At the heart of transitioning consciously is the willingness to grieve. Sometimes grief arises unbidden as a pang of emptiness; sometimes it wells up in a bubble of memory about a former house; sometimes it appears as a longing for a past experience or stage of life; sometimes it comes barreling into the psyche on tidal wave of sorrow for a deceased relative or an estranged friendship. It can be attached to a memory or it can appear “out of the blue” without a specific content or story riding in its waters.
However it appears, it’s important to give it time and attention so that it doesn’t become stuck inside and ferment into depression. Clients will often say to me, “You talk about grieving, but what does that actually mean?” It means, simply, letting yourself feel your sadness. It doesn’t always mean that you crumble into a heap of tears, but it means breathing into the pang or longing and following its trail to completion.
Many people have a hard time surrendering to the natural life sadness because of old scripts that have taught them to judge or criticize emotions. You may have absorbed a message, either directly or covertly, that “crying is weak”. This may have been coated in statements like, “Oh, you’re so sensitive. Toughen up. Get over it.” If you learned that crying or feeling sad isn’t okay, you’ll have to uncover the belief that’s limiting your access to your feelings before you will be free to follow the grief when it arises. This isn’t easy work, but it’s essential in order to learn how to find the spaciousness that only comes when you’re in alignment with the core feelings of life.
As I said, grieving doesn’t always mean crying, as elucidated by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ now famous five stages of grief, which are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. These stages aren’t linear and they don’t accompany every transitional loss, but it’s helpful to know that anger, for example, is a normal stage of grief so that if it arises, you can allow it to move through you.
Eventually, however, the tears need to come. Tears are what allow the pain of the past to wash through you. Tears release you from the object of grief – whether of memory or person – and allow you to move forward with life and embrace the present moment. A few days ago I worked with a client who’s been trying to disentangle herself from an ex-boyfriend. They’ve been broken up for several months with no contact but she still thinks about him frequently and he occupies an unwanted space in her mind. She said to me, “I feel so angry at him. I think I need to talk about this anger.”
“Imagine he’s sitting in front of you and tell him why you’re angry,” I suggested.
She talked for a few minutes, saying things like, “I’m so angry that you won’t speak to me. I can’t have closure unless we speak and you’re preventing that from happening.” She expressed anger at his selfishness. And then she said, “I just don’t understand why you won’t open your heart.”
“I want you to stay with that statement and see if you can drop underneath the anger to see what lives there.”
She breathed for a few minutes, then started to cry. “I just feel so sad that he’s making this choice to stay closed. I don’t understand why someone would choose not to grow and change. I don’t understand it.”
“Yes, it’s a very difficult thing to understand. I imagine it makes you feel helpless and heartbroken.”
“Yes, I feel heartbroken.”
“Just stay with that feeling of being heartbroken. It’s a core feeling of life and very difficult to stay with. Take as long as you need to grieve the fact that he’s choosing not to change and grow.”
She cried for several minutes. When she stopped, she looked up and appeared physically lighter. I could see that a layer of grief had been released, and on the tide of the grief she had released some attachment to her ex. I told her that she’s holding onto a belief that she needs to speak to him in order to find closure, but the truth is that doing her own grief work will bring her the closure she needs.
This is the function of actively grieving: it helps you let go. Many people hold the misconception that crying is depressing, but it’s actually the other way around: stopping the crying leads to depression. Releasing true grief through tears is a whole-body, alive, and healthy experience. Some people also carry a belief that once they start crying they will never stop. Any therapist will tell you that this simply doesn’t happen. Again, it’s critical to address the fears that prevent you from dropping into the grief so that you can sweep them out of the way and get down to the important task of grieving, grieving, grieving…. and ultimately, always, letting go.