I gritted my teeth and slowly lowered my arm and hand into the murky water. I hadn’t reached the bottom and the water was above my elbow. I couldn’t see beyond a foot or so…then came the mucky, slimy, and smelly bottom. I groped around and found the object I was seeking. It was a small plastic action figure, which my son, Luke, had dropped into our small pond. I quickly pulled my arm and now smelly hand out of the water and handed Luke his treasure. I don’t like sticking my arm into the muck. It’s not infrequent though that something seems to accidentally slip in and I get my call to retrieve the booty.
This year as I performed this act I started to laugh. I realized that this action was a great metaphor for intentional and conscious grief rituals, those times when we purposefully connect with our grief. When we consciously practice grief rituals we are putting our “arm” into a space where we can’t see the “bottom”. By practicing a conscious grief ritual we deliberately place ourselves in the path of our grief. We open ourselves to our parts that are not particularly pretty. In short, these are places that most of us would rather avoid but because we feel it necessary we trudge forward and stick our hands down in the bottom of the pond.
So why do this at all? Why not avoid all of this unpleasantness and attempt to maintain a perpetual “happy” mood? The answer is that by sticking our hands into the pond we are slowly diminishing the levels of grief that reside within. By confronting our pain we chip away at it and slowly bring ourselves to a place of transformation. The amount of grief that resides within is not infinite. Each time we connect with and express our pain from either a conscious or unconscious source we are diminishing the amount of grief that resides within and moving ourselves closer towards healing.
You can make an artificial division of grief by separating it into two groups: the conscious and the unconscious. The conscious grief is the ritual we are talking about. It is when we intentionally decide to “stick our hand in the pond.” It could be simply pulling out a picture album and looking through the photographs. It could also be visiting the grave or talking with a friend about our grief. In these activities we purposefully move ourselves into a place where we can experience the pain. By looking through the pictures, visiting the grave, or talking with a friend we will most likely resonate our unfinished grief.
What is “unconscious” grief? This is the grief that comes bubbling up when we are least expecting it. It is when we suddenly realize that our hand is in the pond, covered by a wave of grief that hit us like a lightning bolt. That song on the radio that throws us into a state of grief or that product in the grocery store that reminds us of our loss or any of hundreds of events that can arise that involuntarily throw us into an unwanted state of grief. It is when grief confronts us unexpectedly and usually without our having requested its presence. Most of us find this difficult and want to minimize these states.
An interesting and little known secret is that the best way to diminish this “unconscious grief” is to find a way to consciously take samples of your grief on a regular basis. The action is something like a release valve on a steam engine. By doing regular conscious rituals we release the pressure from the unconscious parts and give ourselves a little more breathing room. By intentionally experiencing the pain the reservoir of our grief becomes less pressured and also less likely to erupt unexpectedly. This is less true in a powerful or acute grief where the eruptions are involuntary and often unstoppable but even in these circumstances conscious connection with our pain will reduce the potency of the eruptions by a bit. Conscious grief rituals are not quick fix cures for grief– they are short term pressure releases with long term benefits.
“Unconscious grief” is unpredictable, difficult, and painful. As a therapist I have always been on the lookout for ways to minimize the power of these unconscious waves of grief. I’m sorry to say that there is no easy cure. The most direct way has already been mentioned, that being the regular practice of conscious rituals. By deliberately finding vent for our grief we take the pressure off of the unconscious contents.
We can maximize the effectiveness of our conscious rituals by becoming more aware of our “strengths.” By knowing our strengths we are in a better position to use them consciously as a means to connect to our grief. Most of us will turn to our strongest ally when we are in trouble and grief is no exception. It is through our strongest asset that we can gain some sense of stability and safety and dare to consciously connect with the grief.
In my observations of people grieving over the years I have noticed that people tend to have a variety of “strengths” in facilitating their conscious rituals. A person’s strength is something they have been practicing for many years, something that they are so familiar with that it is a part of them, automatic. Often we take it for granted and assume everyone else has this same capacity until others alert us that we have this special strength. It seems so natural to us that we don’t see it as “special.”
Here are a few examples of some general strengths that people might have in connecting with their grief. Someone who’s strength lies in their thinking and analyses will be drawn to heal their grief through study and reading whereas a person who’s strength lies in their creativity will be more likely to use their artistic endeavors in their rituals. Someone who’s strength was in their practicality might be more inclined to dedicate something in honor of the person who died while a person who found strength in interaction would probably prefer a verbal expression of the emotion. Just as there are gender differences in healing there are plenty of other ways we differ and one of the many ways to observe these differences is in gaining a greater understanding of our unique natures and unique strengths. Where is your strength? Where do you find safety? How can you connect your grief with your strength?
We will tend to connect with our grief in a wide variety of ways. You may find that you have a preferred mode of consciously connecting with your grief and this can lead you to identify your particular strength. It is not your only way to connect, just your preferred way. By knowing our strength we can more consciously facilitate a connection with our grief. (My book “Swallowed by a Snake” focuses on a wide variety of paths that people have used to connect with their grief.)
In part two of this column we will examine the opposite of ones’ strength: one’s least developed part. Just as one’s strength is a vital aid in helping us connect to our grief in what feels like a safe way, our “worst” part is also instrumental and useful. In part two we will see how to use this undeveloped part as a healing tool for our grief.
Tom Golden is a professional speaker, author, and psychotherapist whose area of specialization is healing from loss and trauma. Tom gives workshops across the country and in Canada on many aspects of this topic. His workshops are known to be both entertaining and informative. Contact Tom at the addresses below (email or snail mail) for inquiries about speaking or training for your group. You can also place secure orders on webhealing.com for Tom’s book Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing. Tom Golden LCSW, 149 Little Quarry Mews, Gaithersburg, Maryland 20878, USA, 301 670-1027