‘Shaken and stirred’

Our many responses to grief (2)

Last week we explored the terms loss and grief and saw how loss wounds us and throws us off balance. Today we consider the different responses to loss in our lives.

Pause a moment and ask yourself how you would describe grief to someone.  Most of us would probably focus on emotions such as sad, angry, hurt or guilt. Grief, however, is more than emotions just as loss is bigger than death.  It is our entire response to loss. There are four key ways that we respond: emotionally, behaviourally, physically and cognitively. For some there is a fifth dimension –spiritually. In this article we explore the first two.

A key response is of course emotional.  It is usual to feel immensely sad, and at times very angry. Given what we have been taught in our homes, schools, churches and elsewhere, anger can be very uncomfortable for us but it is often powerful, appropriate and necessary. How we express it is key.  Remembering that loss knocks us off balance, we can also feel anxiety and may be fear. We may lose confidence in ourselves and the world around us. Guilt can also be present, how often haven’t we said “if only I had done more” or “if only I hadn’t made that decision”. If we have lost a loved one through events such as death, divorce or emigration, we can struggle with loneliness. However, after some losses there can be a sense of relief as the suffering of a loved one is over or an abusive relationship has ended. In some situations relief sits uncomfortably initially but it is appropriate. These are some of the common emotional responses following a loss but it is important to remember that everyone is unique and will not feel all these common emotions. It is also not unusual for there to be very little emotional response initially and to feel numb.

But it does not end there!  In grief our behaviour patterns change. Some do not sleep well while others just want to curl up under the blankets. It is usual to lose one’s appetite while others stress eat!  Many get very busy and clean the house, garage or whatever else is at hand while others withdraw and neglect things. Some find it hard going to social events and struggle in a society where they have always related as a couple. After a death some carry objects or wear clothing that connects them to a loved one. There is nothing wrong with this in the early stages of grief. If, after many years, we are still unable to put them aside then it would be good to talk this through with a qualified person. Later we will explore the difficult question of “How long!”

Loss does indeed turn our world upside down. But let us hold on to the hope that while it is difficult grief helps heal the wound of loss.

First appeared in Villiersdorper 1(9)

Living with Loss

 Welcome to a series of articles that will explore something that is part of everyone’s life from our earliest days – loss and grief! It is so commonplace and yet we are often ill prepared and unequipped to cope with it.

But…what is Loss? The vast majority of us think of death, yet this is but a small part of loss.  We lose so much in our lives..of course loved ones are key and very significant losses but we also lose tangible, external things that do not have to do with physical death such as belongings handed down from generation to generation, homes, jobs, moving towns, divorce, retrenchment  to name just a few.  There is, however another whole dimension of loss that is connected to the external, but is inner and intangible such as self worth and self esteem, dignity, hope, dreams of the future.  As we explore loss we begin to realize that it is a big field and has to do with significant change in our lives. A person or things to which we are attached are torn from us. Attachments are crucial as they give us a sense of love and security and provide a secure base from which to live. In loss something that gave meaning and shape to our lives is no longer part of us and we are wounded and left “off balance”. I believe that these are two key thoughts to understanding loss.

Firstly, it wounds us. We usually do not willingly give up those things to which we are deeply attached, but they are torn from us. And it hurts! Also, as with any deep physical wound, if we ignore an emotional wound we can be affected in many ways, for example emotionally and physically. Secondly, loss throws us “off balance”. That which gave us a sense of equilibrium is gone and we feel very insecure.

Grief is our response to loss and can be a healing emotion.  In later articles we shall see that grief involves all that we are – emotional, physical, behavioural, and cognitive. We also grieve in different ways depending on who we are – our upbringing, culture, earlier losses and social supports all play a role. As we allow ourselves to respond to loss and to grieve we are engaged in healing this wound that is part of us.

Loss and grief are often uncomfortable companions on our journey through life. However, we can befriend them and learn to live with them more creatively and hopefully. It is possible to work through the pain and find a new balance and meaning. It is hoped that the articles that follow will give us new insights and courage for the journey.

First appeared in Villiersdorper 1(7)      1-7-2016

Winter woe…winter wonder

Which do we see?

This past week I had some time to wander in our garden while on a ‘semi-retreat’.  My wife was away and it was a moment to step back and just ‘be’ a bit. So much seemed brown, decayed, dead.  However, as one looked closer I was struck by the vast amount of burgeoning life in the midst of signs of death.  Roses rejoicing with the tiniest of buds scarcely visible to the human eye – or mine at least! Majestic aloes luring the most splendid of Malachite Sunbirds, graceful oaks still clothed in beautiful golden browns. And that gentle winter light! How it crept into every corner and transformed the landscape.

Wintry mountain view
Wintry mountain view
Aloe splendour
Aloe splendour

I came away from this ‘prayer walk’ in my garden with two key thoughts. Firstly, how important it is to create ‘God gaps’ in the midst of the busyness. Yes, even for those who run a small retreat house and probably are meant to have more time than most for prayer! We can get so busy with the routine of our lives that we fail to pause. How important it is to create time to simply be with God – ‘retreats’ big and small, formal and informal, structured and unstructured. Time to pause and allow God to speak without the noise of our modern life drowning out the ‘still small voice’.  Secondly, these moments help us to see the world differently. So often we see but do not really see. We fail to see God in our midst at work in the bleakness and the beauty. Surely this is something of the tussle going on in John 9. Some could see what God was doing, but some would not. It takes time and openness to God to ‘see’ clearly.

Let us pause, breathe deeply and open our eyes to God at work in us and around us longing to transform our lives.

Macrina Wiederkehr in Seven sacred pauses has a beautiful prayer;

“O living breath of God,

O you in whom we live and move and have our being!

We have been asleep too long. Heal the unseeing part of our lives. Lead us to our awakening places. Awaken us to the new Light. Open the doors of our hearts, the windows of our souls, the walls of our minds. Awaken us to hope. Awaken us to Joy. Awaken us to Love. Awaken us to new insights. Make our hearts ready to receive the brightness of your Presence.”

Brave early snowdrops
Brave early snowdrops