The Geography of Grief
As a therapist, I can't tell you the number of times I've had to give people permission to cry. Often people work incredibly hard to avoid crying at all costs and, when I comment on how it seems they really want to cry but are trying not to for some reason, the floodgates open yet they can't quite explain why they couldn't allow themselves to express their sadness, sorrow, or grief. Many often comment on how they "hate crying in front of others" or "are afraid if they allow the sadness to come they will not recover." As difficult as it is, I encourage them to cry, yell, moan or express whatever they may be keeping tightly sealed inside, but it often takes quite some time for them truly soften to those difficult emotions.
Grief as an emotion is most tightly linked with death, however, Francis Weller, MFT, a psychotherapist who specializes in the deep and difficult work of grief, says it comes in many forms and, when it is not expressed, it tends to harden the the once-vibrant parts of us. In this article Mr. Weller discusses how our culture views and deals with grief and different it is from other cultures, especially more traditional cultures.
By and large, we are very averse to facing our most difficult emotions head on. We've been conditioned to think that expressing our pain is a sign of weakness and that vulnerability is inherently a bad thing (watch this to see otherwise!). As a result, we try to power through, ignore the feelings, and work extremely hard to stifle the tears and become calcified to the rich, messy, but ALIVE parts of ourselves. As Mr. Weller says, "In this culture we display a compulsive avoidance of difficult matters and an obsession with distraction. Because we cannot acknowledge our grief, we’re forced to stay on the surface of life. Poet Kahlil Gibran said, 'The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.' We experience little genuine joy in part because we avoid the depths." What's more, all this avoidance takes massive amounts of psychic and physical energy, which perpetuates the cycle of feeling run down, isolated and exhausted.
So what's the alternative? To engage with grief/sadness/disappointment/depression/fear and to allow others to share it with you. To understand that whatever the struggle, it is something that provides us with important information about our lives, and enriches us despite how painful the process might be...as Mr. Weller beautifully states: "The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them. How much sorrow can I hold? That’s how much gratitude I can give. If I carry only grief, I’ll bend toward cynicism and despair. If I have only gratitude, I’ll become saccharine and won’t develop much compassion for other people’s suffering. Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible."