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  • Angela O'Brien-Greywitt

Befriend Your Grief (Part 1)

I have come to know grief quite intimately. People I loved were being given cancer diagnoses and people close to me were dying. Not only from cancer. Grief definitely has the capacity to wake you up. It invites you to pay attention to each moment in your life. I learned very quickly what is important and what is not. What I had control over and what I did not. I came to understand what I did have control over and that was my perspective on how I could embrace loss as part of life. I changed how I viewed the world and how these experiences of great loss changed my very existence. When your life gets turned upside down and inside out you start to pay close attention.


I used to think no one should die when they are young. It isn’t right, it doesn’t follow the natural order of things. I am here to tell you, life, illnesses, death, happen all around us all the time and at any age with and without warning. I began to wonder, is it better to know of your imminent death because of a terminal illness or to die suddenly? Both involve shock, suffering and grief. When a terminal diagnosis is given, you hopefully have time to complete any unfinished business and time to process your imminent demise. A sudden death is horrifying, shocking, and no time is given to process the grief until after it happens. You can choose to begin to live every day as if it were your last without a diagnosis.


I think both are equally difficult, but both give us the invitation to start living each day knowing that death will come to us all. Loss will touch your life when you least expect it. It can rip open your heart. It may tear apart and shred your beliefs. It will shake you up and wake you up. You are down on your knees surrendering to what is out of your control. Start living the way you were meant to live. You already have the knowledge that death comes to us all.


There were not many people lining up to help me process all of the grief I was wading through. I even had people say to me, "I don't know if I can be around you. I feel like I might get cancer!" Please, I beg of you... never, ever, say that to anyone. It is not kind. It is not true. It is definitely not helpful. Once the funerals are over, life goes on for everyone else. My life seemed to be heavier as if I were stuck in a dense fog and standing in quicksand. I have always been extremely sensitive, but I cried more easily. Everything took more effort and energy to complete. I wanted to scream and shout to everyone around me...someone I loved has died how can you be doing what you are doing? I wanted the world to stop and listen to me tell them a story about my lost loved one. I wanted to be held and comforted awhile longer. I wanted someone to tell me I would be ok. My world was shattered and forever and irrevocably altered. Would I ever be able to enjoy life again? The answer to that question is...absolutely you can enjoy your life again.


I thank God every day for my husband. He was my rock. I know that it does not happen for all couples when much is asked of your ability to hold your life together when it has been rocked to the core from loss. But our relationship grew stronger. We never lost sight of our strength together and we became more insightful, compassionate and understanding towards each other and towards life. It was not perfect. We learned to share our feelings and acclimate to the changes in life. Challenges in life had become opportunities in disguise for growth. My children were experiencing grief, too, from the losses in our family. But life goes on and you find a way to show up for your children. They keep you in the present moment. All of the dogs we had, our fur angel babies, helped us a lot. Dogs were working overtime absorbing the grief and sadness we were all feeling. Dog is God spelled backwards. They offer unconditional love and support. They get you up to go outside.


Dogs and kids need to be cared for so you had to get up and keep on moving and living the best way you could. My parents, my siblings and a few close friends also played a huge part in picking me up and helping me find my way through. Stay open and connected to the world. Do not shut it out. When you are invited to dance with life and death keep your heart wide open and feel it all. Believe me when I tell you, no matter how difficult it gets, it can and will get better. Grace and gratitude will find their way back into your life.


Our culture has moved away from experiencing death in ways that our ancestors did. People used to die at home surrounded by family, friends, and loved ones. They were ushered with love, tears, solemn goodbyes, from this world to the next. Death wasn’t something that was unknown. It was a natural part of life. Many cultures have rituals to honor all rights of passage. Where are our rituals on death and grief? Who can we share our grief with? It must be felt, shared, honored and not hidden away. Death does not have to be scary. You do not have to change the subject when someone says the word "death." Everyone will experience death of loved ones at some point in their life. Don't run away. You do not even have to know what to say to someone who is grieving a loss. Just continue to show up and hold space for them.


Grief will come out in all ways that are unhealthy when you try to anesthetize it with distractions or stuff it away. It can’t be put away. You can try, but it will come out in ways that do not serve or nourish you. It is not easy, but when faced head on and you experience the incredible loss through the roar of your emotions, honor and feel them all. You slowly begin the healing process. Allow them to wash over and through your being over and over and over again.


Let the tears flow like the rain showers that the earth graciously receives and absorbs. Tears are a sign of strength not weakness. They are a way to release and to get to know the language of your heart. Our hearts and emotions have a way of connecting us with others and they help us to heal. When you have experienced loss you can begin to recognize it by looking into the eyes of another who has also experienced loss. Share your grief. Don't hide it. You will heal. Get outside, breathe, walk, move, garden, pray, meditate, do yoga, sing, watch movies that make you cry, paint, write, do anything and everything that helps you feel and do something every damn day. Emotions are energy in motion. Allow them to move and free yourself you are still here. You are still alive. Take the love you have for the person you lost and share it with everyone you meet.


The waves of grief come and go when they want to. There might be a song, a fragrance, a picture you see that reminds you of someone you loved and lost. Grief takes time. It cannot be rushed. Don’t let anyone tell you when you should be done grieving. There is no time limit. We grieve for as long as it takes. It could be your entire lifetime. Everyone grieves differently. Given time, the weight of it lightens, the ferocity of it will soften, but it needs your loving attention. You will come out the other side of it having been transformed.


The hope is to be transformed into a more loving and compassionate human being. We learn to take nothing or no one for granted and we become grateful for everything. Grief teaches you how to live more consciously from an open heart. Life is so very precious. Put your phone down and play with your children. Give your loved ones your time and attention. Connect with people in a deeper way while they are still here. Start to live as if today was your last day to be alive. What would you do differently?


I searched for answers in books that might help me with my grief. Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, was a favorite. This book was very powerful and held great meaning for me. I found his teachings at a time that I was longing and searching for answers. I needed to find meaning that could touch the depth of my sorrow. He eloquently writes, “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper the sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” This is so true.


We can feel a greater sense of joy and it feels richer and truer when we have felt our sorrow within the deepest recesses of our hearts. “When you are joyous look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.” “Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.” Joy and sorrow are two sides of the same coin. Honor both.


Grief has a rich treasure trove of gifts filled with wisdom it bestows upon us. These are not gifts we go in search of. You can’t buy them online. They are there waiting for us in the shadows of our hearts and souls. We find them at the depth of our despair. We find them in the dark, wee, hours of the night when sleep eludes us. There is much to be discovered deep within our vessel when death comes to call. I found that when my heart cracked wide open it allowed the light to come in. Not unlike a seed buried in the deep, dark, rich, soil working hard to break through the outer coat. It will crack open and reach for the light of the sun to nourish it and allow it to grow. When death and grief knock on your door, invite them in, give them a seat at the table, and offer them tea. Allow them to shed light and unveil the essence of their teachings. Befriend your grief to your weeping, shattered heart and it can transform you.


The soul needs to feel and process all the experiences that life, death and everything in between has to offer. We must not only celebrate the good, happy, and joyful moments in our lives. We need balance. We are here to learn and to honor all of our emotions. Keep asking the questions, “What do I feel? What am I afraid to feel? What do I need? What is this trying to teach me?” Each loss had its own heart wrenching challenges and their own unique gifts offered to me. I did not ask for these gifts. Or did I? I signed a contract with my soul before I incarnated into this present life? I asked to experience great loss one right after another? My ego could not comprehend what apparently my soul had requested. My spiritual journey continues to open and expand in ways I could never have dreamed possible. But it has shown me the light and strength within me.


It took me a while to understand. All challenges in life are presented to us in ways that have the ability to show us a different way to be other than a victim. I did not want to have the victim consciousness of having people feel sorry for me. I wanted to stand tall in my life and make decisions from an open heart. Death showed me the resilience and profound strength I had deep within my being. We all have that strength. Death opened me up and ravaged my heart and began the process of peeling back the layers of protection I had placed upon my heart throughout my life. I didn't want anyone to see who I really was at my core...it felt too vulnerable. But grief reminded me and showed me that to stand in my power and my truth I must open my heart and live from that place. It was a new way to connect deeply with people. I began to live from an authentic and vulnerable place.


My mother was a nurse. She did not hide death from us as children. When a pet would die I would give it a proper burial and say a few words and shed tears. Honor all loss. Don't hide death from your children. Teach them death happens all around us. You will help them build the strength they will need to have throughout their lives. It is a gift to them to recognize grief and death is a part of life.


When someone we knew died, we went to the funeral. We spoke to and offered support to the grieving families. We honored them by listening to their stories. We wept with them. We brought food. We showed up. You cannot take away anyone’s grief or pain, but you can offer your time, attention, love and acknowledgement to their suffering hearts. You lift them up by just letting them know they are not alone in their pain and suffering. My mother taught us to not be afraid of death and that it was a natural part of life. Death and grief are never easy, but they are important. Each loss will affect you differently. The ones that change your daily life are much greater and will take more time and loving attention to find your way. I am grateful to my mother for what she taught us about accepting death. She planted a seed in me that it is important to honor life, death and everything in between. Befriend your grief.



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