On Life & Death

At the Wild Edge of Sorrow: If You Haven’t Grieved, You Haven’t Lived

“I can’t keep letting the guilt of surviving to stop me from thriving,” Chani Nicholas‘ words echo until I hear them as my own.

Surviving the past, with all its challenges, all its sorrows, losses, and grievances of the heart. All the things I wish I had been given, but had to do without. All the things I wish that didn’t happen, but did.

How does a child make sense of such personal tragedies? Who do they turn to? The adults of the world; they surely must have a way to soothe the heartache! Little did we know at the time that adults grow to have far bigger issues, because they never tended to their own traumas, sorrows, and grievances. Most never found spaces to safely express them either. Does that makes us all children dressed in adult bodies?, I wonder.

“For many of us, our experiences of loss were not adequately contained by those around us. We were not offered an adequate level of what trauma therapists call Attunement to the emotional states that envelope us. Attunement is a particular quality of attention, wedded with affection offered by someone we love and trust. This attention enables us to make painful experiences tolerable. We feel held and comforted, reassured and safe.”

Here, author Francis Weller helps to remind us of the grief we tried to leave behind with our childhoods. Many of us weren’t comforted, held and reassured by those we trusted and loved. Needs were often met with shame and contempt. I don’t have time for your silly dramas! Sometimes they were simply left hanging in an empty room of emotional absence, leaving us to wonder if anyone cared at all; if we mattered. Yet for others, their needs were met with violence. You think you have it hard? Here, let me show you what hard means!

We tend to think that we have had it the hardest; that our pain is the biggest. Those who were neglected wish they had been beaten. Better than nothing! Those abused would have given anything to be left forgotten. Better than ever being hurt again!

We all have stories, we all have shit, we all have traumas.

We all have wounds, have suffered and lived through difficulties. These traumas we experienced growing up do not remain locked away with just childhood memories. The complexes we developed as a result of them have a way of resurfacing in our adulthood.

“Complexes return again and again and seem to carry the intention of being reabsorbed back into consciousness. When the complex appears, we are taken out of the present moment and situated back into our histories at the point of trauma. What had been severed for the sake of our preservation must now be rejoined for the sake of our healing.”

(Weller)

In other words, if you didn’t deal with it the first time because it didn’t feel safe – wasn’t allowed – it will keep coming back in your adulthood. In my case, manifesting into things I said “I didn’t ask for.” Subconsciously blocking the things I said “I wish I had been given.”

Acknowledging our grief, tending to our sorrows,
is sacred work.

It is necessary for our healing. Mandatory for us to live not just the length of our life, but also experience its vast width and infinite depth. Grief is the birthplace of true compassion, for ourselves, for each other. As I wrote in my co-authored book, “It is in the untold stories of our wounds that we find the greatest healing.”

The trouble is that in our modern world, we have very few containers to hold our grief safely. You may have had an old wound, an old trauma, resurface as an adult, and tried to go to others for comfort and encouragement, just to have them ghost you, tell you that it’s not that bad, could be worse, or try to alleviate your pain with the recollection of their own losses.

Someone very dear to me relapsed with Leukemia in May of this year. That means he already had blood cancer once, gone through intensive chemotherapy, had his entire immune system killed off to receive a transplant from a foreign donor, another person, in hopes that he may grow a new body that is less prone to developing the illness again. The chance of recovering from this type of a cancer relapse is 0% unless a miracle happens. The reality is: this 44-year old man who loves life more than anyone I know will likely not live more than 12 months. I sure hope he gets more time than that, and so does he, but these are the statistics he is working with.

Now you think that most of his friends and loved ones would go out of their way to make time to be with him, on the phone, over text, or in person. The sad truth is that most of them have gone M.I.A., or continued to send unsupported, unhelpful references to miracle cancer cures. His experience is no anomaly. I hear stories like these more often than you’d want to believe.

You too, right now, reading this may be appalled. I would never do that! But the fact of the matter is, you might, I might, if we come across grief that feels too big to hold. Terminal illness brings up a whole lot of trauma: for the one experiencing the loss of their own life, and for those who are inevitably going to experience the loss of their loved one.

If we are unable to be with our own grief, we are simply not able to hold it for others.

“It is the broken heart, the part that knows sorrow, that is capable of genuine love. The heart familiar with loss is able to recognize a still deeper grief…a sadness at the very heart of things that binds us with the world. Without this awareness and willingness to be shaped by life, we remain caught in the adolescent strategies of avoidance and heroic striving.”

I call that skimming over the surface of our existence, but never truly engaging in life. It happens when we long for truth, for intimacy, for connection, but the fear of feeling the vulnerability that accompanies having needs, of feeling wounded, prevents us from saying YES to life, all of life.

We’ve gotten so good at pretending like we don’t need anything from anyone under the guise of independence (avoidance), and grown so proud of our ability to transmute every negative feeling into positive thinking, even if it’s just for show (heroic striving).

We aren’t living. We are pretending to be alive.

This body, this vessel, is here to experience life, not avoid it. All of it – the joy, the sorrow, the loss, the growth, the grief, the beauty, the love, the pain. No pussy footing around it, no toes dipping in. Yes! – to life, to living and thriving. Neither devoid of the past, nor controlled by it.

Holding both the difficult and the beautiful simultaneously in the palm of our hands, we can learn to accept everything we have survived as an initiation, as a stripping down of what is false. Acknowledging our losses, our sorrows, and grief, is a necessary step to gathering the courage within to find our way back home, to a place of true belonging in this world.

This process of allowing helps us remember that it is safe to be who we are, as we are. That it’s OK to feel inadequate when we make mistakes, to feel disappointed when things don’t pan out, to feel hurt when salt enters our wounds. Grief is an invitation to make peace with the demons of the past, with the guilt of having survived, so we can begin to truly live, to thrive.

Weller describes three steps that help us move through this initiation.

“The first is from feeling worthless to seeing ourselves as wounded. The second emerges from the first and is a shift from seeing ourselves through the lens of contempt to one of a budding compassion. And the third is moving from silence to sharing. As long as we see our suffering as evidence of worthlessness, we will not move toward our wounds with anything but judgement.”

Grief is a potent portal to access our feelings of worthlessness, self-contempt, and isolation. It reminds us that we have hurt. It softens the hard walls we’ve built to protect ourselves from more trauma.

Grief melts the masks we put on to be accepted and liked by others, even if it meant compromising our values. It strips away the roles we’ve taken on to feel worthy of our being here. In grief, we find a new voice that emerges from the depths of our sorrows; full of compassion for what we have endured, what we have witnessed and survived.

In grief, we find the innocence of a child, hurt, looking for someone to acknowledge our pain and hold it with tender care.

As adults, we can we can now learn to give ourselves what we once needed as children. We can cultivate the presence for and awareness of our wounded parts. We can say Yes to people and seek out environments that foster intimacy, love, and connection. We can create a safe container for the painful experiences of our past to arise, have them be seen and held, with tenderness and care, by self and other. We can release that which keep us stuck in survival mode. We can thrive.

We can become the writers of our own life story. No longer held back by shame, no longer controlled by our past, we can live the kind of life we long to see written in our obituaries.

She lived. Not just the length of a life, but the vast width and infinite depth of it. She cared deeply, loved deeply, cried deeply, laughed deeply. Every hurtful experiences became the ground from which a budding compassion grew. Dropping all sense of guilt, she reached for that which gave her nourishment, those who provided a safe space to be. Despite the trauma, or perhaps because of it all, she said Yes to life, and that’s how she stopped letting the guilt of surviving to stop her from thriving.

Dearest, tell me: when did you begin to walk on your heels, cautiously bracing yourself for the next hurtful blow? When did you grow devoid, tired of the struggle. When did you start to believe that the world is unsafe and required armour to protect yourself, demanded that you are other than you are to be loved?

Blinders on, feelings off, you made yourself ready for discharge, like the rest of us – to enter into a world of infinite experiences and possibilities, but only allowing for things you thought you deserved to come find you, even if all you knew was abuse and neglect.

Boxed in by all the rules of how one should be – how one should behave and what one should do in a world to feel accepted, look presentable, and follow the pack – we forgot that we were once children, innocently navigating our way through a world of what Eckhart Tolle describes as walking “pain bodies.”

Enough with the abuse – with the assault on our souls. We are no longer willing to tolerate it.

We are wounded, but that doesn’t make us unlovable.
Take a stand for yourself.

You matter. I matter. We all matter. We all have experienced traumas. We all have felt hurt. It’s safe to be. It’s safe to express your need for love, intimacy, and connection.

We were meant to be wild, driven by the fuel of our soul and with the guidance of the heart. It’s time to surrender our arms, let go of our resistance to be seen, to be loved. You are more courageous than you think you are. Speak your truth, always, no matter how uncomfortable the conversation. Trust your feelings. They are bodily messengers.

You may not understand the point of taking such a risk – to be vulnerable – but you will learn who to trust, who can hold your painful experiences safely, with love and care. They will appear. I promise you. They will be, if you are willing tumble and fall into their waiting arms.

The whole process may infuriate you at times. It’s not fair! Let the anger rise. Why is this happening to me? Let the self-pity be there. Someone dear and wise once asked me so simply: What is beneath your anger? And I cried. The same friend also reminded me that self-pity is often the first way we know how to love ourselves. A loving teaching that was passed onto him by a mentor. You see – they do appear, the people who are here to help us feel safe, in the company of our grief.

We need to express the internalized voices of our traumas to hear them, to see them.

If we look beneath the surface of such automatic, painful expressions to life events, we will find a deep sadness for our sorrows. If you lean in closer, you can sense the innocent, hurt child within. Embrace her. Hug him.

Grief will meet you in this embrace. Let it be a guest that shows you all the corners in your house you’ve avoided, pointing out the miraculous intricacy of the spiderwebs of your past. Let grief write love messages in the dust that’s collected in the abandoned parts of your inner house.

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Rumi

There is no longer a need to hide, to feel ashamed of yourself. It’s time to come out of the shell. There is nothing wrong with you. You are deeply loved and cared for. You matter.

Leave behind the ghosts of the past and look toward the story that is being written, right now. What will your obituary read?

You didn’t let the guilt of surviving stop you from thriving. You accepted the way things were and with that, invited life to show you how things could be.

If you don’t know what you want your life to be, it’s OK. Grief will show you. During grief rituals, Weller has used these three guiding questions to get to the heart of it all:

What is it your soul most longs for?

What sacrifice would you need to make to honour that vow?

Now imagine the future. You’re near death and aware of it. You reflect on the vow you made, how you honoured the sacrifice, and manifested the kind of life your soul longed for.
What does your obituary say now?

Grieve your traumas. Stand at the wild edge of sorrow. “It is in the inferior parts of our life that we will find redemption…It is within our ‘secret inside flesh’ that we will touch our weakness, inadequacy, failure, dependency, and the host of experiences that undermine our culture’s heroic ideal [of perfectionism]. This is where we find our healing.”

You do not need to be perfect to be worthy of love.
Just human, and that you are, by nature.

Your heart is infinitely connected to a wellspring of love. Let it help you find the courage and inner strength to move beyond what you’ve known in your past, into the unknown territory of infinite possibility. What would it be like to feel worthy of love and create a life that reinforces this?

May you feel safe to spread your wings, and thrive – in joy, in reverence, in humility, in love with this life.
Heaven knows, it won’t last forever.


[Featured cover artwork by the incredible Autumn Skye Morrison]

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