by Monica A. Ross, LPC
I have the sense the next 2 years are going to bring a lot of changes. I’d like to talk more on my blog about the research that I’m doing within social work. But I’m struggling a bit with using that research and the schooling which is about to start next week to feed these posts.
I could just continue in the ad hoc vein that I’ve been going—seems more creative and more my style. We’ll see. Oh, I started opening up my posts for comments. So, there’s that change.
It’s storming here in Austin right now. At 10 a.m. and as dark out as if it were 11 p.m. But this morning has me writing between clients because I’ve been doing some reflecting lately on grief. Let me just say a few things here about grief.
Grief is a very subjective thing. No two people process the death of a loved one alike. My own experiencing of grief has taken different forms for the various people that I have lost. To me, that makes sense because people come into our lives and teach us various things and touch us in different ways and the memory of those people accesses different parts of ourselves.
It’s different, though, grieving those who are alive. With that kind of grief, it’s one or the other person typically who has made the decision to move on as it were. The reasons for having to say goodbye can vary widely—maybe it’s the case of two people going through a breakup or divorce, maybe it’s the loss of a business relationship with someone, maybe it’s saying goodbye to a parent who is experiencing Alzheimer’s disease.
Sometimes people have to say goodbye to a relative who is abusive and refuses to change, maybe we have to say goodbye to a caregiver we always wish we had but never actually got. We may even be grieving a place or let’s say a time period in our lives.
Sometimes we experience what’s called anticipatory grief where we know in advance that we will be experiencing a loss. Sometimes the grief is ambiguous where we may still physically be present, but those we are with are psychologically gone.
With grief comes pain. Sure. And it’s that kind of pain that is best to acknowledge.
Joan Didion writes about grief in her famous book The Year of Magical Thinking. Magical thinking refers to the tendency to think that our own thoughts or desires or actions can alter the happening of unwanted events. Sometimes we get into this space of imagining the person we have lost by our side, sitting across the breakfast table and lifting their glass of coffee.
Or we can picture ourselves walking the streets of that city long ago and that person we once were. There’s a magical quality to this propensity. That’s what Joan and others have attempted to describe.
As I said in an earlier post about forgiveness, forgiveness is letting go of the hope that things could have played out differently. There’s a hint of a suggestion of magical thinking in that.
In other words, isn’t it a bit of magical thinking to imagine a scenario where the thing we hope to achieve forgiveness about didn’t actually happen? To not to have to forgive because it didn’t play out the way we didn’t want?
This type of loss is a loss that leads to grieving too. And maybe magical thinking is our feeble attempt to think that we can control the outcome in either case—the playing out of an unwanted event or the loss of a loved one.
I don’t think there is harm in the wanting of things to be different. The sense of wanting things to change going forward is a powerful force for motivation. But when we’re talking about the past, those are things that we cannot change.
We can’t bring back the dead. We can’t go back in time and reverse events.
We can, though, change our view of things and eventually come to a place of acceptance. And that is where the real healing can begin. With acceptance, I think, comes our only real chance for empowerment. With acceptance what we are controlling is not so much the facts of the situation but our vantage point from which we view the facts of the event.
Sometimes it feels as though I’m saying the same thing over and over again and I don’t mind. It’s the same feeling I get in therapy…that maybe if I can lay out these concepts from a slightly different angle they will land in a way that gels.
All of this is heavily (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) CBT based. Many of these concepts that I’m explaining I don’t lay claim to ownership of. I have on my home page a quote, for example, by Eckhart Tolle and below that now a quote by Epictetus, a philosopher from the early 2nd century, to prove a point—that “there is nothing new under the sun” especially when it comes to timeless wisdom.
That quote...“There is nothing new under the sun” is itself attributable to a Bible verse which no doubt came from someplace else. I do have empathy for the suffering in the world caused by all of these various sources of loss. Someone hinted recently that perhaps I lacked empathy.
Put empathy in your business name and you’ll come under scrutiny for not having it—probably a bit like calling myself “Precision Auto Works” if I were an auto business. It would be the same. There would be moments when I lacked preciseness. I’m only human.
Let me say that I can have empathy on the one hand and on the other try to gently challenge my clients to look at things from an alternative vantage point—not to diminish the experiencing of pain they may be in, no never.
But to demonstrate that sometimes the sense of pain that comes with the sense of loss is about the perceived loss of our ability to control events and/or our environment or even to handle the blows we’ve been dealt. And while it may be true in some sense that there are things beyond our choosing, it is also true that we can choose our response to those things.