A well-tended garden has a balance of the essential elements: fire, earth, water, air and growth. In this, the fourth in a series of five articles, traditional healer Prema Sheerin continues to reveal the vital energies and gifts of each of the ‘elemental emotions’ that, similarly, are meant to provide for a healthy ecosystem in every human being. These elemental emotions are happiness, fear, anger, sympathy and grief. This article addresses grief, which is traditionally associated with the season of autumn.
As we enter the season of autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, we feel the poignancy of the fading light, the waning warmth and brilliance of summer. It is a good time to explore the emotion of grief, the energy that supports us in letting go and navigating the many losses and transitions of life. Like the rain that comes to cool the heat of summer, grief provides the nourishing moisture that allows us to process and heal the losses we inevitably encounter.
In our modern Western culture we have become obsessed with happiness and we have shunned the emotion of grief, believing that it is ‘negative’ and ‘depressing’. We apologize for our tears and sadness, believing that we are ‘bringing everyone down’. A vast polarity has been created between sadness and happiness and we see happiness as the desired outcome, a place to arrive and stay. We have forgotten that happiness, like all elemental emotions, will arise and then subside to make way for the next feeling that will naturally swell in response to life circumstances.
Grief, as the emotion that moves us to let go of what we must, is inherently threatening to the cognitive mind. The mind wants us to think about the situation rather than to feel it.
We have been trained to view the experience of sadness as a sign of weakness. It is ‘lame’, ‘a downer’ or ‘depressing’. Our society is based on the principle of growth and productivity and there is enormous pressure to not ‘break down’. In this environment the expression of grief is seen as some kind of malfunction, inhibiting our productivity and therefore our sense of worth. As a result, we become ashamed of our grief, believing that it indicates a lack of dignity or self-control. We think we are supposed to present a ‘brave face’ to the world and, above all, to ‘keep busy’.
Ironically, this approach is in itself a great loss because grief is the emotion that allows us to accept and process the inevitable losses of life. In our modern Western culture we have come to privilege the cognitive mind over our emotional wisdom and the suppression of our grief is a major contributor to the imbalance and dis-ease we are experiencing. A primary concern of the mind is to avoid danger and loss. Grief, as the emotion that moves us to let go of what we must, is inherently threatening to the cognitive mind. The mind wants us to think about the situation rather than to feel it. It wants to recount the story of our loss, and to strategize against further loss, rather than allow our grief to viscerally let go. In denying the expression of this emotion that supports us to heal our loss, we thwart our ability to open to what life will bring next. When we do not feel free to express what we are truly feeling, we tend to believe that we are the only one struggling in this way. Our sense of sadness and separation mounts and we feel ever more isolated.
Have you ever had the thought, “If I really allow this sadness, I will drown in it! I will become depressed and never escape.” I have said it to myself and heard it from clients many times. But this is a story we have been told. Grief has become synonymous with depression. In some schools of psychology it is now taught that if a patient who has experienced an important loss is still grieving after two weeks, they should be prescribed anti-depressants. Instead of allowing grief to process a loss, to heal us and make us whole, we anesthetize the pain and lock it inside. This leads to a plethora of adverse effects such as chronic anxiety, bitterness, resignation, addiction, physical symptoms and, eventually, depression.
There are no shortcuts through grief. We cannot get around it; we must go through it.
It is true that feeling the full depth of our grief can be physically painful, disorienting, exhausting and overwhelming. The mind may become forgetful or roam wildly. Grief is a slow-moving emotion and it will come in waves that arise unexpectedly in response to a memory, or a smell, or something we see. There are no shortcuts through grief. We cannot get around it; we must go through it. However, when we do move through, despite the pain, the experience feels real and true. Our grief is connected to the presence of Heart, rather than to the perennial suffering that we tend to create with our mind.
Veronica was referred to me because her husband had committed suicide about a year earlier. She was still experiencing waves of grief but found that her family and friends expected her to be over it by now. She too felt that she should be done with her grief and was afraid to express sadness at home because she wanted to be strong for her teenage daughter. However, her daughter was becoming ever more distant. Veronica distracted herself with shopping and medicated her feelings with alcohol and food. She had gained a lot of weight and felt lost, stuck and lonely. I encouraged Veronica to allow the grief when it came up, through tears, writing or creativity, and to simply feel it rather than to analyze it. I also suggested that she stop trying to hide it from her daughter. As she gave herself permission to feel again, things began to move. She began once more to feel some interest in life, and even moments of joy. What surprised her most was that as she was more honest about what she was feeling with her daughter, they became much closer again. After some more time, Veronica began another relationship, something that she had thought she would never be able to do again.
Each one of us has our grief. Most of us have a reservoir of sadness from all the unacknowledged losses of our life, losses that we did not give ourselves space to feel. When a loss so great that it cannot be ignored comes along, the dam breaks and the waters flood forth. The many small losses suddenly come rushing to the surface. It can feel completely overwhelming and uncontrollable. This is why it is so important to make a practice of allowing our sadness as it arises in response to the many losses of life, both small and large, even when it doesn’t make sense to our mind.
This is true even when there seems to be no logical reason for the sadness at all because sometimes it is not our own grief that we are feeling. One of the misconceptions of our modern worldview is that our emotions are personal, psychological events that happen purely inside our own brain and body. However, indigenous peoples understand emotions as being an important part of the way we listen to the environment around us. We speak of ‘elemental emotions’ because the very nature of the living world around us is made up of feeling, of emotion. Saying that sadness is ‘negative’ is like saying that we should do away with air. And just as we read the quality of the environment we are in by the nature of the weather, the sun, the earth, so too can we read the situation we find ourselves in by the emotional qualities we feel. When we find grief welling up inside us for no apparent reason it may well be that there is sadness in the people around us or we are feeling a ‘mood’ lingering in the space we have entered. We may feel the emotions of people that we are close to, even when we are not in their presence. We may be feeling sadness for the pain in the living world around us. Grief, like all our emotions, is not just personal. Our feelings are a vital way of listening to the world around us and responding appropriately.
Grief is one of the fundamental, elemental, healing and transformative energies of life.
Grief is one of the fundamental, elemental, healing and transformative energies of life. It dissolves the brittle façade that our ego-mind can create. It demands that we confront the fear of loss that pervades our mind and our culture. It reminds us of what is most precious to us. Ultimately, we can only experience the intensity of our happiness to the extent that we are willing to experience our sorrow. The true brave face of loss is to simply allow the most natural, visceral expression of grief to move through us and carry us onward.
The gift of grief is summed up beautifully in this poem by Jeff Foster:
Let it come closer, let it engulf you if it must.
Until there is no division between ‘self’ and ‘sadness’.
Until you cannot call it ‘sadness’ at all.
Until there is only intimacy.
Sadness keeps you soft and flexible.
It reminds you, when you have forgotten,
of the beautiful fragility underneath all things.
In the softness of the heart lies its capacity to love.
Sadness is not the opposite of joy, but its gateway.