Our culture sends us the message that we can and should have it all.

It tells us that we should “follow our bliss” and have the perfect career, that we should live in the perfect house in the perfect location, have a fantastic group of friends like “Friends”, and that we should “know” when we meet “the One”, which will land us in “happily ever after.”

But perfection doesn’t actually exist.

Everyone and every choice will fall short of perfection, including ourselves.

Embedded inside this expectation of perfection is the cultural failure to teach us how to grieve the lives unlived and the roads not taken.

For these are inevitable.

You may have a child or two or three but eventually you have to close the door on childbearing and grieve that ending. Or, by choice or circumstances, you may not have any children, and this needs to be grieved as well.

If you choose to marry, you can’t also remain single, and the single life will need to be grieved. And, of course, you can only marry one person, so choosing one means saying no to every other option.

You probably didn’t get blessed with the “Father of the Bride” archetype for a dad or the Gaia Earth Mama for a mother (very few people did), but when you grieve how your parents fell short, you can come closer to accepting the goodness they offer.

You may struggle in friendship, or have a couple of close friends, but not the magic “friend group” that mainstream culture espouses.

None of these examples might apply to you, but the basic message still holds true: life is imperfect, and part of the key to accepting this imperfection is to grieve the lives unlived.

How to Grieve

Healthy, productive grieving is an essential element of inner freedom, yet where do we learn how to grieve? People often ask me, “What does it mean to grieve? Does it only mean crying? What if I have a hard time crying?”

For many highly sensitive people, tears are a part of daily life, and I am a strong proponent of a daily cry.

But if tears don’t come easily, you’re not alone. Many people shut down their grief-channels early in life because they learn that it’s not safe. Crying is one of the most vulnerable things we do. It renders us defenseless and carries with it a feeling of being out of control.

If you were ever made fun of for crying, heard shaming statements like, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about” or “Crying is for weaklings,” or your tears weren’t tenderly received, it makes perfect sense that you would shut down those channels.

With time and gentle attention, the frozen channels can be thawed and tears will feel safe to be seen, but there are also other ways to grieve, including:

  • Noticing where grief lives in your body (belly, chest, and throat are common sites), then bringing attention to those places. “Bringing attention” simply means holding that part of your body with your hands, your breath, and your curiosity. The practice of Tonglen is enormously helpful.
  • Pausing at intervals throughout the day to check with your body and asking if there is any sadness that needs to be known.
  • When you feel grief or tears pricking your eyes, slowing everything down and noticing if there are any shaming messages trying to shut down the pain.
  • Draw the grief.
  • Dance with grief.
  • Paint the grief.
  • Sing grief.
  • Wail the grief.

It’s often during transitions that the grief of unlived lives rises to the surface. During these tenuous times when we’re between identities and life stages, our defenses are softened and we often have more access to long-buried grief.

Whatever the circumstance or practice is that invites the reluctant tears to reveal themselves, once they arrive we find that the experience of crying isn’t nearly as scary as we imagined. It’s the child/teen self who fears tears; once in an adult body with some years of inner work under our belt, we learn that our greatest fears around crying no longer hold water.

And not only is it less scary than we imagined, it offers a channel back into our hearts, and even our unlived lives. As Francis Weller writes in his masterful work of poetic prose, The Wild Edge of Sorrow, “It was through the dark waters of my grief that I came to touch my unlived life.”

Here we find a beautiful reciprocal relationship: we must grieve our unlived lives in order to open our hearts to the goodness of the life in front of us and when we grieve we touch into our inner unlived lives, which I understand to mean the places inside that we’ve stuffed into the shadows because we deemed them unacceptable.

You can watch the video version of this post here.

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