Living in the Shadow of the Ghosts of Grief: An Introduction. Reprinted with permission from “Living in the Shadow of the Ghosts of Grief: An Introduction” by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D. For more information on grief and healing and to order Dr. Wolfelt’s books, visit www.centerforloss.com.
“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” — Kahlil Gibran
A central truth is that all of us as human beings are connected in our experiences of loss and grief. If you have picked up this newsletter and are reading these words, you are probably consciously aware that you have been impacted by life losses. Each and every one of our lives involves natural transitions, unwanted endings, and new beginnings.
Yet, perhaps you have noticed that many people in our culture seem to avoid embracing life losses and try to go around them instead of through them. This article series, directed from my heart to your heart, is an invitation to go to that spiritual place inside you that is aching to find “safe places” and “safe people” with whom you can openly acknowledge the griefs influencing your life. In part, my hope is that this discussion will help you understand if and why you are living in the shadow of the ghosts of grief so that you can step into the light.
For you see, as I continue to grow and learn, I have come to believe that it is in embracing our carried grief that we find relief from our life problems (e.g., anxieties, depressions, addictive behaviors, difficulties with giving and receiving love). I passionately believe that when we don’t authentically mourn life losses, we can’t live or love well. My observation is that many North Americans have come to believe that grief is an enemy to be fought instead of an experience to be embraced and befriended. Yet, it is the befriending process that contains the beginnings of grace.
I invite you to consider that to inhibit, delay, convert or avoid grief is to condemn yourself to a living death. Living fully requires that you feel fully. It means being completely one with what you are experiencing. If you are unwilling or unable to give attention to how loss and grief shape your life path, you will project your symptoms into your body, your relationships and your worldview. Any unhealed grief will linger, influencing all aspects of your life, your living, and particularly, your loving.
How ironic is it that we try to push away or fend off what is a life-given condition—the need to mourn? Some families have a long-held tradition of responding defensively in the face of life loses. For many the resistance to the pain and discomfort that accompanies loss is passed down generationally. When family rules do not allow for true feelings, the capacity to mourn is inhibited, delayed, converted, or avoided completely. The family rule, although unwritten and usually unspoken, is often loud and clear: “Thou shall not mourn!” Yet, until you can authentically mourn life losses, you become “stuck” and are at risk for depression, anxiety and a host of other problems.
Grief is a natural and necessary response to the many losses we encounter in our life journeys. Many of the losses we experience are little, while some are big and some gigantic. Some are excruciatingly painful while others cause us to feel barely a twinge.
If you have gone through life expressing your painful feelings of loss—big and little, excruciating and barely-there, you’re probably not living in the shadow of the ghosts of grief. If, on the other hand, you’re like most of us grief-swallowers and loss-deniers, you may well be.
When you live in the shadow of the ghosts of grief, you suffer, often unknowingly, from unacknowledged and unexpressed feelings of loss. These stuffed feelings are often longstanding, stemming from your childhood and young adulthood. You may have many ghosts—that is, many unacknowledged losses, or you may find that your ghost is identifiably singular—a specific loss that devastated you, even if you didn’t realize it at the time.
Throughout my many years as a grief counselor and educator, I have observed that many people are living in the shadow of the ghosts of grief. The person living in the shadow often has symptoms that suggest that the pain of grief has been inhibited, delayed, converted or avoided altogether. However, what I’ll go on to describe as fall-out symptoms stay present, driving the person’s life, trying to get the attention they deserve.
I also use the term “carried grief” to describe unacknowledged and unmourned grief. When you experience loss but you do not mourn the normal and necessary resulting feelings of grief, you “carry” that grief forward into your future. This carried grief results in a muting of one’s spirit, or divine spark, or what Meister Eckhart described as “that which gives depth and purpose to our living.” And, when the spirit is muted, there is an ongoing hampering of your ability to live your life with meaning and purpose.
Many of us have been taught that pain is an indication that something is wrong, and that we should quickly find ways to alleviate our pain. In our culture, pain and feelings of loss are experiences most people try to avoid. We often have no clue as to what to do with our pain other than to deny or self-treat it. Why? Because the role of pain and suffering is misunderstood. Normal thoughts and feelings after a loss are often seen as unnecessary and inappropriate. All too often we have been taught to “keep busy, carry on, keep our chins up, and get over it.” The unfortunate result is that we carry our pain and go on to live in the shadow of the ghosts of our grief.
Yes, our carried pain will keep trying to get our attention until we discover the courage to gently, and in small doses, open to its presence. The alternative—denying or suppressing our pain—is in fact more painful.
While it us true that carried pain from death loss often causes us to live in the shadow of the ghosts of grief, I urge you to remember that many of us carry pain from a multitude of life losses. Any and all life losses, if unmourned, may result in the carried pain that stultifies lives. So as you read this article and those that follow, consider not only the deaths of those you were close to but also all other types of losses that may have affected your life.
If you find the concept of the shadows of grief helpful, please consider writing me about your experiences. In doing so, you will allow me to learn from you and encourage me to continue to attempt to create “safe places” and “safe people” where people can discover the courage to authentically mourn.