Some may find it odd to find a section on grief in a blog about positive psychology. To me, it may be the most important section. Grief is like climate, it affects everything. Emotions are like weather, they come and go. If you don’t know how to grieve, then you lose the highs of life as well. Joy and grief sit right next to each other.
One of my colleagues said to me not long ago that I have a GPS tracking device on me for clients dealing with grief. They find me, from all over the country, they find me. And when I’ve had my own grief, they’ve anonymously left books and flowers to help with healing. I thank those people now, wherever they are.
I had a male client come to me many years ago who was separated from his wife. We talked about the details of his life but we weren’t really getting anywhere. I could feel an overwhelming sense of grief from him that seemed to be very deep, far beyond the separation from his wife. I shared this and he almost collapsed to the floor, sobbing. It wasn’t his wife, but his children about whom he had spoken very little. He never spoke of this grief, never really identified it as such, but it had a choke hold on his well-being.
Unexplored grief will turn everything gray and it will not leave your side. It can turn into ‘complicated grief’ which I will define as grief that goes beyond typical stages of grief and has an element of strangeness.
My younger brother Russ died of AIDS in 1994 when he was 32 years old. He was so brilliant, a dazzling mind that had depth as well as breadth for almost any subject. A nationally ranked debater, Russ could talk his way out of any corner and make you believe anything that struck his fancy. Hysterically funny, I remember so many times gasping for air I was laughing so hard. He was the shining star in the family, the ‘smart one.’
The day he called and told me that he had HIV was a day that stopped my world. From then on, my fear was like living with an unseen axe murderer, at any moment about to strike. Back then, there were no treatment cocktails, no indomitable Magic Johnsons. If you got HIV, then AIDS, you were probably going to die-and he did after 10 years of terror and fighting to live.
The grief was everywhere, it was with me at breakfast, at my office, putting on my makeup, and every other waking behavior. I had anxiety attacks in grocery store aisles where his favorite foods resided. I was angry because I had to learn to live with grief cause I’m not the suicidal type.
And then I started doing strange things. I would drive alone weekend nights on narrow highways in Wyoming hoping a drunk driver would cross the centerline and put me out of my misery. It happened all the time to other motorists, but not to me. No such luck.
I began cleaning out his condo, not letting anyone help me. He was such a pack rat that it took me a year to meticulously go through everything. I read every tiny slip of paper just in case it contained something precious, some of them did. I was on a mission because I felt certain that when it was organized and spotless, Russ would come home. But he didn’t and I was stunned. I had done everything I knew how to do and he was still dead.
What I experienced was complicated (or unresolved) grief. I had unconscious ideas in my head surrounding his death that made no rational sense and began to destroy my weeks, months, and years. We all hear about parents or spouses who keep rooms as shrines of those they loved who have passed. I think they too unconsciously believe that person is coming back.
It took about five years before I emerged from that black grief tunnel. The first time I laughed after his death was when I apologized to Russ for some mistake I made relating to geography. I was pathetic at geography, he was an ace. When I would ask him “Where is…” he would stare at me in horror because of my geographical cluelessness. Those were good times. So now when I ask someone “Where is…” I look to the sky and say, “Sorry Russ,” and I smile.
I have no soothing therapeutic words of wisdom to heal profound grief. But I do know that you must get it out in the open. Talk to someone you love, or with someone you trust. I have had clients whose children were murdered, whose spouses killed to hide secrets, and those who grieved for never having a childhood because it was decimated with relentless abuse. For those courageous enough to enter my office, I just sat with them and listened to their stories, and we both cried.
So grieve in your own way, but do not let it sit too close to you, for too long…