A girlfriend of mine is in the process of ending a 5 year relationship with a man she lived with and loved. In this not-so-unusual example, he is getting married only a few months after they split. She also works with him, so she has to see him everyday. She is reeling in grief. She did what she’s supposed to do and went to a support group one evening when she was in a meltdown. This was NOT a grief support group. This was a support group of another kind. A couple of the people in the group talked to her about getting to forgiveness. One person told her she needed to get a book on anger. She got the feeling that she should “get her act together.” As she was telling me this, I finally said, “Can I say something?” I angrily went on to say that I hated this about spiritual programs who act as if you can’t feel or there’s something wrong with you if you can’t just move through it to forgiveness. For heaven’s sake, the woman is in the process of grieving a loss.
The first experience I ever had in grieving was at a women’s training weekend where we were given a space and a supportive place to grieve. I thought it was kind of weird until I realized how great it was to be given permission to kick, cry and scream about the losses in my life. It was a set aside time where we could grieve and someone was right beside us to support us. Man, did it feel good. Nobody handed me a Kleenex. Nobody said, “well, it’ll get better.” Nobody told me that I was just going to have to suck it up and deal with it. What I learned from that experience was that it didn’t kill me. It also didn’t kill anybody else. In fact, we all felt pretty damn good after it was over.
They say grief has five stages:
For more on the stages of grief, click here or just Google the five stages of grief.
My denial after my second divorce went on for many months. I continued the relationship in my head. I kept re-running conversations, scenarios and events in the hopes that I could say something differently or do something differently to change the outcome. Since it was only happening in my head, nothing changed. But, in my head, I was still in my marriage. I was THERE. I hid in my apartment and continued my relationship with my ex, re-hashed arguments, relived our courtship and refused to start a new life. I fluctuated a lot between denial and isolation and anger. When I would get frustrated with this make-believe relationship I was in then, I would get angry at him. With the ease of technology, I would text him and call him and give him a piece of my mind. I would get mad at God for ever letting me meet him. I’d get angry at myself for being such a loser. I got angry at everything in my path. It never worked. I was still stuck. But, I was actually processing my grief. I didn’t want to feel the pain so I fought it with denial and anger. Anger protects me from hurt. When I could not face the intolerable pain of my divorce, I got angry because that made me feel stronger. To feel weak and rejected and hurt just scared me to death.
This pattern of flip-flopping back and forth went on for a long time. Looking back, I think it must have been 5 or 6 months. When the anger didn’t help, I’d bargain. I’d bargain with God. I’d bargain with my make-believe ex. I’d bargain with reality. It was hard to tell how long I would stay in each stage. Just when I’d move into bargaining, anger might jump back in … or denial. I felt …. and was ….. crazy. But, it was all so normal. Thankfully, I had people around me that allowed me to grieve. I had a counselor that I would rail to about my predicament. I loved that. I didn’t have to worry about him getting sick of me. I paid him. I’d go in and rant and rave about how badly I’d been treated, what a jerk my ex was and how stupid and crazy I was. Yes, I was just as angry at myself for my shortcomings. It was often a toss-up as to who was the bigger jerk, me or him. I’d rant and rave and he’d agree with everything I said. It was freaking awesome. And, he helped me move through those stages. He told me I could forgive him later. I think he knew that I had to feel what I had to feel in order to get to forgiveness.
When I finally got to depression, it was really, really sad and very, very tiring. I was finally able to touch the vulnerable part of me. I felt all of the pain of being divorced, not once, but twice. I hurt from the rejection from my husband. I allowed myself to be scared about being single. I allowed myself to be scared that I was un-loveable. I allowed myself to cry … and cry … and beat the floor with my fists … and scream … and cry. I learned from my counselor that I could set aside time to grieve. I may have been grieving, but I wasn’t actively grieving 24 hours a day. I’d somehow get through the day, very heavily, and I’d put my yoga mat on the floor. I’d put on a meditation tape that provided a guided grief session, and I grieved. After about 10 or 20 or 30 minutes, I’d be done. I’d be empty. And, I would reassure myself that life would not always be like this if I only let myself feel it.
I remember the day that I accepted being single. I was at a Christmas retreat, and the speaker was talking about her fear of going into a “black hole” on a scuba-diving trip. She wouldn’t go. She couldn’t go. She was paralyzed. The dive instructor reached his hand out of the “black hole” and she took it and allowed him to take her. The story is a lot more rich when she tells it, but what I connected with at a visceral level was that fear of the “black hole.” My “black hole” was being single. My “black hole” was building a life without a significant other. My “black hole” was being okay with who I was and having a full life in a way I never wanted. And, at that time, I started the journey toward a life that I knew nothing about. I’d never dreamed about it. I’d never thought that I could be whole as a single woman. But, I knew I had to try. I had no choice.
Grief is so much more common than we think. We associate it respectfully with death. But, grief also accompanies divorce. It accompanies addiction. Families of addicts have to watch their loved one slowly kill themselves. Not only do they lose the loved one – for addiction takes the man long before he is dead – but they lose the dreams they had for them. Grief accompanies small losses as well as big losses. We lose pets. We lose careers. We lose dreams. In fact, life is really a series of losses. In a way, I agree that you have to learn to deal with loss. But, it’s not that you just “get on with it.” The way you deal with loss is through the process of grieving.
For my friend, one day there will be forgiveness. There will be acceptance. But, for today, she’s in the first stages of grief. And, if I stop her or shut her up, she will get stuck. I learned from my counselor that keeping the feelings moving is the only way to move through the stages. For me, naming it helped. I set aside time to “be in the grieving process.” I didn’t move on with my life. Grief is horribly tiring. I did very little but take care of my health and go to support groups. If I was tired, I stayed home. If I wanted to isolate, I’d isolate. If I wanted to cry, I’d cry. And, if I wanted to punch some pillows and scream, I’d do that to. I finally quit taking my anger out on my ex because it wasn’t helping me. I’d get angry, then he’d get angry, and we’d have new crap to deal with. But, it was productive for me get it out by talking to friends, role-playing what I’d like to say to him and letting myself physically vent. Forgiveness came when I accepted my singleness and didn’t blame him for it anymore. In fact, I became grateful to him for letting me go. Because once I got through the grieving period – about a year and a half – I felt really, really happy. I was happier than I’d ever remembered being. I was clean.
Melody Beattie is one of my favorite grief teachers. She has a website and a book called The Grief Club. It costs nothing to sign up. In her words, if you are wanting to be in The Grief Club, you’ve already paid enough to get there. If you’re grieving a loss now, no matter what it is, I encourage you to take the time to grieve it. Throw away the Kleenex, let it be ugly and real and cleansing. The only way out is through….