We give many different types of retreats here at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. This week the subject is grief, and I am the presenter. Of all the issues we address, grief causes me the greatest anxiety since by its very nature grieving is so personal. If we live long enough, we will experience the stinging, sometimes paralyzing loss of a person we love deeply.
It’s become something of a cliche to start a discussion by saying, “There are two kinds of people.” Well, I would like to preface my remarks on grief by saying there are three kinds of people when it comes to grief.
The first group are highly intellectual who live largely in their heads. The second group are deeply emotional and live, for the most part, in their heart. The third group, which is the majority, I believe, are caught between the head and the heart, pulled in one direction and then another. We are often confused by this struggle and can’t articulate what we really feel, think, or desire. The depth of our grief obliterates fine distinctions.
Emotions are powerful — they come like a surge from the ocean that drowns out everything else for a while until the flood recedes. Being overcome in this manner can leave us feeling as if we were drowning. When a person is afraid of drowning, there are few words that can be helpful, except, “Catch the rope!” But even after being pulled back to solid ground after the loss, life is never the same and you can’t go back.
I think the reason grief can be so powerful, so life-changing is that it opens the doors to other sorrows that have been tucked away over a lifetime. These sorrows may have to do with the person who you have lost, or it may be a bad memory, unassociated with the loss, that you have tried to repress for many years. There really is no right way to handle the overwhelming sense of loss, except to find a path through what seems to be a pathless storm.
We never forget anything. Though we bury memories, they are always there. When a loved one is lost, all kinds of remembrances come to the fore because the unconscious has been tapped by the experience of tragic loss which shakes one’s entire being.
Smiles, the way they laughed, arguments and wounding, unresolved issues, love and hate all can come to the surface with a force that can be disorientating. After a loved one dies, especially if there was some kind of feud for years with no communication, all that is left is the sorrow of a love lost and chances no longer available to make things right.
So, yes, these retreats can make me a bit anxious.
I have learned that I can’t fix anyone, but I can be there for them and with them. We don’t need to be fixed according to someone else’s idea about what helps a person to heal. This we must find on our own, but being in the midst of those who care, who are there for each other, can be a first step.