President's Column - July 2004

Good Grief: The Gift of Healing
Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C. Psych.
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 others
  • 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 purpose
  • Discovering new meanings for the loss and suffering
  • Nursing and healing the wound
  • Trying out new things and new relationships
  • Integrating the loss with the present and future
  • Attempting to move forward in spite of the wound

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 human experiences.

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 and mental.

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
Material place."

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 mourning?

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 personal development.

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" (p.83).

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 difficulties.

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.

4. Transformation 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 through meaning-management.

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 and treated.

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)

Conclusion

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 clay.

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 of weakness.

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.

References

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.