The Grief Place

DSCF1608There is a room in your heart where sadness dwells. Each story of sadness lives there like a stagnant, frozen particle of light waiting for you to see it, to hold it, to wrap it in a blanket and bring it tea. When you visit your grief place with love, the particles of light start to shimmer and move – dance, even – for all things, even our pain, especially our pain, only want to be seen and loved.

We can live our lives ignoring this grief place, until we can no longer ignore it; until anxiety or intrusive thoughts or physical health jut up with such force that we must pay attention. The frozen particles start to move now with a new desire for attention, and hopefully, if we’re guided skillfully, we see that the anxiety is a messenger that can bring us into direct contact with our pain, a crucial meeting, perhaps for the first time. It’s often during transitions that inhabitants of the grief place speak more loudly and move with greater intensity. It’s then, when we’re broken down and broken open, trembling in the liminal zone when the thing we’ve known is no longer and the place we’re growing into is not yet, that the pain in our chest pounds us awake in the middle of the night, begging to be known and seen.

This pain has been with you for a long time. There may be pain from a time before you had words or clear memories: the pain of the newborn being ripped from the womb; the pain of a baby trying to latch or the breast taken away too early; the pain of a three year old being left before she was ready to be left. The pain of not being held when you needed to be held, or being held too much or in the wrong way. The pain of teasing and taunting and bullying. The pain of first love. The pain of a broken heart.

There may likely be sadness in your grief place that is yours but isn’t yours: the intergenerational, unlived pain of those who lived before you who didn’t bring warm blankets and mugs of tea to their grief. Jung wrote that we live the unlived lives of our parents and grandparents, that their pain and fear and anxiety that didn’t receive attention funnels down through the generations and lands in the heart of the most sensitive child. That child is probably you. We can receive this as a burden, or we can hear it as the gift of being able to bring consciousness to pain and witnessing the miracles and openings that result from that loving attention. If every dancing particle of pain can be transformed into poetry or art or tears or a growing spot of compassion for others, then every particle is a gift.

As we tumble through a time of loss or transition – a loss of a loved one, a new marriage, a baby, a move, 20s, the holidays – memory synapses are ignited that trigger other, older losses. These losses may not scream out in the middle of the night; often they appear more quietly: a vague memory, a sense of sadness. You don’t have to know why you’re sad to attend to the sadness. The attachment to knowing “why” is one of our most ingenious mental traps to prevent us from feeling the pain. You’re allowed to just feel sad without knowing the story. The paradox of pain is that when you allow yourself to feel it for no reason, the reason often bubbles to the surface. Pain lives in the unconscious layers of the body, the place without words, but when you bring it to the surface it touches the left-hemisphere and the words sometimes appear. But sometimes they don’t. And it really doesn’t matter either way.

We carry many old beliefs about pain. We believe we can’t handle it. We believe if we open that door the flood of grief will never stop. We believe it will overwhelm us. These are preverbal beliefs born of early experiences where we were left to cry alone and the bigness of the pain in such a tiny, soft body felt as if it would kill us. The beliefs were true then – big pain in a small, lonely body is too much to handle and the only choice is to dissociate and shut down – but it’s not true now. You can handle your pain. I promise you can. I’ve seen clients as shut down as possible open to their pain and what happens in the thawing out is the most glorious sight you can imagine. They don’t die. They come alive. They don’t freeze in a fight-or-flight response; they open completely like a flower in spring.

Oh, how we fear grief. But there is really nothing to fear. When my sons cry so hard they lose their breath and choke and I can see them trying to get away from their pain I hold them close and whisper in their ear, “It’s okay to feel sad. It’s only energy. It will pass through you.” We only need to move toward to it with our breath and our attention, to carve out time and space to invite the grief to surface, and it will come. Many people move at a steady, serious pace and then wonder why they have trouble connecting to their grief, or can only do so during a therapy session. Sadness is a vulnerable, shy animal. It’s a child that isn’t going to tell you about her pain while you’re frantically getting ready for work in the morning. The pain particles require that we slow down in order to hear their sobs and catch their tears. They require a slowness of living that is almost lost in today’s breakneck pace.

But when you do stop and make time and open to another rhythm, you can enter the grief place. And then particles thaw out. And then they shimmer with light. And we realize then, when we’ve cried a small river of wordless tears, when we wake up the next morning and feel a ray of sun in the soul after the storm, when there’s a lightness to our step, that the grief place is also the joy place. We know then that grief and joy live in the same chamber of the heart. We know it is not something to be feared, but that it is the pathway to the peace we all seek.

27 comments to The Grief Place

  • Michelle

    Coming upon the two year mark of a long-term relationship ending, I still have days where I find myself unexpectedly grieving. As today is one of them, it was nice to read your words of encouragement. I have noticed that the more I try to resist and talk myself out of feeling sadness, the more stuck I feel. It has been nice to get to a place where I allow myself to feel the sadness in the hopes I will move further beyond it (or at least be more at peace with it). Timely words today. Thank you.

  • Anushka

    Oh that is beautiful and just what I needed to read today. I think so often it feels as though there is no room for my pain – where will I put it? And if I put it somewhere, what will it mean for living my life? But yes – it is a shy, vulnerable creature that only needs me to clear a bit of space and sit quietly for as long as I can manage. And that will be enough. More than enough.

  • You seem to always know when to post. I just came home from my parents house not too long ago and felt sad as I left. I realized that I am going to miss them (and my younger brother) when I go off to college. I am 19 and struggling to actually leave this life behind and start a new one. I’m afraid I won’t be happy without them constantly around me, (I am still grieving the fact that my brother left august 2012). Do you have any advice of how to get through leaving your childhood life (having mom and dad always there) and starting your life (becoming your own person).

  • Romy

    Oh Sheryl- this post struck a chord with me (yet again) for a number of reasons. Firstly, I am so aware of my grief place so often- especially as I come to make meditation a part of my regular morning routine. There’s always, always a deep sadness in my heart, over everything and nothing at all. I feel like maybe I was born with a heightened awareness of sadness and longing.

    And it’s particularly hard to honour this part of myself, when we live in a world that says ‘buck up kiddo.’ I struggle with allowing myself time to honour it, but also not become completely absorbed in it that life can’t continue on. Not many people I associate with want to acknowledge the shadow parts of life, or that it’s too serious (I’m often referred to as an ‘old woman’- at all of 31!)

    Secondly- we lost my beloved grandmother last week. I’ve tried to rationalise it by saying she had a very long (94 years!) life, full and complete- yet, she’s not here anymore in a physical sense. My pain is raw and my longing for her feels unending. Whilst life goes on around me, I can’t truly connect to the every-day and I just want to withdraw. My grief place is very much taking up my whole heart right now.

    Thank you for giving me the space to acknowledge it

    • Thank you, Romy. I always love hearing from you. I’m so sorry for the loss of your grandmother. Our culture finds a thousand ways to minimize grief – buck up, she was 94 – when the truth is that there is no remedy for the pain of losing a loved one other than grieving. It is the medicine, and I’m so glad to hear that you’re giving yourself the space it needs to move up, out, and through you.

      • Romy

        Thank you Sheryl- though I do have to admit to feeling very simillarly to others who have posted here already in saying that, it seems far easier to allow the grief space when there’s a ‘reason’ to assign to it.

        • Without a doubt, Romy. That little pesky thing called our mind wants to attach onto something definitive which, in this case, is a “why”. It’s a practice to let go of attachment to why and just to trust and follow the feeling.

  • Clara

    I felt my soul settle when I read this part:

    “You don’t have to know why you’re sad to attend to the sadness. The attachment to knowing “why” is one of our most ingenious mental traps to prevent us from feeling the pain. You’re allowed to just feel sad without knowing the story”.

    I may never fully know the ‘why’ of my dark night of the soul, but this does not stop me from healing the pain and shame, and mining the lessons of that most difficult of times.

  • Angela

    Hi Sheryl, love it.. Really love it. The way I dealt with pain was to laugh it off., or just ignore my pain. I didn’t feel pain but I did feel frustrated, irritated and angry.. Short tempered. I guess I was too scared to feel pain because I would go insane or just die from depression. Of course feeling your sadness is healthy and brings peace and vitality to your life. I’m a late boomer. A lot of the people on this site are younger than me and are so fortunate to have found you now. Sheryl, I wish I found you when I was in my twenties. I guess there is a time for everything. Absolutely love Trust yourself program. I’m trying to slowly follow the steps and get rid of my old habits that aren’t serving and hopefully get into a new habit which will better my inner soul. It isn’t easy but I will give it a go.

    • You’re doing great work, Angela, and it’s never, ever too late to learn how to attend to our tender and vulnerable places. There are many people here in their 40s, 50s and beyond, and it’s important to trust that we find healing work when we’re ready to find it. There is a greater wisdom at play.

  • Kat

    Wow. Yet again, words of absolute wisdom. Life can’t always be a walk in the park and there is pain, which we must acknowledge. But what a struggle it is to go down and feel it. The fear to loose control is always so strong.

    • Yes, the fear of losing control is a core fear for most people. The only way through the fear is to let ourselves feel the depth of the grief enough times until we learn, from experience, that we won’t lose control.

  • Rita

    I find it so strange that this was today’s post. I was just telling a friend that I can’t figure out why I always feel sad and can’t find purpose in anything. Maybe I need to let go of trying so hard to find the reasons. It seemed like you were speaking directly to me. I have felt deep sadness most of my life and I don’t run or hide from it anymore. But I do wonder if there is a difference between normal grief and debilitating sadness. Could you speak to that sometime?

  • lynne

    Once again Im amazed at your wisdom – this post struck such a chord with me. Being frozen until all my pain surfaced and it felt like I had a complete breakdown. At the time it felt like the worse thing that could ever have happened but now 3 years on Im so glad it did. I feel more alive and in tune with myself. Your writing truely is a god given gift Sheryl and Im so glad I found you.

  • Tracy

    “Jung wrote that we live the unlived lives of our parents and grandparents, that their pain and fear and anxiety that didn’t receive attention funnels down through the generations and lands in the heart of the most sensitive child. That child is probably you.”
    This really struck a chord with me, Sheryl. Is there a particular book or writing from Jung that speaks to this that you would recommend?

  • I’m not sure where he said that, but if you Google it my guess is you’ll find some rich writings that explicate on that statement. Fascinating, isn’t it?

  • Sharan

    One of my favourite posts… It covers the multitude of emotions we all feel when going through transitions. Pain, sadness, anxiety, grief etc. Thank you.

  • Nina

    I love that thought “its only energy, it will pass through you”

  • Jasprit

    Beautiful Sheryl. This part really helps me with nameless grief and fear coming up: There may likely be sadness in your grief place that is yours but isn’t yours: the intergenerational, unlived pain of those who lived before you who didn’t bring warm blankets and mugs of tea to their grief.

    Like the others, it is SO hard to not know why something is happening but reading this gives me comfort to allow that ambiguity to exist.

    Thank you for posting this!

  • Hillary

    Thank you for sharing this Sheryl. I don’t need to wonder my Why this week – my birthday, followed a few days later by the anniversary of my dad’s sudden death. It’s been 7 years and I’ve been reading your blog for the past 2 years, slowly but surely taking in your guidance.
    This year for the first time, when my head said ‘Hey, pay attention, it’s time to get anxious, heavy and deeply sad!” my heart didn’t open up with corresponding grief. My heart said…nothing. A sweet, simple calm silence. My heart then decided not to journal mournful reflections but instead to enjoy the family around me and the season of coming in together.
    I know in future years (esp. as I start my own family) my grief will return again and again, growing and changing. Being able to enjoy this birthday – and enjoy *that* I was enjoying it, grief-free! – is so much thanks to your blog alone. I found you when I was financially broke and feeling broken, and I cannot tell you what a light in the woods you have been and continue to be.

  • Josephine

    This. This is the incredible work of psychotherapy. You paint poignantly the process of change that takes place when pain is properly addressed. I wish the whole world knew about it and could take itself to a place where there is space for grieving.

  • Pamela

    This is especially accurate around the holidays for me…looking back to remember, but being faced with this wall of sadness. Longing, even, for “the old days”. I think this is the first holidays I have felt confident in starting new traditions and altering old ones…guilt-free and with the knowledge that it’s all part of growing up. Carrying the expectations of “tradition” of my parents doesn’t help me if it no longer makes me feel joyful.

    Many thanks to you, Sheryl, as always!

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