What I’ve learned about grief…and why I advocate for grieving well

By Carissa Kazyss, MA

Our lives are often punctuated by griefs through losses of people, pets, and circumstances. These griefs pierce us, either shockingly or gradually over time. If we take an honest look at how well we grieve, collectively and individually, and take stalk of how we support each other in times of grief, we might not score very high. Some might even raise their eyebrows at “grieving well”, after all, isn’t grief something to get past as quickly as possible and move on? No, it is not. I’m here to tell you that grief has a special kind of magic sauce that can open us to new vistas if we let it.

Recently, perhaps because of our times, I was drawn to participate in a grief retreat. Over the course of a couple of days, my understanding of grief and experience of it shifted radically. As a result, I’ve become a bit of a grief advocate.

Here are a few things a few things I learned about the grief process:

  1. Grief transforms what seems insurmountable
  2. Grieving with others can be uncomplicated and simple
  3. Short bouts of grief can make a big difference

Grief transforms what seems insurmountable

There are times when grief is a mountain, not a mole hill in front of us, and converting it to the proverbial mole hill feels huge. There is no way around this mountain, our minds tell us. And a solution must be found. Working on overdrive, our minds come up with multiple fixes, from building tunnels through, to blasting the mountain down, or scaling the mountain, step by step. Still, standing at the base, it can feel insurmountable.

What I have learned is that, sometimes, before I can move forward and see my way through, there is something to grieve. It might be deep, not the expected grief of loss of a person or a pet or an outcome. It might be a loss related more to matters of my heart, like where I’ve been hard on myself, where I saw this mountain before and hightailed it out, or where I haven’t felt loved enough.

Connecting to this grief might feel like a mountain in itself, especially in allowing those first moments of feeling to surface. Then the rains come, and if we allow them, the rains of grief slowly erode that mountain. It’s not always obvious at first, when one only feels the outpouring from the heart. Then, like the song says, “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone”, and where the mountain stood is now a passable hill. This has happened so many times in my own experience that I now have a faith in grief I hadn’t known before. A faith in the process that alchemically changes the very thing that was in my way. Sometimes it has even become a non-issue. Grief can be a catalyst to help us move forward with clearer vision and a more open heart.

Grieving with others can be uncomplicated and simple

We are a bit trained in our culture to think of grief as something that happens as a long process, perhaps with professional help (which is good too). Or alone in our rooms listening to sad music or watching a movie that touches all the right heart strings. Whatever makes us cry, right? And…when we grieve with others present, there is a kind of magic that happens too, if we are doing it in a supportive way.

There are reasons why we don’t include others, like friends or family members, in our grief. It can feel messy, people’s own grief can come up, or they may try to console and say too much. Or not be present enough. It can feel emotionally risky to really grieve in the presence of another. Still, grieving with others can be done very simply and cleanly, in a supportive way.

An important ingredient is an agreement that the other person will simply listen and respond with an acknowledgement at the end. This agreement is golden. The person grieving knows they will be heard and there will be no further processing. There is a requirement of heartful presence here, which feels so good in the offering and in the receiving. I have come to believe that we actually want to be here for each other in this way, we just haven’t been trained. It’s not about counseling, it’s not about fixing, it’s about being present and there for each other, in each other’s pain, with a kind of faith in the special kind of alchemy that comes through grieving.

Short bouts of grief can make a big difference

No, it doesn’t need to take a lot of time. That’s the other great thing! In my experience, 10 -20 minutes is enough to feel what is wanting to surface in that moment and for the mountain that is right there in front to dissolve a little. There likely will be more later, and it doesn’t all need to be felt right now. We are rhythmic beings, we need space and time for our grief. Sometimes we avoid grieving because it seems like it will never end once we travel into those heavier places. This, I feel, keeps us from experiencing the aliveness that grief can bring, and keeps us from moving through to the joy that’s waiting for us.

There have been moments in grief when it felt like it would never end. There seemed to be no end to the tears, no end to the pain. When I’ve allowed myself to move through those moments and feel the depth of them, there, at the other end, was a rainbow. Looking at the clock, just 10 minutes had passed. My mind could not comprehend how something so deep could happen so quickly. This is where we culturally don’t seem to understand the inner workings of ourselves, and how going deep doesn’t always require time, just presence.

To tie together all of these points, here is a little vignette from my recent experience during the grief retreat:

Huddled in my bedroom during Covid lockdown, I sat on the phone with two other women doing a grief practice of listening and acknowledging each other’s grief. It was my turn to speak for 10 minutes. I could feel the tension in my stomach, in my throat. I wasn’t sure that anything would come out…the topic of this round of grief was about where I hadn’t felt loved. As I breathed into this inside, a cry percolated up and out. It was the cry of a young child who had felt abandoned. The tears came before the story. In this trusted space, I allowed them to flow. About mid-way through, it felt like this could go on forever. And then, the way rains soften at the end of a storm, the tears stopped, I breathed deeply and there was now more space inside. What seemed like an impassable hurdle was now something else, not the hurdle, just something else. More space for love inside. The women on the phone acknowledged me simply and heartfully, and we moved on to the next person.

It is time, I feel, with so much to grieve collectively in our world, from losses of species and air quality to poverty, isolation, inequity, disconnection, disinformation…for us to come together and find new ways of grieving. Ways that support us and bring us together and make the issues in front of us less insurmountable. Ways that help us be present with each other with love and create the kind of connection many of us are deeply longing for. Ways to speak the unspeakable in the presence of a compassionate ear.  

I would like to express my gratitude for Kimberly Herkert and The Way of the Heart for the grief training I reference in this article. It is such exceptional, experiential training for my heart, not my head. My understanding here comes from my experience made possible with the scaffolding provided during the grief retreat.