The Sacred Art of Grief

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Grief is an expression of love. Grief happens because of love, because of our deepest passions and connections. 

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Grief is a fundamental element of being a human being. However, unfortunately, there is no honored place for grief in most societies. It hangs out in the margins, such as our mental institutions (for so-called “crazy people”) or shut away in our private bedrooms. Most cultures do not understand the restorative, liberating processes of grief—thus, we judge it by what it appears to be on the surface level. We judge it as “bad.” We run from it. 

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And yet, it’s here. It’s always here, waiting around the corner. If we dare to love, if we dare to open our hearts, then grief shall surely greet us at some point. 

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This mortal life will break our hearts; we cannot avoid this fact.  The people and the things and the places that we love, eventually, will transition. Some will die. Others will make the choice to walk away. Some outside force (a governmental policy, pandemic, war, natural disaster, or something else.) will shift our beloved daily routine—and we will be left in tears. What to do???

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The first thing to be aware of is that grief can be the single most powerful, transformative healing tool—if we choose to perceive it that way. Despite the fact that we were trained by society to fear grief, we can transform our relationship with it. We can use grief to gain wisdom. We can use it to discover lasting peace. In my experience as a spiritual healer who guides people through various chapters of transition, I have discovered that there are seven common myths surrounding grief. In the following paragraphs, I’ll dispel these myths, so we can  open up a new dialogue. In order to receive grief’s wisdom, we must understand grief’s true nature.

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Myth #1: To go through a period of grief means that we are weak-willed.

In most modern societies, we are conditioned to believe that individualistic strength is the ultimate display of worth. We are taught that we must “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” and achieve many feats all by ourselves. We are taught that we must be strong in order to prove that we are good and worthy citizens. But, how healthy are these beliefs?

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There are many different forms of strength. Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh describes a lesser-known form of strength called “interbeing.” 

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Interbeing is a wise mode of living that acknowledges: I need you and you need me—and that’s okay! Vulnerability (allowing oneself to help and be helped by another) is not a mistake nor a weakness. The iron-jawed, macho version of strength that is so often touted by our society is, frankly, a relic from the past that is quickly passing away on our planet. To recognize interbeing is to admit that we are all in this together. When I am feeling healthy, I can help those who are sick. When I am feeling sad, the ones who are feeling happy can help me. Interbeing is a dynamic interplay; it’s a dance. Living from the principle of interbeing is a brave and beautiful thing to do. In fact, it is the ultimate strength, because it stimulates empathy—medicine that we humans require for our evolution. 

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When loved ones die or when life changes dramatically, we are catapulted into a grief process. Yet, when we accept interbeing, our mindset shifts. We have compassion for ourselves. We understand that when we lose the sun of a loved one, we may feel chilly for a little (or long) while. We realize that when we lose the comfort of a special place or object (our house burns down, we are forced to move, etc.), then of course we feel jangled! It’s totally normal! And it’s okay! Grief is a normal part of human life. 

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To wail, to cry, to moan in shock and horror…to allow these things to be expressed actually require tremendous strength. To grieve is not a weakness—rather, it is the greatest gift we can give. By embracing our grief, we learn to love ourselves more fiercely than we ever thought possible. This process allows us to grow in wisdom and compassion: two vital ingredients needed right now for planetary restoration.  

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Myth #2: Grieving shouldn’t take “too long.”

There seems to be an unspoken agreement in most modern societies that it’s okay to grieve for a few days before and after a funeral, but pretty soon, we should “pull ourselves together” and walk back out into the world with a smile on our face. 

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This is simply bullshit. It’s not true. Grieving might need to take months or, sometimes, even years. As my beloved teacher Ram Dass has often said, “Allow plenty of time for grief.”

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Allow your grieving process to take however long it needs to take. Be patient with yourself. There’s no timelines here—only presence and being.

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Myth #3: When we are sad, lonely, or depressed, other people will dislike us. Grief makes us too “needy.”

This myth is one of the major reasons why so many people hide away their grief and suffer in silence. Many of us have a great fear that says: “If I am troubled, I should keep it to myself. I don’t want to spoil somebody else’s day.” However, this kind of flawed thinking simply breeds more pain and trauma. When we don’t reach out for support, all those feelings and thoughts get bottled up inside of us. Too often, we slap a fake smile on our face and walk out into the world pretending that everything is okay. But this kind of repression breeds disconnection from our fellow human beings, and perpetuates outdated, negative patterns of isolationism. 

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If you are currently surrounded by friends, family, colleagues, or others in your life who are not supportive of your grief process, then I want to share some hope with you. In my work as a spiritual guide, I have learned that if we allow grief to flow with unconditional self-acceptance, then that support system that we desire will eventually manifest. It may take a little time for it to appear in your life, but I promise you that it eventually will. 

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There are many kind, loving, open-hearted people in the world who want to support you. They genuinely believe that your grieving is a healthy process. In my life, when I began to embrace (rather than shun) my deep soul-grief as a tool for healing, my group of friends at the time (some very frazzled, overworked grad students) reacted with coldness, confusion, and anxiety. This was hard. But, it was also a wake-up call. I realized that my priorities in life were changing. Eventually I discovered a new group of friends who truly supported me in the way I wanted. Indeed, a period of grief is a wonderful opportunity to evaluate whether you are happy or not with the people in your life. True companions on the path will love you even during periods of great difficulty and they will encourage you to be authentic and feel your feelings. 

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When we are grieving, it’s healing to talk with others! Friends, family, or a trusted therapist or spiritual healer are an invaluable resource. It’s good to release all those feelings and thoughts in a safe space. There’s nothing “needy” about needing a space to talk. 

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Grieving is simply a normal human process of ending an old chapter and beginning a new one. When we can learn to embrace our grief without guilt or shame, then and only then we can harness the full healing potential of our tears. 

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Myth #4: Grieving is self-indulgent. 

Just as a baby needs to be held when she cries, so too do we need to lovingly hold ourselves during difficult periods. Remember: it takes fierce courage to love, especially when the world looks frightening.

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Myth #5: If I allow myself to truly FEEL all of this grief, it will destroy me. I will never recover. I will never be happy again.

Here’s the thing: At the bottom of every fear is, ultimately, a fear of death. Thus, we often have a subconscious fear that says that our negative emotions might obliterate us. We are afraid that if we allow ourselves to sink into the depths of despair that not only will never again travel to the heights of happiness and hope—but that our physical bodies will not be able to withstand that amount of pain. 

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We are afraid to feel because we are afraid of death.

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In supporting brave survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, these courageous beings who have faced unimaginable losses, what I’d discovered from hearing their stories is that we can only fly so high as we are willing to surrender to the low. In other words, if we want more mountaintop experiences of joy in our lives, then we must be willing to, occasionally, explore the tearful valleys. Ironically, it is only through our willingness to fully taste our sorrows that we will emerge stronger and more capable of enjoying the ecstasies of life. 

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Myth #6: To be spiritual means to be positive.

This an incredibly harmful, false dogma currently circulating in many spiritual circles. This myth says that sadness, grief, and other lower vibratory emotions are a sign of spiritual immaturity. But nothing could be further from the truth! 

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The willingness to fully feel one’s grief is the lotus flower that grows out of the muck. It is the courageous alchemy that transforms a person into a spiritual master. If we attempt to block our challenging emotions and try to strive for only positivity, then we will surely disappoint ourselves again and again. That disappointment will only breed frustration and self-contempt. It’s much better to simply accept ourselves just as we are, and let the grief flow.

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Myth #7: I don’t want to be lazy; I don’t have time to grieve.

These two closely-related myths are perhaps the most persistent of all, especially for Western cultures. We are, quite simply, addicted to working our asses off and always feeling like we have to constantly “get stuff done.” Rest is often regarded as a guilty pleasure or as a necessary evil. And yet, the sweet waters of grief call out to us, interrupting our daily routines and inviting us into a period of deep relaxation—if only we’ll allow it.

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Grief is actually a calming energy for our mind, body, and spirit. The turbulence of some shift or great change has shocked our human system, and so there needs to be adequate time to settle down. If we do not take the time to grieve, we will enter into a state of persistent numbness (trauma), or even perhaps bitterness and hatred towards ourselves and others. 

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I always tell my meditation students, “If you don’t think you have time to meditate, then you are vitally in need of meditation for your sanity!” In other words, when we are constantly busy-busy-busy/go-go-go, then we are not able to heal properly. 

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What are the root causes of discord on our planet today? It’s quite simple, actually. Not enough people taking enough time to slow down and love themselves. Can you imagine a world where it was normal for corporate CEO’s or politicians or presidents to say: “I need some time to rest and cry today.” I think about John F. Kennedy’s assassination, as depicted in the recent film Jackie. Only a few hours after she held her husband’s bloody head in her lap was she asked to stand and bear witness to the inauguration of the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson. Blood stains still covered her dress. Indeed, we live in a very confused, very crazy yang world—where grieving is rushed past or skipped altogether. 

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Let’s change the cultural paradigms around grieving. It all begins with me; it all begins with you. 

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When we allow the sacred art of grief into our lives, we set the tone for what we’d like to see in the world in general. We’d like to see a place where people have the freedom to inquire deeply within themselves, without fear of losing their jobs or without anxiety about social repercussions or poverty. What if it was built into our systems the idea that periodic times of grief was not only normal, but healthy and positive? Furthermore, what if we lived in a land where we taught our children that wanting rest was not an attribute of laziness, rather it was a sign of spiritual maturity? This is the kind of world that you, me, and so many others are visioning into existence. 


Yes, we can allow ourselves to cry and to be sad. We can release shame and remember that it takes courage to do this. We can support each other in releasing the old myths about grief and creating new stories about what we wish humanity to become. Yes, we can do this—together. 

 


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