Grieving the Self

Hello fellow zebras and spoonies. It’s time for another talk about grief. Yup, I talk about this topic a lot. Why is that? Well, because grief is a fundamental part of the human condition and it is something that we aren’t very good at dealing with. I believe that by having better conversations about our suffering and grief, we can become better at coping and gain resilience.

This time around, I want to talk about the ways that we grieve for ourselves. It makes perfect sense that we would grieve the loss of another person, but we far more often grieve the loss of ourselves. This comes into play in several contexts.

First, is the big heavy. Each of us has to face our mortality at some point in our lives. With the realization that we will one day die comes the grieving of our own future death. We have to face the fear of the unknown that death represents as well as the letting go of everything that we have ever held dear. We must also face the reality that over time, we will be forgotten.

We also grieve when we suffer a role or identity loss. This is when a core part of what we identify as our selves is taken from us. This is why parents frequently suffer “empty nest syndrome” and why many people struggle after they retire. The roles that we play become a fundamental part of how we define ourselves. Loosing those roles is loosing a part of ourselves.

We can also grieve in context of physical losses that come with illness. This one gets a little more complex because it usually brings in the grieving related to our mortality as well as that of role loss. Our physical self is the majority of who we are. In fact, without our bodies we cannot exist. Thus, we connect our identities to our bodies. Everything from gender identity to parenthood to being an athlete and even the work we do; it’s all connected to the way that our bodies are built and function.

The thing about grieving the self is that it is an ongoing cycle. We are ever changing creatures that are constantly shedding pieces of ourselves as we live through our span of years. Thus, we constantly feeling the suffering of these losses. Few of us become the person we imagined when we were a child. Why? Because as we travel through time, we change and our dreams and goals change. Yet, setting aside the things we once held dear comes with an emotional price. If we do not give these feelings their proper place, we risk becoming bitter and jaded.

As we process through the many feelings of grief, it is useful to look at it in stages. But it is important to keep in mind that grieving in not a linear process that can be moved through from beginning to end. Just because you feel acceptance today does not mean that your will not feel anger tomorrow. This is the natural course of the human heart as it works its way through grief. It is also important to keep in mind that there is no magical time line either. These losses never leave us, but over time we do learn to cope with the feelings that these losses evoke. But because they never leave us, the emotions of grief can visit us again at any time. Even years after we had believed that we’d found a resolution in our hearts.

An injury to our emotions in rather like getting a cut on our skin. Given time, it will heal and a scar will form where the injury was. However, scar tissue is not as strong as the original skin and is at risk for reinjury in the future. Our emotions are like this. We often refer to this emotional scarring as trauma and the reinjury of it as being triggered. All human suffering creates scars which can be triggered later in life. That is the nature of the human heart. Being resilient isn’t about being unscarred or never being triggered. Rather it is about having the ability to properly give space to the complex emotions that come with our constant fluctuating hearts. Resilience is knowing how to bend in the wind rather then breaking. How do we achieve this emotional flexibility in the face of constant suffering?

First, you must accept that suffering cannot be avoided. There will always be a loosing of the self. It is a natural part of life. When we become adults, we loose our childhood. Having children means giving up life without children. All choices mean that we must set aside other possibilities. We must shed pieces of ourselves as we grow and further define who we are. Thus, loss cannot be avoided. There is no returning to childhood. There is no returning to the life you had before you had your children. The choices we make fundamentally change us. There are times that these changes come from external forces rather than from the choices we make. But in the end, there is no going back and those pieces can never be recovered.

Then it becomes a dance. We must choose to recognize our emotions without judgement. There are no good or bad emotions. Right and wrong only come into play once actions are taken. Giving our emotions space means allowing ourselves to feel what ever we are feeling without placing value upon those emotions. Evaluation of our emotions can lead to insight. Is this anger being triggered from emotional scars or is it because an injustice has been committed? This knowledge of the emotional source can become a guide to action. When anger arises from a trigger, it calls for us to be kind to ourselves and to perhaps withdraw for a time to heal. While if there is an injustice, anger calls us to action so that wrongs may be put right. Thus, knowing the source and acknowledging the chronic nature of grieving is a core part of controlling our emotions.

The key to understanding grief is realizing that no one experiences the same thing. Grief is very personal and you are unlikely to feel the same things with each loss. Its nature is like water, in that it is ever changing. One moment, it is solid and real; the ice that stabs your heart. While in another, it is intangible vapor that you cannot hold onto. When you are feeling submerged and drowning, remember that the waters of grief never remain still. The tide comes in, but it will also go out. The rains fall, but the sun also evaporates the clouds. All ice melts.

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