Mind Matters — The Continuum of Grief

There is no exit from life’s experiences. Grief, unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, is a response to loss that no human being can avoid. Grief is our internal response to loss and includes emotions, physical reactions, and mental perceptions.

My own notion of grief is that it is as a continuum of loss. And continually we are faced with loss. There are the overwhelming losses of a family member—especially of one for whom it seemed incongruous or untimely—the adolescent driving home from a music lesson, with car going out of control; the talented woman artist overwhelmed by her sensitivity who suicides. At one end of the continuum, where these stories lie, we face tragic loss; at the other end of the continuum are the little losses that constitute everyday living.

Daily we meet death—little deaths. We continually change. We age. The philosopher Heidegger reminds us that, when we are born, we become “beings towards death.” Perhaps this seems depressing, almost a message of despair.

Instead of despair, we can celebrate each moment of life in living it fully. Ironically, in order to live life fully, we need to honor our grief, even the “little” losses. If we lose our jobs, we grieve. However, the colleagues left behind also grieve. They feel the loss of their coworker. This can be, in fact, demoralizing to a workforce. When a neighbor, who has been your walking buddy for twenty years, moves thousands of miles away, that too is a form of loss.

Change itself is loss. As we age, we face changes in the body’s ability to function; we lose mobility of body and cognitive ability of mind. It is a humbling experience that requires resilience of spirit and adaptability of mind.

I consult at a retirement community and find that staff and residents confront losses, large and small, every day.

We may wonder how a woman in her nineties elects to be fed solely by a feeding tube, never again to taste a meal. Then we witness her face becoming radiant when her daughter visits. And so, for her, life continues to have great meaning.

Meanwhile, another resident grapples with his ailments of aging while he worries how life will be for him if his wife dies first (given that she has a serious illness, this is a possibility). This resident, like all of us, needs to enjoy the moment of life he has right now, and live in gratitude for that moment.

The very connections and relationships we celebrate are, yes, the very ones that we grieve when we face loss. Rather than protect ourselves from that vulnerability to suffering, we actually need to dive into our connectedness to “stay alive” while we move through this journey called life. As Zorba the Greek (remember Kazantzakis?) would say, we need to take on “the full catastrophe” with open arms.