For the last 14 years I’ve helped people transform grief, anger, anxiety and other difficult emotions at our retreats. I've learned a great deal about how grief affects us, and how we can move through our grieving and find joy again.
Here is a list of some of the things I have learned about grief, whether it's from the loss of a loved one, a relationship, a job or something else dear to us.
1. Grief is not a problem to be solved.
Grief is a feeling to be felt, not a thought.
We live in our thoughts so naturally we want to solve our problems by finding a solution. But feelings are in a different realm than thoughts. They come from our body, not our head.
I learned about grief that it is not a problem, although it can be a very uncomfortable feeling. What can be a problem is the avoidance of grief. This avoidance can cause our lives to go into a standstill as we are stuck in the past and neglect the present.
2. Suppressing, avoiding or distracting ourselves from grief postpones our pain and slows down our healing process.
As we get past these strategies and feel our pain we heal our grief. But sometimes the pain of grief is unbearable, and some suppression is a necessary defense so we won't be totally overwhelmed by it. Yet when we make a habit of suppression and other means of not feeling we end up stuck in pain rather than moving through it. We can end up addicted to substances or activities that numb us.
So how do we feel our grief in a safe way? Our Emotional healing retreats are an ideal way to enter into the feelings we've avoided. At our retreats participants are surrounded by support, safety and a process that encourages feeling feelings. As we move through our grief, it changes, and we change. We feel better, lighter, freer.
We find relief.
3. I learned about grief that when we suppress our pain we also suppress lots of good stuff.
Pushing down the pain of grief (or any feeling) reduces the amount of awareness and life energy we consciously have. Suppression makes our world smaller!
We become less aware and have fewer options. Suppression is, at best, a temporary option. The problem is that most of us have unconsciously suppressed so much feeling in our bodies that we have forgotten what freedom feels like. We carry the weight of these feelings around with us, as excess physical weight yes, but especially as a kind of novocaine to life.
So what's the "good stuff" we've suppressed? It depends on the emotion suppressed of course. (For more on specific emotions start with this page) With grief it's joy, sensitivity, fluidity (the water element, related to tears) and groundedness.
4. Grief is a natural response to the loss of someone or something we loved.
At the retreats we all experience that as we feel our grief our focus gradually shifts from the pain of loss to the joy inherent in love. We grieve because we loved, and that loss of what we loved is painful.
Yet we are here to love, not to grieve endlessly. Grieving as a feeling is a process, and we don't need to get stuck in the process. Grieving helps us let go and finally experience and honor the love.
That love becomes a living part of us. Grief transforms us all the way through, down to the ground of our being.
5. Another thing I learned about grief is how it affects our bodies and consciousness:
While there are exceptions, grief is usually heavy and slow. We slow down and feel weighed down.
Grieving is a lot of work. It is tiring!
We seek dark enclosed spaces and dark colors. When grieving we often feel better close to the earth...lying down or on the floor. These elements allow us to most easily work through our grief.
I remember a time of loss for me. I intuitively moved from my large, sunny bedroom to the smallest, darkest room in my home. It felt the safest, most enclosed, most inward. Then sometime later, after a few months, I was ready to go back.
When we grieve we often cry, and the wetness of tears brings relief. So grieving is often wet, not dry.
One of the gifts of grieving is a depth of grounding, of earthiness. The heaviness of grief becomes our grounding. The safest people in the world, the ones to whom we want to run when we are in pain, are the ones who have done their grief work. We sense their steadiness and truth holding. They don't try to fix our grief! They just love us.
6. Many of us, especially men, have been taught not to cry.
We may feel that crying is somehow feminine, weak or babyish. We were told "Don't be a cry-baby" or "boys don't cry."
We may have been shamed this way when we were young and so have suppressed years of grief. This can make it difficult to even acknowledge our grief, let alone cry, except maybe in the dark like at the movies, or when alone in our homes. We crave that healing wetness.
As we reclaim our capacity to grieve, we reclaim parts of ourselves we may not even have realized were ours–tenderness, compassion, sensitivity, warmth. We develop an intimacy with ourselves that can grow into deeper intimacy with others. We open our hearts again.
7. Suppressed grief can lead to feelings of depression.
In many cases depressed feelings can be alleviated by working through past grief. When we don't acknowledged grief it can turn into depression. At our retreats when people work through grief they often experience the weight of grief moving right out of their bodies. It's not uncommon for participants to remark how much lighter they feel and how much relief they experience.
8. Current grief often triggers past, uncompleted grief experiences.
One of the reasons grief is hard to work through is that our present loss is often compounded by past experiences of loss.
Many of us are weighed down by a lifetime of loss and we don't realize it. Some of these may seem trivial or little...although they weren't little to us when we experienced these losses as a young person.
As we get older we lose a lot of our life force and joy of life because we've suppressed our feelings in order to be accepted and loved by our parents, friends, teachers and others. We push these feelings down into our bodies, which can lead to tiredness and physical pain. Fortunately, as we learn to release these feelings stuck in our bodies we reclaim that energy and freedom.
In other words, we become more whole as we feel our feelings.
9. There is no set timetable to working through grief.
Grieving a loss does take time. But how much time? Each situation, each person is different. I trust people to know when it's been too long a process and they need help.
At our retreats we encourage people to take "the next step." But what that step is is also different for each person as we are all unique.
10. Grief is closely connected with other feelings, particularly anger.
At our retreats people often start out with one feeling, but as they delve into it, another one appears. As Elizabeth Kubler-Ross pointed out in her Stages of Grief, anger is closely related to grief. We can be angry about our loss, and blame others for it.
Fear and anxiety are also connected to grief. We can be afraid of being overwhelmed by grief and by anger. We can be afraid of being engulfed by grief. Many experience fear of what will happen to them.
At our retreats people often start out with one feeling, but as they delve into it, another one appears. As Elizabeth Kubler-Ross pointed out in her Stages of Grief, anger is closely related to grief. One thing I've learned about grief os that when experienced it changes, often to another difficult feeling.
All feelings are welcomed and encouraged at our retreats, which is often the opposite of most people’s regular life. In life we too often have to be strong for others and hide our true feelings.
Yet as we express our feelings we work through the stuck places in our lives. We come alive again as we heal the deadened places within us.
Grief is difficult. Loss is painful. But grieving offers us amazing gifts. We grieve because we've lost someone or something we loved. The gift of grief is a reclaiming of that love. It is a deep, internalized experience of love as joy in the present moment.
Jon Terrell leads Grief, Loss and Difficult Emotion Retreats several times each year in western Massachusetts and upstate New York. He also offers it once a year in southern California and Florida. To contact Jon use the form below.
Photo Credit Bryan Lowe
"Wow, the sadness is just gone! The retreat has changed my life, I experience the results every day. Thank you. you are amazing."
Melissa Grace Archer, Jericho, VT
"It was unexpectedly and extremely powerful. It is as if the feelings I have been unconsciously carrying have left my body an thus have made room for me to feel my light within and see my world from more loving eyes without doing any intellectual or mental work.
I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your work is a gift."
Love always, Courtney Sullivan, Woburn, MA
"Jon created the most safe, sacred container which certainly enriched the weekend for me, along with the incredible encouragement from Jon and everyone.
It made for a mind-altering and energy-moving experience, far exceeding my expectations!
Under the grass there is GROUND and I will hold onto this how ever fast the earth spins! I am so grateful."
Scott Barber, VT