Grief: The Gift of Healing
President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada
The river of sorrow runs deep and it never ends.
How many painful memories does it contain? How many tears has it
collected since the beginning of time?
The wheel of life moves on amid endless cycles
of changing seasons. Flowers blossom and flowers die; their fallen
petals quietly return to dust. There is no funeral, no burial, just
the dirge of weeping waters.
Yet we can still sing a song of hope and joy
in sackcloth and ashes. Just as surely as night and day follow each
other, so do sorrow and joy. This is the way of nature, the condition
of human existence.
Grief is such an intimate and yet strange wasteland.
Even though we are well acquainted with loss, we still do not know
how to face it with ease and equanimity. This paper is about good
grief - the potential for personal growth and positive transformation
The stakes of grief are enormously high. Bad
grief can lead to trauma and destruction, while good grief can lead
to maturity and creativity. Psychology and religion have much to
teach us on how to grieve well.
Grieving versus mourning
Although grieving typically refers to our emotional
reaction to loss, it actually involves the adaptive process of our
entire being - affective, cognitive, spiritual, physical, behavioral
and social. In order to regain our equilibrium and refill the void
after the loss of a loved one, the adaptive process can be elaborate
and complex. It may last for years, even a lifetime. Grieving may
involve most of the following:
- Yearning and pining for the deceased
- Enduring disorganization and disintegration
- Coping with the aftermath and changes
- Reorganizing our lives and routines
- Reviewing events surrounding the death
- Working through inner conflicts
- Seeking reconciliation
- Sorting out confused and conflicting emotions
- Expressing and sharing our feelings with
- Reaching out for help and social support
- Finding ways to alleviate the pain
- Transforming the pain to creative works
- Questioning our own self-identify and life
- Discovering new meanings for the loss and
- Nursing and healing the wound
- Trying out new things and new relationships
- Integrating the loss with the present and
- Attempting to move forward in spite of the
Mourning on the other hand typically involves
the expressing of grief, either privately or publicly, often according
to cultural prescriptions. Mourning tends to be a shared experience.
By observing religious rituals together at funerals or memorial
services, the burden of grief is lightened, and the significance
of the loss is recognized.
Mourning serves the adaptive function of extending
comfort to each other. The outpouring of collective grief can be
a powerful source of comfort to the bereaved, because it conveys
the message that the deceased has not lived and died in vain.
A period of mourning, which varies from culture
to culture, facilitates grief work. Grief can become complicated
and prolonged without the benefit of publicly acknowledged mourning.
The universality of suffering and grief
Grieving is one of the most pervasive and painful
We are never far from troubles, and no one is
immune from suffering. The First Noble Truth of Buddhism declares:
Life is suffering - in all its causes and manifestations, both physical
For all of our concerted efforts to ignore the
negatives and focus on the positives of life, everyday we are reminded
of the atrocities and miseries all around us: the barbaric acts
of terrorism in the Middle East, the devastating epidemic of AIDS
in Africa, the genocide in Sudan, the blatant injustice and oppression
in tyrannical states.
If we are socially conscious, we cannot help
but grieve the loss of a kinder and gentler time, the death of civility,
the decay of community, the triumph of evil, the oppression of the
weak, the victimization of the poor, and the suffering of the innocent.
We cry for justice and compassion, but all we can do is grieve for
the loss of humanity.
Our capacity for empathy makes us vulnerable
to the suffering and deaths of all living beings. But in loving
and caring for others, we could be in a state of constant mourning.
On a personal level, think of this - Christmas,
anniversary, an old melody, a whiff of a distant scent, a faded
family picture, a visitor from a time past…Any of these events can
trigger a flood of memories of loved ones and friends, who have
long departed. These haunting memories are forever a part of us,
as Emily Dickenson (1924/1993) wrote:
"One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Recently, when I visited Hong Kong after several
years of absence, I felt that this was a very different place. It
was not because of the changing skylines and political landscape.
Hong Kong can never be the same again, because my parents were gone.
While dining in my parents' favorite restaurants,
I could see their faces and hear their voices. It was just like
yesterday, when they were still alive, surrounded by their children
and grandchildren. Now, all I can have is their memories, which
will be with me as long as I live. Could there ever be an end to
As we grow and age, we grieve the yesterdays
and all that entails - the lost loves and missed opportunities,
the good friends and broken relationships, the gains and the losses,
the good times and the bad. We remember, therefore, we grieve. But
in grieving, we relive what has been lost in time and space.
Our capacity for anticipation creates another
set of challenges. For every relationship, there is separation.
For every beginning, there is an end. For every embrace, there is
a goodbye. Eventually, all we possess or aspire to have will vanish
into thin air. We can anticipate death for ourselves and for our
loved ones. We can feel the pain and void of anticipatory bereavement.
Thus, we mourn for tomorrows as well as yesterdays.
Even our best efforts to live for the here and
now cannot spare us from disappointments and heartbreaks. For all
our deliberate attempts to shun negativity and pursue happiness,
there can be no escape from the vicissitudes of life and the certainty
of death. However fortunate and privileged one may be, the sky will
not always be blue and lightning will strike.
Therefore, we might as well learn to live with
grief, our ever-present friend and tormenter. Not in a pessimistic,
stoic manner, but in an optimistic, creative way. Yes, we need to
be prepared for what the surprising gifts grief can bring.
How we react to loss
How we react to loss matters more than loss
itself. It is the meanings we attribute to negative events that
ultimately determine the nature of their impact. Often we suffer
unnecessarily, because of our rumination, self-blame or "catastrophizing".
Our struggle for existential understanding can
also temporarily increase one's suffering, until we come to some
resolution. Once we learn how to react in a positive, creative way,
we can turn loss into gain, and suffering into a springboard for
According to Young-Eisendrath (1996), the resilient
childhood survivors of the Holocaust "were able to do what most
of us might think is impossible: to live with unresolved mourning.
They pursued active and creative lives because they determined they
would do so, in the face of constant reminders of their losses"
There are four common ways of reacting to loss:
1. Denial and avoidance:
We resort to all sorts of defense mechanisms, such as suppression
or repression. We carefully avoid every reminder of our loss. We
seek asylum in a bottle or a pill. We seek escape through work or
love. Even when the very foundation of our lives is crumbling, we
still refuse to face the reality of our severe loss. We try to convince
ourselves that the pain will eventually go away. But a prolonged
state of denial can only make things worse. Grief may evolve into
post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) or some other forms of adjustment
2. Endurance and
rumination: We drown ourselves in sorrow, and make life unbearable
for everyone else. We may even delight in becoming victims, because
masochism helps reduce survivor's guilt. In some cases, the loss
is so traumatic, so severe that the only energy left is to passively
absorb the unrelenting punishment. We savor the excruciating pain
and let our wounds fester unattended. We become the walking dead.
3. Anger and aggression:
Our inner pain becomes uncontrollable rage. We lash out at everyone
or channel our anger towards those responsible for the death of
our loved one. We ask for blood, for justice. Rightly or wrongly,
we believe that only revenge will ease our unbearable pain. Witness
the conflict in the Middle East. The escalating cycles of violence
are fuelled by incessant waves of anger over individuals killed.
Each funeral becomes a rally for revenge.
and growth: The painful experience of grieving also provides
a unique opportunity for self-discovery and personal growth. The
basic process involves some fundamental re-organization and transformation
of our priorities and belief-meaning systems, but the steps may
be painful and tortuous, often involving some elements of the first
three types of grief reactions. The process may involve a variety
of strategies and practices, such as mindful meditation, spiritual
pursuit, and a change of life goal. Elsewhere, I have provided a
more detailed account of transformation
The first three types of reactions, if prolonged
without proper intervention, can lead to bad grief. The last type
is essential for good grief.
Bad grief versus good grief
Bad grief refers to complicated or traumatic
grief that results in adjustment or clinical problems. It can become
destructive at a personal or societal level.
A lot has been learned about traumatic grief
from Vietnam veterans. Some of them continue to show PTSD or other
forms of mental disturbance because of unresolved grief over the
death of comrades and innocent civilians.
However, little is known about traumatic grief
from the loss of a loved one in childhood. Recent research on motherless
daughters begins to shed some light on the prolonged traumatic
impact of losing a mother, if children's grief is not properly recognized
Good grief is the best possible outcome of a
bad situation. Even bad grief can be transformed into good grief,
but it requires a lot of grief work and support.
After losing his wife Joy Davidman to cancer,
C. S. Lewis was devastated and paralyzed. He was overwhelmed by
grief and his assumptive world was shattered. He lost all senses
of meaning of life. With courageous honesty, Lewis documented his
personal struggle with pain, doubt, rage and fear of personal mortality
and his eventual recovery in A Grief Observed. At the end, he was
able to rediscover faith and meaning and experience growth in his
soul. Listen to his poignant conclusion: "Only torture will bring
out the truth. Only under torture does he discover it himself."
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: "When it is
dark enough, men see stars." The stars of hope and healing often
reveal themselves only to those languishing in the dark abyss of
sorrow and grief.
A spiritual context is necessary for individuals
to maintain a sense of hope and coherence through the darkest hours
of suffering and grieving. "Spirituality and religion provide the
methods and means of translating meaning from an individual level
to a universal or transcendental one" (Young-Eisendrath, 1996, p.92)
Heartaches and heartbreaks till the end of time.
Who can understand the deepest pain in our innermost being? The
dark valley may never end, yet we must move on, with our feet of
There is no medicine, no magic and no logic
to expel the affliction of bereavement. The only hope is to transform
it into a poem, a song, or a story that makes us feel like human
beings again. That tender feeling of love and liberty makes life
worth living in the wasteland of death.
Even when everything is taken away from us,
and when we are dying alone, we can hear the angels singing, and
feel the peace from heaven. I take great comfort in the promise
of Jesus: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."
(Matthew 5:4, The Bible NIV).
Healing is a gift, because it can neither be
purchased nor manufactured, no matter how resourceful we are. It
remains shrouded in mystery, maybe because its origin is spiritual
and transcendental. However, we do know that we are likely to receive
this gift, when we stretch our hands heavenward in our brokenness.
This is just another example of the paradox of the positive psychology
Ringma (2000) has eloquently expanded on the
idea of the gift of healing:
Nouwen suggests that "finding new life through
suffering and death: that is the good news." Christ's death mirrors
precisely that message. Suffering may seem senseless, but it need
not have the last word. New hope can spring up from the ruins
of previous expectations and plans. New life can come from the
greatest disappointments. But this can only come if we embrace
the pain of our dashed hope and grieve our losses to the point
of relinquishment. It is at that place, with nothing in our hands,
that good gifts will come our way.
In the final analysis, grieving is the pain
of letting go of love. Grieving is also the pain of searching for
what has been lost. In the process, we discover something far more
precious than we ever knew. Indeed, blessed are the broken hearted,
for they will find healing. Therefore, let us celebrate the good
grief that transforms us and sets us free.
Dickinson, E. (1924/1993). Collected
poems. New York, NY: Barnes & Nobles Books.
Lewis, C. S. (1976). A
grief observed. New York, NY: Bantam.
Ringma, C. (2000). Dare
to journey with Henri Nouwen. Colorado Springs, CO: Pinon
Press, Reflection 128
Young-Eisendrath, P. (1996). The
gifts of suffering: Finding insight, compassion and renewal.
Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.