How does one process one’s grief?

My wife asked me the other day, “How does a person process grief?” You’d think that as a chaplain, walking beside and with those who are grieving, I would have had an answer in that moment. Maybe because it was the last, lingering thought before sleeping and I was further along than she, or maybe because there is just no easy answer to a question like this… it goes to say, I didn’t have anything satisfying to give in return.

Maybe the question didn’t sit with me. How do I process grief? Is this different than asking, how do I grieve? I really don’t think it is a matter of processing grief as much as just grieving. Processing is talking about it, writing about it, thinking about it, sharing it, and moving through it. With processing, though, it is always something outside, something that is different than us.

I grieve every day. I grieve when I am with someone who has lost a loved one. I grieve when I hear someone say, “They didn’t tell me chemo was going to be this way. I should have had the operation.” I grieve when I see the wretched state of political debates, of violence, of abuse of our planet. I grieve so much and often that there is a weight I carry that never goes away. I pray for peace and mercy for our Earth and for the humans and the non-humans who live on it. God have mercy.

And yet, I never wish that I could remain naive of all this. I never wish for this weight to go away. It’s like saying, “Breathing is just too much work. I’d rather not do it for an hour or two.” When we learn how to grieve (not learn how to process grief) we grieve even when we are not conscious we are grieving. We become a person who grieves. There is a compassion and a union that happens there. It is a development of the person, something we have to learn and allow ourselves to grow into. Perhaps we begin by remembering that grief is not a bad thing, and it is not a good thing either, it is just a thing. It is a hard thing, yes, but so is waking up when we have been asleep for too long. It is painful, but so is exercising when our muscles atrophy. Perhaps our grief ability has been atrophied by a world that continues to tell us that grief is a bad thing that must be moved through, processed, and healed from. There is no healing from grief.

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To be rooted to the land you walk upon

It means something to be where you are from. And not just your family, not just your culture, or your religion or your country… It means something unequivocally significant to be an occupier of the land you live upon. I am quite certain that most do not have this sensibility, at least not consciously but perhaps when really pressed, would affirm how important it is to them.

What I am getting at is an extra level down into a deeper sense of one’s place in this world, one’s sense of self, one’s spiritual life, and one’s connection with all that is.

There is meaning to the old saying, “You are what you eat.” In a quite literal sense, our bodies our composed of the food and water that goes into us. What other way is there? This is why, when we lived in Oregon, we drank our water, straight from the land, straight from the spring. No filter, no chemicals. And food… Where is your body connected to if your food comes from thousands of miles away or is processed to the extent that it can only be called, as Michael Pollen terms it, “edible food-like substances?”

So it means something very literally in regard to our physical make-up. But what does it mean to be from the Fox Valley in WI? To have grown up on a farm and lived there your whole life? As a chaplain, living in one of the most “homegrown” cities in the country, it means something to talk to my patients about where they are from and wehter their parents grew up here too. For a person living in city and never having left, to never found one’s self in green space, with one’s hands in the dirt or toes in the sand… This means something to that person. Maybe an ungroundedness or a sense of nature as “enemy.”

There is a profound teaching in observing the greatest tai chi masters (watch a video of one on YouTube). Where do they draw this life force from that allows them to move people without even touching them or to be unmovable themselves?

Readiness in dying

In my work in the hospital, dying is such a common theme. Something about being in the hospital, whether one has a terminal illness or not, brings about questions of one’s mortality and readiness to die. It really is amazing that something that people think about so often, or resist with such stubbornness is such an avoided subject by many medical professionals. I have been in so many conversations with medical teams, families, and patients talking about end of life, comfort care, and palliative care where the words “death” and “dying” are never mentioned. Why the awkwardness, why the fear? I think there is definitely something going with the doctors and nurses that I will address in other posts, but I would start with what I have been offering patients and family members these days.

I think there are three areas people become ready to go about their dying: their mind, their heart, and their body. Often times, especially when someone is younger and dying of cancer, their body might be saying, “It’s time,” but in their heart and mind, thinking and emotionally, they are far from ready. They have things to do, kids and grand kids to spend more time with, fears of the unknown that they hold on to. This so often makes for a lot of suffering. They pursue extreme treatment, their family members get alongside their efforts for more time, and doctors very readily do everything can to keep someone alive. But their body is saying it’s time.

The other, and perhaps less common situation, is when someone’s body is strong and in their heart and mind they really want to die. I see this with women and men in their 90’s who have no one left. Their parents died half a century ago, their spouses have died, some of their children have died, and all their friends have died. They ask me to pray that they would die soon. And yet they keep on living. I think this is getting to be more and more common with so many life-extending practices that we have now. This is a different kind of suffering, and I see doctors and nurses responding often with, “This patient is depressed.” I often remind patients (and staff) that wanting to die is not necessarily being “depressed.” It is not always “giving up.” Assuming this desire as such, minimizes the experience.

So ideally, our heart, mind, and body would be in sync when it comes to our dying time. How do we as those who may or may not be dying get to this place? Stephen Jenkinson writes that someone must be very out of touch with their life if they have to be told that they are dying. If we are paying attention and unafraid, we will know. The body has a wisdom of its own and knows when it has had enough. We would also do well to begin contemplating our dying and preparing for it as soon as possible. Why not now? I will tell patients it’s never too early to begin thinking about how we want our dying time to be. If only we can include our loved ones in this conversation, wondering and dreaming with them, recognizing that it is a part of life, not a bad thing. And one of the greatest gifts we can offer our children and grand children is a gracious and honest look at death so they have something to hold on to when it is their turn. This is a sacred thing to pass on. It is legacy. It is holy. And in this act we will be remembered.