I’ve been thinking about grief ever since my last post about the loss of my dog, Bear. I kept wiping away tears as I wrote it, then again when I read and responded to the kind comments I received. Where do these tears come from? Is this only about missing Bear or is something else going on? These questions remind me of something the Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard once said: that much of the grief we feel when someone dies is for ourselves.
This feels profound and somehow comforting. But what does it mean? Consider this: loss and loneliness are about how we feel. The one who’s gone isn’t hurting any more. It’s we who are hurting, and we don’t like pain. Is Kierkegaard saying some of our grief is self-pity? Because something we love has been taken from us and we will never derive pleasure from it again?
Could some of our grief also come from anger at forces over which we have no control which have arbitrarily taken something we want and love away from us? Don’t we express our outrage in words like, “Why did you leave me? Why do I have to go through this pain? It’s not fair!”
And doesn’t much of our pain come from regret and guilt too? Perhaps we think we weren’t grateful or present enough to the one we loved. Or sometimes we were selfish, impatient or angry. Or didn’t try hard enough to understand and communicate. Or weren’t giving enough.
I find Kierkegaard’s insight comforting, partly because it reassures me that everyone experiences similar feelings, and partly because this knowledge gives me things to do that make my loss easier to bear. I can’t bring Bear back to life, but I can feel sympathy for my ego whose desires have been thwarted. I can stop beating myself up for being angry when he had accidents on my rugs, or for sometimes taking his unconditional love for granted. And I can start looking for the unconscious factors which are prolonging my grief.
My tears are messages from my body and psyche that I am suffering. As Nisargadatta says, “Suffering is due entirely to clinging or resisting; it is a sign of unwillingness to move on, to flow with life.” Apparently I don’t believe I deserve release, joy and forgiveness. Apparently I don’t love my whole self. This is the hidden lesson of grief, and learning it can help me move on.
The next time I cry I can ask myself: What am I resisting? To what am I clinging? Do I cling to my Orphan’s self-pity because her sadness brings me sympathy? Do I like my Warrior’s anger and self-criticism because they make me feel wise, stoic and tough? Does feeling guilty make me believe I am a responsible, caring person? Do I need these grief-inducing ego-boosters in order to believe I am worthy of love? And the big question: can I accept my dysfunction as a natural by-product of the human condition and forgive and love myself anyway?
Lest we be tempted to believe we’re being self-indulgent to take our inner lives so seriously, we can remember these wise words from Parker Palmer: “Self-care is never a selfish act, it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others. Anytime we can listen to our true self, and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.”