Good Grief: The Healing Power of Communal Mourning

I’ve written about grief on occasion here, and usually I get comments along the lines of, “I’m so sorry this is so hard for you.” Now, I always love to get comments! I love to know people are reading, and I’m interested in how my posts affect them and what they have to say. And I appreciate their heart-felt sympathy. At the same time, these comments have surprised me because I’ve been so relieved and happy that I am finally able to grieve. It sounds strange, but to finally be able to blog about my grief and to actively grieve is a wonderful gift. I celebrate it.

I think some of the dissonance between how I feel and how others guess I feel might have to do with a few factors, maybe in combination:

  • the difference between the noun (grief) and the verb (grieving)
  • my perspective on grief, which is at odds with our American culture’s relationship to grief
  • the fact that the ride I’ve been on in the last few years is not one most have taken. (Thank God.)
  • how I am coming to experience and express emotions since I started practicing Nonviolent Communication (NVC).

What do I mean by the ride I’ve taken? Well, I experienced a truckload of losses in a short time, and both because there were so many things to grieve, and because I was in a fight for my life, and because the very losses I incurred severely reduced my resources for coping and grieving, I was just way too overwhelmed to process it all. (If you know my story, you can skip the bulleted list below.)

Beginning in November 2007 and culminating with Gadget’s death in November 2009, I suffered the following losses:

  • basically overnight, due to Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases, I lost the ability to speak, move my limbs, sit up unaided, tolerate sound/touch/light/movement, which then involved the loss of communication and of my independence and freedom to go to the bathroom, get out of bed, feed myself, bathe, brush my teeth, etc., without a great deal of assistance
  • along with all the above was intractable pain, both body pain and continuous migraines. Pain isn’t usually described as a loss, but it’s horrible and traumatic, and it definitely involved loss of joy and ease and all sorts of things that are hard to put into words
  • also along with this, I experienced major mood and behavior changes (due to neurological damage from tick-borne diseases), which actually left me feeling like I had lost my self. I hadn’t even thought it was possible to lose myself before, and the fact that I could be taken over like that by feelings I hated and couldn’t control was terrifying, painful, and a source of shame (compounded by the way others reacted to my moods and behavior)
  • loss of important parts of my mind/cognitive functioning, including interest in writing, sex, or any form of creative expression
  • all this led to serious relationship damage with virtually everyone in my life, and the loss of trust and safety I had previously felt
  • then I went through a natural disaster which I’ve written about before, which caused me PTSD and further losses in my sense of safety in my home and in the world
  • immediately following that, my best friend of 16 years (and my main interpreter) ended our relationship, and her sister, my other best friend, and I experienced a tremendous strain in our relationship, so that we barely spoke
  • one of my best friends, Norm Meldrum, died
  • my therapist terminated with me
  • other friends left me or died
  • Gadget, my service dog, was diagnosed with lymphoma
  • Gadget died of mast cell cancer
  • my remaining best friend finally ended our foundering relationship

That’s a crapload of loss. In two years, I lost almost my entire social network and family of choice, my service dog, my functionality, and virtually any feelings of self-worth. Most of the meager sense of self I had was tied up in being Gadget’s partner. He needed me. We were a team. He was not resentful about doing things for me, and it was my mission in life to save him, to keep him alive. I believed that even if I didn’t matter to anyone else, I mattered to him.

And then he died, and part of me died with him. It was too much. I couldn’t bear it. Something in me broke.

When I sought out support, people kept telling me to journal about him and to “let my feelings out,” to cry. But I couldn’t. I physically couldn’t journal (by hand) for the most part, and when I tried, when I could type, I didn’t know what to write. Nothing came out — and I’m a writer! I tried to cry and nothing happened. I just felt blank. I felt empty. The other people on my dog grief list talked of crying every day, many times a day, and I’d think, “What is wrong with me? Did I not really love Gadget? What kind of cold-hearted freak am I?”

There were two times I connected to my grief over losing Gadget, and they were so horrible, I can’t describe it. It was like being thrown into a bottomless black pit. I felt like my heart was squeezed into the size of a walnut. The emotional pain was so bad, I wanted to die. None of this feels adequate to describe the experience. If my feelings were a painting, it would be Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

I couldn’t go back there.

So, for a long time, I just felt closed off and careful and scared. This was grief (the noun). Grief can take any form — anger, sorrow, numbness, depression, anxiety, a sense of unreality, etc.

My grief was mixed up with the judgements I’d internalized based on what people said when they were upset with me. I didn’t believe I could connect with anyone or open up to anyone because I thought I was a horrible, selfish person — that’s what my friends told me when they ended our friendships — and that if I revealed any of my true feelings, people would be disgusted and angry and see me for the monster I was, and they would leave me, too. And because I couldn’t grieve, I couldn’t feel Gadget. And because I couldn’t feel him, I couldn’t grieve him.

And now, things are different. They are changing. One big difference is that I’m not dying anymore; I’m less ill than I was. I also am not experiencing mental illness anymore, which is a tremendous relief, as it felt horrible to be in so much psychological pain and to not be able to trust myself or my perceptions.

The other thing that has changed is that I’ve been studying NVC. It’s hard to describe just what a huge impact this has had on my life. I started taking classes by telephone, taught by and for people with chronic illnesses and disabilities, about a year-and-a-half ago, though it feels longer. The biggest gift, at first, was that I had friends again. I was part of a community, and I wasn’t a freak or “too needy.” Everyone in my classes had really tough lives; many of them were in worse situations than me. I often felt helpless and heartsick at what they were going through, but I also appreciated that I had something to offer, that just being a supportive presence was something. It felt good to be contributing to other people again. Also, I was shocked to discover that people seemed to like me. For quite a while I thought I was hoodwinking them into thinking I was a nice person. Eventually I started to think I might not be the monster I thought I was.

Then, as I practiced NVC more, I started learning how to apply it to myself and others. NVC is about empathy and compassion. It’s about learning to recognize judgements of ourselves or others and how to translate those judgements into an understanding of ours’ or others’ feelings and needs. I started to realize just how much I judged myself — all day, every day. I started to be able to give myself compassion. I started to be able to accept others’ compassion for me. Very, very slowly, I have been able to communicate better with the people in my life, to be less triggered, to take things less personally.

A turning point came for me on October 2, 2011. There was a 50-hour-long NVC empathy phone call. It was international, in celebration of Gandhi’s birthday. I would call in and mostly listen for a couple of hours here or there, but I felt a need building in me to be heard, to express the grief that was rising up in me. Eventually, I felt like I could hardly breathe for choking it down.

I asked for empathy from these people who were strangers, from all over the world. I was terrified of doing it, and yet I knew I needed to do it. It was a very vulnerable experience. I felt scared and naked and anxious. I was afraid they would all be disgusted by my neediness, that they would see me as selfish and pathetic. But I was desperate to share my grief.

I started talking about Norm and Gadget, and I cried and cried and cried. People made empathy guesses. People gave me support. Nobody judged me. Everyone was grateful to me. They thanked me for sharing myself with them. They thanked me for my vulnerability and authenticity. They were moved. Supporting me had met needs for them. I couldn’t believe this. I had to ask the facilitator, “Why?” How? How could my outpouring of pain possibly feel good or useful to anyone else? I don’t remember what she said, but I remember that I believed her. Through this haze of pain, although I can’t remember most of what I said, and even less of what was said to me, I felt like I was being given a second chance at life.

It was so hard to believe that I gave anything to anyone that night, and yet, everyone was being honest. Rather embarrassingly, I keep “running into” people on NVC teleclasses who remembered me from that night. Some people have told me that it was the session that touched them the most.

I have to believe them, because one of the aspects of NVC I love the most is the honesty. I have not run into any game playing. People say what they feel or need, even if it might be awkward or not in line with cultural norms of politeness, but in a way that is compassionate toward themselves and others. They are not being mean; they care about others’ feelings, but they recognize that their needs and feelings are nobody else’s responsibility. There is no blame. It’s like the anti-guilt trip.

That call was life-changing. I felt like a hundred pounds had been lifted off my shoulders. I knew I needed more of that. The opportunity to grieve in community.

That hour of sobbing my heart out to a big group of strangers has had a big ripple effect in my life. I finally believed I was on the road to grieving — the verb. To not just be mired in grief, but to take an active role in my grieving. It hasn’t been smooth or clear or easy. A lot of the time I still get stuck and shut down. It’s taken me quite a while to learn how to grieve, and I’m just beginning. I have so many things to grieve, it will probably take many years before I have touched it all.

For now, most of the grief that’s coming up is for Gadget and Norm. I am hardly ever able to grieve by myself. The exception is occasionally when I’m writing a blog post like this one, feelings will come up as certain realizations hit me when I type them. Mostly, however, I grieve with other NVC people. That feels safest to me. That is where I can express my sorrow and have it welcomed and held with tenderness. I get empathy and do not get judgements — no “shoulds” or suggestions or advice. Just deep listening and connection. And then, when I get off the phone, after crying my heart out, I feel good. I feel lighter.

I sometimes feel happy again. Not just okay, but happy. I had forgotten what it felt like. At the check-in for an NVC class a few months ago, we always give a feeling and a need we’re having in that moment. I was groping around for the feeling I was having: Peaceful? No. Calm? No. I couldn’t put my finger on it. It was . . . not unhappy. Then I realized, I was happy! I felt almost guilty announcing that!

This is one of those counterintuitive things I keep having to learn over and over again, all my life. To get to the joy, I have to go through the grief. After sobbing my guts out, I’ll be able to laugh.

I have not yet learned how to grieve by myself. I think I need to keep being in the safe space of other empathic people who welcome my grief to feel safe enough to be that emotionally raw. I am afraid of grieving by myself, because I know that abyss is potentially there, and I could fall in. With others, I feel held. I can let the wound bleed, but I don’t have to worry that I will bleed until there is no life left in me. I can just let the wound of grief be cleansed by the outpouring and let the scar grow back over it and feel a little bit more healed.

I celebrate that I am able to grieve, that I am able to connect with my feelings about Norm and Gadget — not just cardboard cutouts of feelings I imagine I should have. I celebrate that there are people in my life who are not just willing, but eager, to take these journeys into my heart with me. I celebrate that I am able to feel a fuller range of emotions now — joy and laughter and hope, along with sorrow and grief.

I think our culture is not comfortable with grief. It’s messy and unpredictable and raw. We don’t know how to “fix it,” so we try to shush it away. But really, it is a way to celebrate life — that we are still here to grieve. That we suffer is part of being human. So please, congratulate me — I’m grieving.

– Sharon, the muse of Gadget (very much alive in me as I wrote this), and Barnum, sweetest SDiT

P.S. If you are a person with a chronic illness or disability who might be interested in an introductory class on NVC by telephone, Marlena, my teacher, has spaces available. Contact information and a basic description of the class are here, although the dates and times are wrong. (This is an old listing.)

11 Responses to “Good Grief: The Healing Power of Communal Mourning”

  1. 1 Sarah January 26, 2012 at 11:39 pm

    I’m sorry you had to lose so much in such a short time, but glad you are able to grieve, and that you are able to feel your feelings again. I can relate to this because I lost my beloved teaching career, became permanently disabled, and then (just recently) lost most of my family members to a family rift related to abuse I suffered as a child. I’m tempted to try to compare your grief to mine, but that’s not really necessary, is it? I know what it is to grieve, like you do, and to face that sucking wound, that black abyss of annihilation in your soul. I salute you, and I respect the process you have gone through and are going through.

  2. 2 Karyn and Thane January 27, 2012 at 3:22 am

    WOW! I am so happy for you- for the gift of this group, for what it has helped you to do and continues.
    My mom teaches griefshare classes at her church. I never quite understood the need for it to continue so indefinitely as she does until reading this post of yours.
    Thankyou for giving me that gift of understanding smile
    I wish for you continued progress in the area of grieving and finding yourself again. You are a special friend that I cherish. I just wanted you to know that.

  3. 3 bettina January 27, 2012 at 8:36 am

    I loved this post Sharon! 🙂
    “I was shocked to discover that people seemed to like me.”
    I giggled a little, because I have to say, I always liked you. You always brought so much information to the table, and were such an active caregiver for Gadget.

    I am glad things are changing for you. I think we sometimes don’t fully grasp how difficult things have been until they are behind us and we have a moment of lightness, or happiness. At least for me, when I was able to start recognizing happiness in my life again, albeit in small doses, I realized how far down a hole I was in grieving.

    Love to you! xo

  4. 4 Ginger Lazarus January 27, 2012 at 9:34 pm

    Thank you, Sharon, for putting all this into words. Your ability to write about the darkest moments of your life with honesty and compassion is such a wonderful, wonderful gift.

    Just to drive the point home: today, on the 5th anniversary of my grandfather’s death, we all got an email about the ritual my grandmother has been following every year: laying out treasured mementos, remembering all the good times, and crying. Hail, grief and joy.

  5. 5 Sharon Wachsler January 27, 2012 at 11:11 pm

    Hi Sarah.

    I feel so much companionship with you. Thank you so much for this comment — especially the last sentence.

    You lost a hell of a lot in a short time, too. It’s a huge loss to not be able to do the work you find most rewarding, and to lose the freedom and independence of being nondisabled. And then to lose family on top of that is awful. The friends I lost were more like family, and it’s still impossible for me to make sense of it. When you lose people because you have suffered an injury or hurt, yourself, like you did, it seems particularly cruel.

  6. 6 Sharon Wachsler January 27, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    Karyn, thank you so much, my dear friend.

    It was wonderful to read that this post created more understanding about not just my grieving process, but your mother’s and others,’ too.

    Just did a whole bunch more grieving today for Norm when I had to change my password on an account I never use anymore (thank you, hacker), and read several old emails from him that I’d saved. I’ll pay for all this stress and emotion in physical pain tomorrow, but it felt good to remember what he was really like, too.

  7. 7 Sharon Wachsler January 27, 2012 at 11:27 pm

    Hi Bettina,

    I really value this comment. I appreciate hearing that others saw how much I cared for Gadget and tried to care for him when he was alive.

    You know, while my “meatspace” friends were deserting me, I was making close friendships with people online, but I didn’t trust it, because I was convinced that I could “only” have online friends because they didn’t know the real me. I couldn’t reconcile all these people being so angry at me that they’d abandon decades of loving, daily interaction with me, while people online were telling me how wonderful I was. I didn’t think they could both be true, so I decided I was tricking the people online, and eventually they’d discover the real me and desert me, too.

    It’s odd, because most of the years of my relationship with Norm were online. Only in the last two years of his life, when we were both dangerously ill, did we talk on the phone frequently. I know I was a good friend to him. Somehow, that felt different.

    “I think we sometimes don’t fully grasp how difficult things have been until they are behind us and we have a moment of lightness, or happiness. At least for me, when I was able to start recognizing happiness in my life again, albeit in small doses, I realized how far down a hole I was in grieving.”

    Yes. This. Exactly.

  8. 8 Sharon Wachsler January 27, 2012 at 11:29 pm

    Oh, Ginger, thank you. What a gift this comment is. There’s nothing I can add to it. Your writing, too, as you know, moves and amazes me.

  9. 9 Sarah January 28, 2012 at 12:27 am

    I have to agree with you. It does seem cruel. I feel abandoned sometimes. But I have to move on, mourning as I need to but picking up the pieces to build something new, something that hopefully will last much longer. I’m sure you know just how that process goes. *hugs*

  10. 10 Savannah Logsdon-Breakstone January 30, 2012 at 11:24 pm

    I just wanted to say that I find your posts about grief and mourning invaluable particularly right now. My buddy- he wasn’t my partner dog, he was my mom’s pet but he was doing some of the tasks when I was around such as pressure calming I’d need- got hit and killed this weekend, and they are helping me process.

  11. 11 Sharon Wachsler January 30, 2012 at 11:28 pm

    Oh, Savannah. I’m so, so sorry. My heart goes out to you.

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