On Grief, Death and Dying
Written by Dr. Shawnee Brew
We are in the time of year where the veil is thinnest, there are more hours of darkness in a day than light, and most of us feel that we are bathed in shadow. Shadow work is a contentious term amongst psychologists, depending on your theoretical orientation, often leading people to think of the more “woo woo” work of the early 20th century. For me, the Village Witch of Grounded Therapy, Shadow Work is merely an invitation to sit with the parts of ourselves we’d rather keep tucked into the corner of the deepest, darkest part of our minds. I often see this show up in my office as grief, avoidance, pain, trauma, and the hurts we may have caused others. And after many years I have come to believe that shining light into these corners is some of the most important and powerful work we will ever do.
Grief in particular has been on my mind of late, because in many ways, it’s the thing I’ve walked most closely with my entire life. Starting at a young age, I knew loss in innumerable ways. From losing extended family, to grandparents, and then in early adulthood, two of my best friends. As such, I haven’t had much of a choice but to befriend grief and figure out how to welcome her with open arms. I first felt grief as a very tiny person, I was five years old watching my dad lean over the kitchen counter, body wracked with sobs as the call that my Aunt Betty had crossed over came through. Years later my family would recount that even as a small child I was bustling around her wake making sure everyone knew that it was going to be okay. My pre-memory self somehow knew that dying was not the end, that grief was merely another thing to pass through our bodies, and that death was something we would meet every day in small ways and therefore could not be feared. However, this is not the dominant narrative on grief, instead we are encouraged to repress at all costs, to make sure that the enormity of our grief is never known or shared. We are led to believe that our pain does not deserve to take up space. I am here to say, with my whole entire heart, you not only deserve to take up space, you have to. Because, as Lama Rod Owens shares in his book Love and Rage, “if you don’t get to the heartbreak, you don’t get to the healing.”
Earlier this year a friend suggested Melissa Febos’s Girlhood, ( Please read content warnings before reading any of the books mentioned hereafter) which is a master class in prose and vulnerability. Febos writes (in my mind) of grief, “the true telling of our stories often requires the annihilation of other stories, the ones we build and carry through our lives because it is easier to preserve some mysteries. We don’t need the truth to survive, and sometimes our survival depends on its denial.” I have such mixed feelings about this line. In many ways, yes, if we are traumatized, often the only thing we know is to put it away, the only safe thing to do is to put it under lock and key. However, as we have moved through the Scorpio-Taurus eclipse axis this year, it has demanded us to reckon with the fact that we do need the truth to survive, and that in fact, unearthing our truth is the only way to set ourselves free. So while I agree that sometimes our immediate survival depends on being able to push it down, I don’t believe that any true healing occurs without exhuming the past and laying it out on the examination table to be autopsied, dissected, and eventually put back together again.
Any of us that have invested in the work of unearthing have learned that simply because we put it away, doesn’t mean it disappears. And in many cases, our hurt will find a way to be felt. You may never be able to unbreak your heart, but there are avenues to healing available. I believe in the healing power of naming. We cannot heal what we cannot name. Mimi Zhu shares in her book Be Not Afraid of Love, “I am not shaming myself for my coping mechanisms. I am naming them because it has taken me so long to become aware of them. This naming is honoring the unknowing that I had at the time, and how I was so unaware of the ways that I was surviving.” We live in a society that is so fearful of emotion, especially of seemingly catastrophic emotions like grief whose entire existence demands to be felt. So we are taught from so young to hide those parts of ourselves, to learn to tuck them away into the tiny crevices of our minds, unknowingly letting them decay in the corners until someone eventually hands us the tools to excavate that rot. I hope this essay hands you some tools. Zhu goes on to say of grief:
The Western world is obsessed with binaries, splitting joy and sadness into enemies. Life and death are classified as direct opposites too. Human beings have long understood the ecstasies of happiness and the heaviness of sorrow. Joy never ceases to be beautiful, while grief never seems to get easier. Binaries create fragmentations and opposing forces, and do not regard joy, sadness, life, and death as intrinsic to the wholeness and balance of being. While sorrow and death are difficult and scary experiences, instead of being taught how to feel and navigate them, we fear them so much that we strive to completely avoid them. It is not surprising that in the Anthropocene, human beings are obsessed with inventing technologies to achieve immunity to both sadness and death.
I love this paragraph because I think it highlights perfectly what we must do in order to face our grief, we have to learn to love her. In all the times I have faced my grief, it has been through the practice of nostalgia. A kind, yet painful reminder of what it is that I have lost. I remember my grandmother through her favorite songs, and favorite soup. I remember my best friend Nick through our favorite hockey team, and a tattoo I wear with love. I remember my smaller self through pop culture and the tiny altars I created before I had the language to name them as such. We must attend to our sorrow with equal parts joy and remembrance. This is a much larger task than it appears on the surface, because in order to touch that joy and remembrance, we have to face the enormity of that which we have lost. Every time I eat my grandmother’s favorite soup, it’s with the knowing that I will never do so with her again, that she will never do so again. The pain that enters my ribcage every time I go to pick up my phone to text Nick about The Sharks game and remember that he’s no longer here to tell. However, I also believe that the memory of those we’ve lost lives on in these acts of love. That somewhere, not so far away on the other side of the veil, those we love sit with us at the table, they are next to us on the couch. If we are brave enough to hold the dialectic of grief and love in the same breath, we are able to contact something truly beautiful.
I have said in many ways, a hundred times over, that I have lived and died a thousand times (and I’m only 32). To me, there are small deaths every day. Every time we don’t stand up for ourselves, or hide the words we yearn to say for fear of being ostracized, even the fresh cut flowers on my altar are tiny deaths. But I’ve also lived a thousand lives through stories, rainstorms, and the love of people who chose to see me in my entirety. What this all is really to say is that death is simply rebirth, a chance to start over. Febos puts it beautifully when she says, “they say that to love someone else, you have to love yourself first. It is not true. Being loved, the relentless care of my family, my lovers, my friends, has sewn me back together...I am shocked and so relieved to find that I am still soft inside.” What speaks to me here is that no matter how badly our many deaths hurt, the myriad ways in which we convince ourselves we simply won’t make it to the next breath, there is always something there to cauterize the wounds and to help relocate ourselves, an epitaph from beyond to remind us that there are no true endings. So I hope, dear one, that you are able to find this. Be it through therapy, the welcome call of the ocean, or the hug of a loved one. You too deserve to find that soft inside, relentless in its truth, a north star back home.
In love, grief, and solidarity,
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