The death of Moses could almost be seen as almost the perfect death. The story in Deuteronomy 34 tells us that he was 120 with good eyesight and good health – “still strong and quite vigorous.” He was loved and revered by his people. God gave him a glimpse into the wonderful future that was to await his family and his tribe. Then Moses is gone… it’s almost as if he has just fallen asleep. The only downfall to all of it was that Moses never got to experience the promised land for himself (Jewish legend says this is because he didn’t obey one of the finer points of God’s instruction about getting water from a rock). Nevertheless, the people, per tradition, spent 30 days in mourning before they passed on the reins to Joshua. 30 days…
Many polls and studies show that when the public is asked how long it should take to mourn the death of a loved one, the most common answer is “48 hours to 2 weeks.” In truth, we have barely begun grieving in that time frame. One researcher said it takes at least 2 years. A therapist I worked with said it takes a year for every 5 years you were with that person. Of course, everyone is different.
(For the full video version, click here.)
While death is the primary event we grieve, and we’ll deal specifically with that in this message, grief is a normal response to divorce, job loss, moving, empty nest, broken relationships and just about any major transition.
When I asked what grief feels like, these were the answers I received yesterday:
- Broken heart
- Alone and lonely
- Like everything should just stop
- Hard to think and function
- Overwhelming sadness
Learning to deal with grief is part of our spiritual journey in many ways. Of course, all religions have traditions and observances for the purpose of remembering the dead and helping the living to heal – prayers, ceremonies, rituals, songs. Also, when we grieve we often find ourselves grappling with huge life questions like why did this happen? where is this person now? will I see them again when I die? is there an afterlife? But perhaps what makes processing grief so important to the spiritual path is that it aids in our healing and helps lead us toward wholeness.
There is no way to go through life untouched by grief. The only difference is how we process grief. American-Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in her book Death: The Final Stage of Growth, says, “Our choice isn’t to avoid pain; our choice is only to permit pain to be experienced fast and hard or to be experienced slow and hard; that is our only choice.”
Processing grief and continuing to live takes courage.
In our culture, I think we run a greater risk of intellectualizing death and stuffing the emotions, instead of allowing ourselves to feel and process. Being overly emotional, especially for any length of time, is seen as weakness and instability. No one knows how to respond to the widow or widower who is still openly emotional over the loss of their loved one after a few months or a year. So the unwritten rule in our society is to say, “I’m fine.”
But intellectual acceptance does not help us process the grief and begin to heal unless we bring our emotions along.
Kübler-Ross tells a story about a woman named Carol who was an energetic, vivacious, and professional woman. She and her husband, Russ, had three kids. And then one day, when he was 43, he swiftly and unexpectedly died in her arms. Carol tranquilized herself to avoid the pain. One professional caregiver even offered the stoic advice of, “We don’t cry about these things, do we?” So they didn’t. Carol and her three kids were brave and strong and braced themselves against the surges of emotion. Eighteen months later Carol was experiencing psychosomatic illness and sensations, she had suffered severe weight loss, had lost her job, been through three counselors, and was unhappy and angry.
A visit to her home found Carol in a blue dress, the home redecorated in a blue theme, and a blue car in the drive. Of course, blue was Russ’s favorite color. His clothes were there, his shaving gear, his smoking apparatus, his easy chair; every room had his picture; the home was sanctified as a memorial to Russ.
“When will you let Russ die?” Kübler-Ross and her team asked. “I don’t want him to die,“ she replied. “But he is dead.” “I know he is dead, but I don’t want him to die.” Intellectually, she knew his death had occurred; emotionally, and to her detriment, she denied it.
Kübler-Ross explains, “Persons in grief have a whole jungle of emotions in their guts which need to be expressed in some way. Sometimes openly, sometimes by talking, sometimes by crying, sometimes poetically, sometimes through ritual: there are many ways, but people must have the opportunity to express real feelings because unresolved grief is a destructive horror. People need to be encouraged to talk about the person who died, to remember them, to share about them, and perhaps even to talk to the person who is now dead.”
But we’ve become so uncomfortable with death that going through the receiving line at a wake is torture for many folks. It’s a relief when that is over and people hope they can avoid the whole painful subject from then on. When they see that person again, avoidance is the name of the game. After all, we don’t want to upset them, do we? But talking about the deceased person is one of the things that most helps the grieving/healing process. Consider the funeral like a surgery and then the months after as the time for healing and recovery. We don’t have any problem asking someone how their leg, or shoulder, or back is doing, do we? In the same way, we need to learn to continue to extend care and compassion to those who have lost someone, especially during the first year after their death.
If we have the courage to deal with death when it comes into our lives (in whatever form) – to accept it as an important and valuable part of life – then, whether we are facing our own death, or that of a loved one, we will grow and learn to find meaning again in our own lives.
Here’s something to consider: what if the moments of greatest wounding in our lives are also the place where the Divine meets us and brings us transformation for the next stage of our lives? What if our healing can bring us to new purpose and meaning?
It takes courage to sit with our emotions.
It takes courage to process the grief.
It takes courage to seek out those people who can help us to heal.
It takes courage to discover what we love in life that is bigger than our wounds.
It takes courage to live again…
… but living, and living fully with purpose and meaning, is what honors the lives of those who have gone before us and will bring us to our own deaths with a greater sense of peace and wholeness.
Love & Light!