, the more convinced I am that when we finally come to it, death will be just another expression of God’s unbounded love and beauty. ~ Norman Vincent Peale
I’ve been thinking a lot about death and grief since one of my daughter’s young friends died recently in a car crash. He was just a few weeks shy of eighteen, an only child.
I don’t worry about him. I agree with Norman Vincent Peale that death is likely a beautiful experience for the one who dies. The people who have it hard are the ones left behind. I think many times a day about this boy’s parents and what they’re going through. I don’t know them, but being the parent of an only child, I can imagine the pain and emptiness they must feel.
It’s easy enough to speak of “feeling the feelings” when you’re just talking about everyday, run-of-the-mill frustrations and anxiety. Jill Bolte Taylor wrote about her experience following a stroke that temporarily knocked out the verbal processing center of her brain (My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey). She found that ninety seconds was all it took to process emotions, once you remove the “story” from them (all the thoughts surrounding the emotions themselves).
I wonder how this applies to something like grief?
Obviously, ninety seconds represents the barest drop of water in that ocean of sadness. Maybe in this case it’s more like ducking underwater, holding your breath as long as possible, and then crawling out to rest on the shore and gasp for a while. Then repeat the process over and over and over again, until one day you find yourself just floating, resting on the pain rather than struggling with it.
There’s a difference between “clean pain,” which just has to be felt, and “dirty pain,” which is the suffering that comes from getting lost in the story of why this shouldn’t be happening. I think of the Biblical Job, who certainly had reason to experience clean pain. He lost all of his children, his worldly goods, and his health. The image of him sitting on an ash heap, scraping his sores, is probably apt for what the parents of this boy must be feeling. The challenge (I imagine) is not to get lost in shaking your fist at God, but to patiently endure the pain until it softens and recedes on its own, however many months and years it takes.
Another metaphor that makes sense to me in a strange way is composting: the process of breaking down and extracting nutrients that ultimately go on to nourish new life. In my mind, I picture lying facedown in the center of a circle of giant trees, the pain leaching gently from my heart into the soil, being absorbed by the roots of the trees, and then transforming into something beautiful and life nurturing. In nature, death is inextricably linked with life, one leading to the other, with no story in between. It just is.
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