Grief has something of a bad rap in our culture. We tend to believe in the notion of constant progress–an arrow-like ascent into an ever-better future. And yet to be alive is to experience loss: A loss of youth and its corresponding innocence, a loss of possibilities as we commit ourselves to a particular path of action, a loss of friends and loved ones as they pass away. The natural way to express loss is through grieving. When given its due, grief opens the door to new life. In this fourth article in a series of five, traditional healer and Sacred Fire Community Lifeways provider Prema Sheerin continues her exploration of the five “elemental” emotions that are a natural part of the human experience.

Like the rain that comes to cool the heat of summer, grief (which is associated with the season of autumn) provides nourishing moisture that allows us to process and heal the losses we will inevitably encounter. In our modern western culture we have become obsessed with happiness and we have shunned the emotion of grief, believing that it is ‘negative’ and ‘depressing’. We apologize for our tears and sadness, thinking that we are ‘bringing everyone down’. A vast polarity has been created between sadness and happiness and we see happiness as being the desired outcome, a place to arrive and stay. We have forgotten that happiness, like all elemental emotions, will arise and then subside to make way for the next feeling that will swell in response to the circumstances of our lives.

We view the experience of sadness as a sign of weakness. It is ‘lame’, ‘a downer’ or ‘depressing’. Our society is based on the principle of growth and productivity and there is enormous pressure not to ‘break down’. In this environment, the expression of grief is seen as some kind of malfunction, inhibiting our productivity and therefore our sense of worth. In this way we become ashamed of our grief, believing that it indicates a lack of dignity or self-control. Instead we are supposed to present a ‘brave face’ to the world and, above all, to ‘keep busy’.

However, because grief is the emotion that allows us to accept and process loss this approach is, in itself, a great loss for us. It contributes to the imbalance and dis-ease in our modern western culture. One of our challenges is that we have given the cognitive mind so much importance. A primary concern of the mind in our organism is to avoid danger and loss. Grief, as the emotion that moves us to let go of what we must, is inherently threatening to the cognitive mind. The mind wants to have us think about the situation rather than to feel it. It wants to recount the story of our loss, and to strategize against further loss, rather than allowing us to truly express the emotion of our loss. But when we deny the very expression of the emotion that allows us to heal the loss, we thwart our ability to let go and open to what life will bring next. When we do not feel free to express what we are really feeling we tend to believe that we are the only one who is struggling in this way. Our sense of sadness and separation mounts and we feel evermore isolated.

Have you ever had the thought, “If I really allow this sadness I will drown in it! I will become depressed and never escape”? I have said it to myself and heard it from clients many times. But this is a story we have been told as grief has become synonymous with depression. In some schools of psychology it is now taught that if a patient who has experienced an important loss is still grieving after 2 weeks, they should be prescribed anti-depressants. Instead of allowing the grief to process a loss, to heal us and make us whole, we anesthetize the pain and lock it inside. This leads to a plethora of adverse effects such as anxiety, bitterness, resignation, addiction, physical symptoms and eventually depression.

It is true that feeling the depth of our grief can be physically painful, disorienting, exhausting and overwhelming. The mind may be forgetful or roam wildly. Grief is a slow moving emotion and it will come in waves that arise unexpectedly in response to a memory, or a smell, or something we see. There are no shortcuts through grief. We cannot get around it – we must go through it. And, when we do, despite the pain, it feels real and true. Our grief is connected to the presence of our heart, rather than to the suffering that we tend to create with our mind.

Veronica was referred to me because her husband had committed suicide about a year earlier. She was still experiencing waves of grief but found that her family and friends expected her to be over it by now. She, too, felt that she should be done with her grief and was afraid to express sadness at home because she wanted to be strong for her teenage daughter. However, her daughter was becoming ever more distant. Veronica distracted herself with shopping and medicated her feelings with alcohol and food. She had gained a lot of weight and felt lost, stuck and lonely. I encouraged Veronica to allow the grief when it came up, through tears, writing or creativity, and to simply feel it rather than to analyze it. I also suggested that she stop trying to hide it from her daughter. As she gave herself permission to feel again, things began to move. She began once more to feel some interest in life and even moments of joy. What surprised her most was that, as she was more honest about what she was feeling with her daughter, they became much closer again. After some more time she began another relationship, something that she had thought she would never be able to do again.

Each one of us has our grief. Most of us have a reservoir of sadness from all the unacknowledged losses of our life that we did not give space to feel. Then, when there is a loss so great that it cannot be ignored, the dam breaks and the waters flood forth. The many small losses suddenly come rushing to the surface. It can feel completely overwhelming and uncontrollable. This is why it is so important to make a practice of allowing our sadness as it arises in response to the many losses of life, both small and large, even when it doesn’t make logical sense to our mind, or even if there seems to be no reason for the sadness at all because sometimes it is not our own grief that we are feeling.

One of the misconceptions of our modern view is that our emotions are personal, psychological events that happen purely inside our own brain and body. However, indigenous peoples understand emotions as being an important part of the way we listen to the environment around us. We speak of ‘elemental emotions’ because the very nature of the elements that make up the living world is that of feeling, of emotion. Saying that sadness is ‘negative’ is like saying that we should do away with air. And just as we read the quality of the environment we are in by the nature of the weather, the sun, the earth, so too can we read the situation we find ourselves in by the emotional qualities we feel. When we find grief welling up inside us for no apparent reason it may well be that there is sadness in the people around us, or as a result of the circumstance we find ourselves in. We may feel sadness for the pain in the world. Grief, like all our emotions, is not just personal. Our feelings can become a vital way of listening to the world around us and responding appropriately.

The gift of grief is summed up beautifully in this poem by Jeff Foster:

Let it come closer, let it engulf you if it must.
Until there is no division between ‘self’ and ‘sadness’.
Until you cannot call it ‘sadness’ at all.
Until there is only intimacy.
Sadness keeps you soft and flexible.
It reminds you, when you have forgotten,
of the beautiful fragility underneath all things.
In the softness of the heart lies its capacity to love.
Sadness is not the opposite of joy, but its gateway.

Grief is one of the fundamental, elemental, healing and transformative energies of life. It dissolves the brittle façade that our ego-mind can create. It demands that we confront the fear of loss that pervades our mind and our culture. Ultimately, we can only experience the intensity of our happiness to the extent that we are willing to experience our sorrow. The true brave face of loss is to simply allow the most natural, visceral expression of grief to move through us and carry us onward.