Caregivers can only offer others what they offer to themselves. Without this intimate clarity of self-awareness, we exhaust ourselves by imagining another’s pain and offering inauthentic responses. We risk being vehicles of pity rather than compassion.
Grief is a universal experience, one that we need to know personally. Grief circles us all like planets orbiting the gravity of our suffering. No one is spared. Steven Levine wrote, ‘If sequestered pain made a sound, the world would be humming all the time.’ We can only hear and address the humming of our patients’ sequestered grief if we’re willing to hear our own. If we’re deaf to ours, we’re deaf to theirs.
I’d like to share five gates into our own grief so that we’re able to recognize and transform this most human experience. These gates are drawn from Francis Weller’s book The Wild Edge of Sorrow and modified based upon my own experience.
Gate 1 – Grief for what we love
Losing the people, capabilities, and objects we love is our most obvious grief gate. These overt losses sometimes hit us square in the chest with a tangible blow that brings us to the floor. Other times, we’re protected by numbness and denial until grief breaches our defenses. There’s no right way to experience loss but experience it we will, personally, viscerally, and profoundly. Those unable to allow the grief of loss may find its energy metastasizing and emerging as illness or destructive behaviors.
Seeing this metastasis in ourselves give us patience for our patients. We know that grief will find its way home as we help others create the conditions that allow their grief to flow naturally.
Gate 2 – Grief for what we’d rather not acknowledge
We can’t grieve what we don’t see. Some parts of ourselves are cloaked with shame and held out of view, remaining untouched by the healing of grief’s wisdom. This shadow side of ourselves looks at first to be a burden best left out but in reality is inseparable from our noblest qualities: The energy of a painful childhood fuels our adult compassion; the agony of oppression gives us the will to create a more just society.
We wish we could rewrite the past and remove our pain but it isn’t possible, let alone wise. Better that we grieve the mud of our pain while celebrating the flowers that grow from it. Doing this gives us the strength to stand open-heartedly with our patients as they grieve their regrets and ancient wounds. The poet Diane Ackerman wrote, ‘I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I lived just the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.’ Width includes shadow.
Gate 3 – Grief for the world’s sorrows
Anyone brave enough to open their senses can see that this is a suffering world. Suffering lives in distant lands and in our neighborhoods; in those we love and those we ignore; in our patient’s hearts and in our own lives. We might try to turn off the internet or cable news to avoid the world’s suffering, but because we aren’t separate, it will find us anyway. We inter-are with everything. We inter-are with universal dis-ease. There is no way to disconnect.
Once we were held in the flow of seasons and witnessed the rise and fall of life. We saw that the healthiest deer emerged from the coyote’s attack and that rotting leaves became the fertile soil of red, juicy strawberries. Now, we’ve lost the communal experience of birth and death and the shared rituals that held our grief. We’re left alone to carry the burden of loss unbalanced by gain.
As caregivers, finding ways to reconnect with the elemental cycles of birth and death, loss and gain, happiness and suffering, gives us the equanimity to sit at the bedside as silent, profound witnesses. We can be with our patient’s grief because we’ve learned how to be with our own.
Gate 4 – Grief for what we expected but did not receive
The unborn baby, the wilted relationship, the career not chosen, the opportunity just out of reach all represent hopes that linger unrealized in our hearts. ‘What might have happened,’ we wonder? ‘Who would I be now?’
Unlike our ancestors, who lived much like their ancestors, we live in a rapidly changing world. Basic, unspoken assumptions about life shift under our feet and make us feel like we’re raised in one culture yet live in another. Whether we’re immigrants adapting to a new culture or residents adapting to a migrating culture, feeling unhomed is common.
Grieving our unmet expectations helps us allow this experience in others. The ill and dying are grieving their sicker, shorter lives. They’ve been hit head on with losses we have the luxury to ignore, at least for now. How might we serve them better if we tended our own unrealized expectations with clear-eyed acceptance?
Gate 5 – Ancestral grief
An old adage says, ‘What is not transformed is transmitted.’ We can be sure that our ancestors transmitted grief to us. Some fled the old country; some were enslaved; others endured abuse or impoverishment. Some felt the stings of war or genocide or expulsion. Some closed their hearts and became the enslavers, the colonizers, or the exploiters. Whatever the pallet of suffering, we’ve been painted with it all. We try to hide from it behind blame and anger, addiction and distraction.
Many of us are working to shed light on our ancestors’ unresolved grief. It’s hard work that requires honesty and love. It opens our hearts to the astounding array of grief within those we care for and allows us to be present with fewer defenses. Transforming our ancestral grief makes it less likely that we’ll transmit it to our patients.
Moving through the gates of grief
Whether grief is obvious or hidden, the way forward is through. We lean into the pain and allow grief’s wisdom to present itself. Grief is an elemental thing, beyond the control of our intellect and best left to find its course like water down a mountain. If we dam it, it gains energy until it becomes a destructive flood. Best to let it find its way.
Opening to our grief opens us to pain. But it also opens us to joy by freeing us from the deadening armor that’s accumulated around our hearts. Life’s preciousness emerges and we see the first crocus of spring breaking through the snow. We see the baby born in the maternity ward at the same moment CPR is stopped in the ER. We feel love for the stranger in the very heart-space opened by transformed grief.
Grief’s pain is powerful, but it isn’t everything. There’s also the mighty blue sky holding you and the scent of pink roses welcoming you home.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.