I am writing this piece in an effort to restore grief to its natural place as a sorrowful and essential part of the experience of being a human. We all experience loss, it is inevitable. It is not, for the most part, a problem to be solved, a condition to be medicalised, or a mental health issue. There are circumstances when grief becomes very complex and it can have a significant impact on mental health, but for most of us this is not the case.
Grief and loss touch us all. The death of a parent, partner, child, the suicide of a friend, the searing loss of a home, a job, a community, an animal, the slow unending loss of someone to Alzheimer’s, cancer or addiction, wounded childhoods filled with violence, abuse and neglect, the death and displacement of people through war and geo-political conflict, and for some people deeply feeling the sorrow of our struggling world, its destructiveness and its inequality can feel like a loss.
Death and dying is always contextual, in other words, what it means to us and how we process it relates to the times that we are in and the cultures we connect to. What troubles me about one of the ideas of grief today is the way in which it is entangled in a tyranny of positivity and positive thinking. The idea that we can somehow positively think ourselves into feeling better or a better life has come to structure the social psychology of many cultures, certainly in the West. I have a number of issues with this idea. Primarily, I’m troubled by a cultural turn that suggests that feeling shit means that you are somehow failing at life, because all you have to do to feel happier is flip the mental positivity switch.
The belief that we can and must think ourselves better is leaking into our relationships with our own feelings. I routinely have people come to see me who claim in all good faith not to know ‘what’s wrong with them’. A bit of digging later and there will have been a significant loss in their lives; 8 months, 18 months, a year ago that they feel ‘they should be over by now’. Sometimes there has been a catastrophic loss years and years and years ago, and they were never offered or allowed the conditions in which to grieve. ‘Why would that be bothering me now?’ they ask.
Psychologist James Hillman has coined the phrase “psychological moralism” to name the cultural forces placing us under enormous pressure to always be improving, feeling good and rising above our problems. Lynne Segal in the wonderful book, Radical Happiness, takes this idea even further. Individual positive thinking does absolutely nothing to understand or challenge the fact that there are serious macro- economic, political and societal reasons as to why somebody’s life might be unhappy. In other words, it isn’t all in the mind. The material conditions of someone’s life have an impact on the emotional state they are in, including when somebody significant dies.
There is also enough evidence that the pressure we are under to quickly banish negative feelings, hurt, pain, loss is one of the reasons people feel so miserable in the first place. Frances Weller in the mighty Wild Edge of Sorrow talks about how the forces of sadness, pain, fear, weakness get relegated to what Jung called the shadow – the repository of all the repressed and denied aspects of our lives. Left to fester, it contorts into contorted expressions of ourselves and a distorted ability to express emotion around the stuff that happens in life.
We humans have the capacity to feel at least 27 different emotions, so why would we limit ourselves to only the positive ones? There is a lot of talk about self-esteem now. I always go back to Peter Walker’s reminder that self-esteem isn’t about liking yourself it’s about accepting yourself, which means being open to yourself and all that you feel. If we only ‘allow’ ourselves to feel positive emotions then we cannot be and feel whole.
Grief runs the whole feeling spectrum, the whole emotional gamut. Yes, it’s a natural process, but it isn’t linear and it isn’t time controlled, and the experience of it is wholly personal and individual. If we don’t give ourselves the conditions to feel the whole of grief then we will struggle to grow around it in time.
Any one of you that has or is experiencing grief fully will know that grief calls us to what Weeler describes as our “full heartedness”. In other words, it can break our heart and it can break us wide open. In that place, grief still isn’t a problem or an illness or a condition to ‘get over’. It is, if we let it, an invitation to self-acceptance. It hurts, I feel lost, sad, full of rage, numb, strangely happy, relieved, guilty.... Grief is essential, it is natural. It is the only way to feel through the loss, and to both honour yourself and the ending.