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Facing the Grief Gathering in Our Hearts

by ELIZABETH LESSER

It’s been a snowy winter so far where I live in New York’s Hudson Valley. There is something about snow, especially right now—during Covid times and after the political tumult of the past months—that feels purifying and calming. Snow is nature’s way of slowing and quieting things down.

During the last big snowstorm, I had one of those ah-ha moments where I was able to put words to a gnawing feeling I have been living with but not attending to. Maybe you have been feeling the same thing—how the repetitious, groundhog-day experience of pandemic existence feels as if life has ground to a near halt, yet simultaneously, time seems to have sped up. I often feel as if I am running in place, doing the same chores over and over, talking to the same small pod of people, waiting, waiting, waiting to see if my business will make it, if I will be able to visit far-flung family, if I’ll get sick, if the people I love will get sick. All while staying within the confines of my house, yet traveling the world through ZOOM meetings. On some days I am filled with gratitude that I even have a house, food, work I can do virtually. And on other days, I nurse a feeling I can’t quite get a handle on. Is it worry? Impatience? Fear? My mind races around in a maze with no exit. Long relied-upon practices like writing and meditation give me moments of escape from the maze, but no traction.

So, as the snow fell the other night, and it did its magic act of muffling the noise, stopping the traffic, and calming the pace of us crazy humans, I felt myself drop down deeper into my own silence and calm. And not for the first time in my life, I found something waiting for me, something I haven’t been in touch with, that feeling I have not been able to name. Grief. The grief from all the things and people and norms I have lost over this year. I’ve been in touch with my anxiety and my anger and my irritation—but not my grief. When I got still, and I stopped running around in the maze, I came upon the magnitude of the loss.

I know I am not alone. We all have lost so much. For some, the losses are big: the lives of loved ones, family we can’t be with, our own health, our jobs, school for the kids, financial security, physical safety, mental stability. Some of the losses are more subtle: routines that keep us grounded, predictability, companionship, pleasure. The disruptions pile up so that we don’t even know how much we have lost, what we are feeling, how much grief is gathering in our hearts. It may sound like a counterintuitive strategy to turn and face the grief. There’s a lot of advice and inspiration flying around about NOT doing that—about being strong, hopeful, positive. That’s all good. I’m a big fan of strength and hope and positivity! But I have found that unless I get in touch with my very human feelings of sadness; unless I tip my hat to the reality of loss; unless I let myself mourn…the inspiration stuff is a layer that wears off pretty quickly.

When I was writing my book, Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow, I interviewed many people who had not only survived devastating loss, but ultimately had grown wiser and stronger. I also talked with people who had not been transformed by loss, but instead had become bitter and defeated. What made the difference? Those who feigned strength or detachment in the face of profound loss shut down all of their feelings—not only grief but also resilience, hope, courage. Those who stayed connected to their feelings, finally emerged—even if it took them a long time—able to forge a new, creative path.

Grief can feel scary.  If we enter its gates, will we drown in tears for all sorts of losses? Will we wallow around in self-pity or blame? Will we find our way out? Yes, you may cry, but tears are healing. Yes, you may go through valleys of self-pity and blame, but you will also climb up above all that, and your heart will grow in gratitude and peace. And you will indeed find your way out. Grief is a simple and humble practice. All you have to do is sit yourself down, maybe with a cup of tea or wine, put on your favorite music, wrap yourself in blanket, and shower yourself with tenderness and acceptance as you contemplate all the losses that have come your way. Ask them to speak to you; honor them one by one; honor yourself for empty places the losses have carved out. Surrender to the emptiness; fill it with patience, dignity, love. I promise you that on the other side of a loss well-grieved, is new life.

Right now, the future is unknown, but as Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and monk whose little book, A Letter of Consolation, is one of the most beautiful guides one can use when grieving a loss, writes that “a growing surrender to the unknown is a sign of spiritual maturity.” He goes on to say that those who are brave enough to let themselves feel into the depth of their loss “are the really creative people. They are free to move constantly away from the familiar, safe places and can keep moving forward to new, unexplored areas of life.”

These are such challenging times, with so much unknown before us. The best way forward is to let ourselves mourn what has been lost, to feel our very human vulnerability, to be kind and gentle and

patient with ourselves and others, so that when the time comes, we can welcome the new,

unexplored areas of life. I’m looking out the window as I type. The snow is deep, but the sun is shining. I hear the snowplows on the road, creating a path as the day begins. I feel lighter and stronger having allowed myself to rest in the soft places of my heart, to surrender to loss, to grieve. It’s one of life’s great mysteries how grief is a steppingstone out of the mind-maze and into a bigger, brighter world.

ELIZABETH LESSER

Elizabeth Lesser is the author of several bestselling books, including Cassandra Speaks: When Women are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes; Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow and Marrow: Love, Loss & What Matters Most. She is the cofounder of Omega Institute, recognized internationally for its workshops and conferences in wellness, spirituality, creativity, and social change, and is one of Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul 100, a collection of a hundred leaders who are using their voices and talent to elevate humanity.

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