How to Grieve. Pain, Gratitude & Peace

To love deeply is one of life’s most profound gifts, and the loss of a loved one is one of life’s most profound tragedies. That they can happen simultaneously, and that we somehow manage to, one day, find even a morsel of joy in our hearts again, is profoundly and wonderfully mysterious. Yet our grief-phobic culture numbs us to this. “Just think happy thoughts!” it says. “You can choose to be happy!” The “pursuit of happiness” is enshrined in no lesser place than the U.S. Constitution. But what if we have this all wrong? "Happiness can only arise as a byproduct of a life devoted to the service of others." Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and author of the seminal book, Man’s Search for Meaning, cautioned us about pursuing happiness. He said, "we cannot chase happiness and expect that we will attain it. Happiness can only arise as a byproduct of a life devoted to the service of others." There is an enormous hidden cost for us, as humans, to this relentless obsession with happiness: we lose our willingness and ability to be vulnerable, and we forfeit our connection to self, other, and the natural world—and most especially to our honest, authentic, legitimate grief. The mis-characterization of grief as abnormal is pervasive. "We cannot chase happiness and expect that we will attain it." All of this rests precariously on the dualistic certainty that feeling sad and being happy always and inevitably oppose each other. But is this really so? I met a woman last year who lost her sixteen-year-old son to cancer. She told me that she feels such tremendous loss in his absence that living actually hurts—a feeling to which I can directly relate. As we began our work together, though, she also told me that she was beginning to feel, at the very same time, a remarkable sense of gratitude for every second she’d spent with him. For some, it may seem strange to speak of feeling grief and gratitude simultaneously.

"Any joy I experience throughout life is not contingent on things going my way, on having no losses."

I assert that being happy does not mean we do not feel pain or grief or sadness—successively or, often, simultaneously. Sorrow and contentment, grief and beauty, longing and surrender coexist in the realm of sameness. This is called the unity of opposites, and it liberates us from a myopic, dualistic view of our emotions as either/or. We are not either happy or sad. We are not either grieving or grateful. We are not either content or despairing. We are both/and. Beauty and pain coexist. But when we are in the early phases of grieving, in order to eventually see beauty in the world again, we must first feel and inhabit our pain. As we do this work, we begin to notice how we move in and out of these seemingly binary states. We need not eschew grief to be happy, and we need not decry happiness in order to feel grief.

excerpts from the book Bearing the Unbearable by Dr. Joanne Cacciatore

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