So a loved one died, or you got divorced, or you didn’t get the job you wanted. Unforeseen health challenges make real your mortality. The recognition you worked so hard for went to someone else. The childhood fantasy of what your life was supposed to look like failed to materialize. Mounting losses threaten to topple over and bury you in a landslide of broken rubble. How do you keep going? How do you teach yourself to give a damn? Is there any way to rediscover your original, childlike enthusiasm and zeal?
Of course there is. But it isn’t easy. Healing the wounds inflicted by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune requires a steady effort and the many hands of a community. Our innate tendency to isolate has to be overcome through sheer will power. And the paradox is this – healing and wisdom rise up from within our own nature, yet they are drawn to the surface by the pull of the love we share with each other. We rend in monologue; we mend in dialogue. We heal ourselves, but only when we give ourselves over to something beyond ourselves.
A lot of us walk around grieving. We are ringed round with loss. We are born wanting, and it’s inevitable that multitudes of our endless needs go unmet. We want those we love to live forever. We want the recognition, admiration, or at least acceptance of our peers. We want our friends and family to love us on our terms, not theirs. We want different bodies, different hair, and different settings in which to show off our new fabulous forms. We want more money, more things, and a solid gold guarantee that none of it will ever be taken away from us. These endless cravings orchestrate a steady background hum of anxiety, depression, and resentment that characterizes so much of modern life. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
In her 1969 tour de force On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five stages common to people in grief. Since then many others have amended and elaborated this typology, however, it still stands as a useful guide for people in grief. And that means all of us.
The first stage is denial and isolation. In grief and loss we tend to withdraw. It’s often rooted in embarrassment – we want to conceal the overwhelming emotional disintegration bursting through our carefully maintained façade. And on a more compassionate note, we simply don’t want to burden anyone around us with our pain – they’ve got their own to deal with. Or worse still we just plain refuse to acknowledge the facts before us. We wear our denial like armor.
The second stage is anger. Our unprocessed grief curls up like a snake and strikes at any convenient target – our loved ones, the doctors, the medical establishment as a whole, the bureaucracy that always accompanies death and dying, or even total strangers. How much road rage and domestic violence, I sometimes wonder, is the inappropriate purging of bottled up grief?
The third stage is bargaining. We’d do anything for a do-over. We blame ourselves and wish we could go back in time and make different choices. If only we had done this. If only we had said that. Knowing what we know now, every past decision and action gets subjected to the withering scrutiny of our self-loathing, judgmental second-guessing.
The fourth stage is depression. When it finally becomes clear that there’s no going back, a certain doom descends on the landscape. They really are gone. We really didn’t get that job. Our marriage failed. We really are getting old. Sickness and death will soon come for us. Why bother?
The fifth stage is acceptance. If we’re lucky, last long enough, and gain enough wisdom to arrive at this fifth and last stage, our hands unclench, our face softens, and we turn our attention away from what we’ve lost and toward the embarrassment of riches raining down around us. We suddenly see the whole wheel turning – the birthing, the living, the dying – as a beautiful river. Which part is the good part? The cloud? The rain? The mountain stream? The headwaters of the river, or the wide delta that merges into the sea? The cloud dies in the rain, the rain dies in the river, and the river dies in the sea, yet nature never grieves these changes. It knows that forms arise and fade, but the One from which all forms arise and to which all forms return is itself eternal and formless. Therefore emergence and dissolution is to be celebrated in all of its stages. Death is not wrong. It is not a mistake to be corrected. Why do we celebrate birth so joyfully and lament death so somberly? If we really understood the whole wheel, wouldn’t we honor birth and death equally?
In the face of loss the only sane stance is gratitude, and the mother of gratitude is acceptance. Instead of cursing the death of a loved one, we ought to be grateful they were ever born – especially in the case of a parent. I suppose it goes without saying, but if our parents hadn’t been born, we wouldn’t be having this whole grief problem. In other words, it is the very act of birth itself that ushers us into this terrible ordeal, this business of death, loss, and grieving. You can’t have one without the other. If you want to be born, then say hello to death. Life is death-defined.
This then is what it means to reach acceptance. We look the facts of living and dying in the face and we make peace with it, all of it. Sadly, many people die before they reach the stage of acceptance. They stay rooted in denial, anger, or depression. Sometimes those deleterious forces form the engine of their demise. Addiction, depression, suicide, and violent crime have many causes, but they clearly have roots in our inability to reach the acceptance stage. Prison is full of people who struggled to bring their inner lives into accord with the outer truths of existence. They gave into anger, rage, fear, addiction, and violence. Those outside of prison are not that different. We just haven’t been caught yet.
In some cosmic way it makes sense to say that each of us is responsible for our own inner lives. But claims like that are also cavalier and overlook the deep-tissue trauma that drives people to think and act like they do. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says that “we are driven to action by our own natures.” And our natures are impacted and molded by our environment. Our hunger, our thirst, our sexual drives, our longing for love, acceptance, belonging, and self-expression all play a part in the formation of our consciousness and the forging of our choices and actions. Still, underneath all of these tiers of influence I believe we are free. No matter what, in each now moment we have a choice. I choose to believe that. I have to believe that. We may be driven by our natures, but we are not determined by them.
When we choose community, when we say yes to the messiness of relationship, when we forgive ourselves and others and learn to see with the eyes of love, we are renewed and restored to the center of our own lives. We come home to the beauty of being alive. But no one can move through these stages for us. We must put one foot before the other. There is a way to live after the loss, and we must take it.
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, and singer-songwriter as well as the chair of the humanities department and professor of philosophy at Southwestern College where he teaches comparative religion, Asian philosophy, ethics, and world mythology. Everything you need to know is at www.peterbolland.com