I know this might sound controversial. Or, at minimum, unexpected from a grief writer and therapist. If you’ve spent any time on #grieftok or #griefstagram you’re probably all too familiar with messages about ‘healing from grief’. You’ve likely scrolled the hundreds of grief influencer videos promising to help you ‘recover from grief’ or ‘heal your grief’ via retreats, essential oils, coaching sessions, classes, and Facebook groups (all while making green juices in their pristine William Sonoma kitchens). ‘Unhealed grief’ and ‘unrecovered grief’ are talked about like some sort of boogeyman, hiding under our beds waiting to grab our ankles and hold us down as we try to emerge from the rubble of loss.
Every time I hear this language I cringe.
Language and Thought
We like to believe that language describes our thoughts. But the reality is far more complex. Language can describe thoughts, but it also creates and shapes our thoughts. Philosophers had long speculated that how we speak constructs our realities. Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said “The limit of my language is the limit of my world”. In recent years, modern science has provided us with overwhelming evidence that these philosophers and linguists were right.
Research has found that differences in native languages mold the ways people see and understand the world. This applies to concepts as fundamental as space, time, color, and even eye-witness memory of events. Though I am tempted to go on a tangent explaining all the research, in the interest of (relative) brevity I’ll ask you to either trust me on this or go and read about it on your own. I do recommend it – the way language shapes thought is fascinating stuff. And if you’re not up for reading more, this short video is an interesting, quick example.
You Don’t Need to Heal Your Grief
We are far from the first to suggest this. Let’s go back one hundred years to Freud. Now, this is a man who said some things about grief that we take serious issue with. But even he was assuring people that grief is not a problem or a pathology. He understood it as a normal human process. In Mourning and Melancholia he says, ” It is also well worth notice that, although mourning involves grave departures from the normal attitude to life, it never occurs to us to regard it as a pathological condition and to refer it to medical treatment.”
He contrasts mourning with melancholia (what we would now call depression), which he sees as a pathology that does require intervention. Mourning, on the other hand, he describes as a natural, transformational process after loss (granted he thinks it makes us ultimateley “free and uninhibited”. That’s not how we’d describe it. We’re cerntainly not team-Freud here. But it is important to note that he, a man who pathologized many, many things, saw grief as a normal, transforming process).
For the last fifty years, mental health and grief experts have been trying to help people understand that grief is not something we need to heal from. Rather, grief IS the healing. Though we’re not fans of the five stages of grief, for reasons we’ve shared many times, there is a passage that I have always appreciated from David Kessler in the Afterword of his book with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, “On Grief and Grieving”.
“There is wonder in the power of grief. We don’t appreciate its healing powers, yet they are extraordinary and wondrous. It is just as amazing as the physical healing that occurs after a car accident or major surgery. Grief transforms the broken, wounded soul, a soul that no longer wants to get up in the morning, a soul that can find no reason for living, a soul that has suffered an unbelievable loss. Grief alone has the power to heal.”
Kubler-Ross & Kessler, On Grief and Grieving
Grief is Not a Wound
When we grieve, it is because we have experienced a devastating and unimaginable loss. That loss is what has shattered us. Grieving is our normal and natural human response to that loss. It is the physical, emotional, cognitive, relational, existential, spiritual experience we all go through, in varying degrees and in various ways, after a loss. Grief and grieving are not the source of our pain. The source of the pain is the loss itself.
Grief is how we process this loss. After loss we open our eyes to a world that in no way resembles the world we once knew. In this new world, grief is how we come to understand who we are, how we feel, and how we will survive in this new world. In grieving we create a relationship with a person who died. We develop the continued bonds that will evolve with us as we move forward in a world without that person. Grief allows us to turn inward and assess what we need from ourselves and others in this life after loss. It has the power to clarify our values and our priorities. In grief we begin to make sense of who we are in a world without a person who defined us.
Grief is the Healing
Perhaps it sounds like semantics, my saying we don’t need to “heal from grief”. Especially when I so strongly believe that we heal through grief, that grief is healing. But I think it is far more important than semantics. If the language I hear early after my loss is that I must ‘recover from grief’ or ‘heal from grief’, I see grief as an adversary. That language molds my understanding of grief itself, seeing it as a problem. Or worse, as a threat, something that has in and of itself caused harm, a thing to escape. It is no surprise that I might then avoid my grief. Or I might interpret signs of ongoing grief as a sign of failure.
If I hear, early after my loss, that we ‘heal through grief’ or that ‘grieving is an ongoing and evolving process of healing’, my understanding of grief is shaped in a fundamentally different way. Grief is no longer my adversary, a boogeyman hiding under the bed. Instead of something to escape, battle, or eliminate, grief is a companion. And when I am no longer fighting against my grief, I am able to invite it in. I can listen to what it is teaching me about myself, about those I’ve lost, about how to live in this new world.
Grief as Companion
I understand that grief is the keeper of my most treasured memories and continued bonds. Grief is a trusted friend (albeit a cranky and temperamental one). The memories and bonds that live in my grief are what gives me the confidence that I can, slowly, rebuild. Knowing grief is a companion is what allows me to move forward without fear of “moving on” or “letting go”.
On a triggering birthday or anniversary years on, when my grief sidles up beside me and brings on a cascade of tears, I am not surprised or scared. I don’t fear that I failed to ‘recover’ or ‘heal’ properly. Quite the opposite. I am grateful that I can still welcome grief in. We can share old memories and revisit the life I once believed I’d live, while still appreciating the life I am living. I am happy to let grief put her arm around me, to bury my face in her shoulder as I cry, knowing that together we will always be healing.