Up to this point in my series on depression, I’ve discussed how at the core of depression it is a loss of connection with our self(ves). We lose connection with ourselves when we don’t pay attention to our internal world as we’re living in the world and turn towards our experiences of life, sometimes on a moment by moment basis. It’s in turning towards life and our experience of life that we figure out what we like and dislike, and it’s within those things that we cultivate our-self through discovering what we value. A discussion of values and the ultimate values of life along with a “theory” of emotions will be included later on.
This month is about the role of grief in depression. It’s through turning towards our experience of this loss and allowing our experience as we begin to grieve that we begin to find meaningful and life giving ways forward in life. Personally speaking, I love emotions, they give us so much information and vitality, but unconsidered, they can be quite harmful to our personal lives and those around us. The more of a relationship we have with our self, which has been weakened, the more of a flow of life and emotionality.
Brief Series Recap
In Living With Depression Pt.2 & Pt. 3 I talked about the primary activity within depression is turning towards. Turning towards is the act of looking out and within as we are living our life. Not just at the good, but towards that which is also uncomfortable. In Pt. 1 I pointed towards three ways in which depression is cultivated; a loss, not being liked enough, a loss of vitality. I encourage you to swing back around to the questions to help orient you.
The Essence of Grief
The essence of depression is a loss, and there is now an emptiness. An impression or emptiness that has not been filled in. Most of us know the experience of loss; a pet, a friend, a loss of a job, a family member, your favorite shoes getting worn out, the loss of your transportation, the theft of a bike, the glasses you’ve been wearing for 6 years need a new prescription, etc.
Grief is turning towards the “negative” experiences and losses we’ve been through in life. Letting myself be affected and touched by the painful experience within me where I lost some sense of life I located within something. Grief is the healing way of dealing with these losses. When we are grieving we are internally saying, “I WANT TO LIVE!!!” It is a personal activity of dealing with myself where I experience a loss.
When we’re grieving, we’re experiencing a deeper closeness to ourselves than ever before.
This month I want to look at the stages or process of grief. These are not to be confused with the work of Kublar-Ross. She did not actually believe that her work was about grief, but a process of coming to accept death or loss within terminal illnesses. Though there are some similarities, there are also distinct differences. Existentially, a loss is a form of death, but something always remains with us. Though a scar may remain, the body still remembers it.
A Natural Response to Loss
Grief is a natural response to losing someone or something very important to us. Grieving happens over the loss of something worth living for and gave our life meaning and structure. This happens to us on a daily basis. At the end of the workday, I grieve the loss of connection with a client at the end of our clinic hour, some conversations reminding me of my own losses, or the smooth traffic I experienced coming into work and my longing for that to continue happening, or the smile from the man in the taco truck I get my lunch at. These are all losses. Some easier to get over than others but they happen to us on a daily basis.
Every person grieves differently, and not everyone cries wet tears. However, there are certain phases of grieving that we all go through on our path of healing. Let's begin with some simple questions,
What is grieving about?
What do I sense when I grieve?
What moves me when l grieve?
The Stages of Grieving
Letting Be & Letting Out – the Importance of Crying
It is only when we accept and admit what has happened that we start grieving. An acknowledgment of the loss. I have lost my partner, my pet, my job or home, my favorite pair of shoes or sunglasses. I acknowledge what now is - this new reality - and I “let be” what now is. There are no tears as long as we are fighting or denying the reality of our loss. Only when we stop resisting the loss, we allow the pain to touch down to us, and we start processing our emotions. When you admit your loss, you are able to let it out and start crying.
The person or pet is no longer here, I no longer drive that car, or have my health, or have the ability to lift the same amount of weight. I can’t emphasize this step enough. There is a profound experience when we look around and see what now is, and turn towards our experience of not having that which we have lost. We have lost something that brought meaning to our life and there is now an emptiness.
Why is crying important?
Not everyone cries wet tears. I personally don’t cry very often. More often than not, for me, its the noticing of a bodily shift. I clear a space and remain wherever I am, anchoring myself to my chair, quieting the other and leaning into the outward silence as I begin to recognize a clenching in my throat, shortness of exhales and length inhales, and a twisting in my gut. Soon I feel something moving up my chest. Almost as if it’s coming up my throat. Then there is a release.
Sometimes it lasts for five minutes and other times it goes on for half an hour. Sometimes tears come, sometimes it’s yelling or wailing, but no matter how it shows up, I find myself in a painfully beautiful way coming home to myself.
Mournful tears are a sign that our life begins to flow again after the initial shock of a loss. Our tears carry a message that, in spite of the overwhelming impact of our loss, we are still alive and able to keep living. Crying is a natural way to reduce emotional tension, that, if left locked up, can eventually have negative effects on our mental and physical health.
In times of profound pain, crying unrolls as a healthy coping strategy. In the grieving process, crying means reconnecting with the source of life - ourselves - and an implicit acceptance of reality. Crying means acceptance of loss as our reality.
After the acceptance of your loss (turning towards and letting be), you are letting pain get to you and touch you and that is when crying sets in, allowing you to reconnect with the source of life within yourself. Though it is painful, and as a culture, we tend to avoid pain, it is the remedy by which we heal ourselves. Kahlil Gibran in his book The Prophet in On Pain said it so well,
“It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self. Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquillity: For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen, And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.”
This phase may take some time. You may visit certain places or come to certain times of the year and be confronted by this absence. These are moments where there could be an intense feeling and memory. Another opportunity to turn towards and not resist this absence.
After experiencing the loss of a loved person, a relationship, an important social role or job that we loved, crying helps us cleanse the wound and accept that our life continues, despite the devastation the loss has left behind. However, the loss leaves an emptiness – after cleansing the wound, we need to find a way to let the parts of it grow back together, and this is when the inner talking takes over.
The role of inner talking is to encourage you to take your life into your hands again. Take responsibility for the direction and meaning of your life.
o Empathy Towards Self: Allowing Self-pity for a time.
A vital part of inner talking is working with the empathy that we feel toward ourselves. We recognize ourselves in our loss, sorrow, and misfortune and indulge in these self-caring feelings. Self-pity is often a concept with a negative connotation because it suggests the sinking in a feeling of misery for its own sake.
However, self-empathy during the grieving process does not happen for its own sake, but in order to cope with our loss. Grief-related self-pity means acknowledging that our mourning is an active process and that we are a central part of it. To put it simply, self-pity is a way to “stitch” our inner wound caused by a loss.
Comforting ourselves creates a feeling of warmth and strength: we take care of ourselves as a good mother would do. This allows the wound to grow back together and gives us the strength to look into the future and see possibilities in the face of our loss.
Comfort from others is helpful, of course, but it cannot replace your own inner process/es of consolation. For some, this could be as simple as putting your hand on your stomach. Imagining holding yourself as if you were a child.
o Turning Towards Yourself
Both self-pity and self-comforting lead to further turning towards oneself and caring for oneself. Becoming completely aware of your situation brings caring about yourself into focus. You may start asking yourself questions like What do I need? How can I help myself? How can I go on? You start accepting yourself as a grieving person who has the strength to heal and who realizes that life is worth living.
During the grieving process, a grieving person often contemplates the meaning of life. This can often lead to dark places. This usually leads to accepting the reality of a loss and consenting to live under new circumstances. Furthermore, we learn to accept a new, internalized value of who or what was lost to us.
For example, you begin realizing that you will always love your partner who has passed away. While your love will not be externalized anymore, it will still be present in you. Depending on the nature of the lost relationship, this may require more internal dialogue and more love towards the hurting parts of yourself. Finally, you feel set free for life again and establish new relations with new different values.
The Path Forward
It’s in turning towards our feelings of loss and sadness, being with the sensations, memories, lived experiences, and moving through them that life can begin to flow again. This is not the easy path, but it is the one the enlarges our experience of life and brings about a larger flow of life. Something of value has been lost, and it’s through our grief that we find life again.
I cant emphasis the importance of grief enough. We actually amplify our suffering when we don’t engage in this meaningful way with our experiences and don’t accept the loss or our evolvement in that loss, stand against it, bare it, or run towards others. I’ve met with some folks who haven’t grieved some losses in life and they just seem like shells of people to me. John O’Donohue describes this well in Anam Cara where he describes looking into the eyes of another, which is so intimate, but he doesn’t feel the presence of another there. Some part has retreated or been buried from their life, and so did some part of their life.
Gather support that will remain with you and avoid those who tell you to “just move on”. For some, this may take a long time. There is no formula. For me personally, I feel the length is often reflective of two pieces, the level of the attachment in the relationship, and the intensity of our focusing and being with our emotional experience of the loss.
My name is Caleb Dodson I’m a private psychotherapist in the Fremont Neighborhood of Seattle, WA and I’m most passionate about bringing kindness to and excavating a sense of humanity in the most challenging experiences to bring about a more full life.
If you’ve enjoyed this check out Pt.1, Pt.2, or Pt.3. If anything said above touched you and you’d like to visit, I’d encourage you to shoot me an email or schedule a time to visit. This is a massive overview of an entire day on grief within my training in Existential Analysis through the Existential Analysis Society of Canada.