Prior to the advent of grief, life seems to make sense, but grief introduces thoughts and emotions that we are often unable to resolve. Yet the struggle to find answers and restore balance to out world can be a journey of self renewal and spiritual growth. I am suggesting 5 steps that would facilitate this journey.
1. Understand the connection between emotions and spirituality
Emotions are a fundamental part of what is to be human. We define ourselves by how we feel. To say I am happy is to mean I am experiencing a feeling that I enjoy. Grief is inevitably accompanied by negative emotional states. These may include rage, sadness, anxiety, and fear. The spirit that is within us is the repository of our emotions, consequently when we experience extreme negative emotions such as those that characterize grief, it generates spiritual distress. Grief is therefore a time of spiritual distress that sets up a crisis in the way we relate to self, others and God.
2. Work towards acceptance
Healing the spirit of the pain of negative emotions caused by an event such as grief involves acceptance of the reality of the pain. Ironically, we often taught not to talk, feel or trust when in distress. In my work I frequently encounter persons who have experienced significant and sometimes multiple losses and have spent in some cases many years attempting to avoid even talking about the pain. On the other hand some seem stuck in talking about the pain but never seem to get beyond that. True acceptance means acknowledging the existence of the pain and the impact it has had on my life without blaming anyone for it. My goal therefore is to describe my emotions, the pain I experience, and reflect on its impact on my life while resisting the shame that that is inevitably seeking to invade my thoughts. I can best do that by not blaming anyone for the way I feel. I feel what I feel because it is human to feel that way and I am human.
3. Understand the connection between blame and shame
The moment I start blaming someone for the way I feel, I give them ownership of my feelings and that generates a sense of shame. Perhaps the shame emerges out of my feelings of helplessness at realizing that I am not in control of my self, or that I feel inferior to others for feeling the way I do since others do not seem to be affected in the same way. Whatever the reasons, when I blame another for the way I feel and act, this usually results in shameful thoughts about myself. This is particularly true for one who believes in God and finds him/herself blaming God for the suffering caused by grief. A typical question such as, "why did God take my loved one?" suggests that God must not care about me otherwise he would not allow such pain to me and my family. If I think God does not care about me, that thought generates shame and self loathing. However if I can acknowledge and accept my feelings without blaming, my spiritual healing can begin.
4. Learn to recognize the different faces of shame
In the Old Testament book of Ruth, the central figure Naomi returns to her home village after loosing her husband and two sons in death. She has been devastated by her losses. When she gets to her village old friends come out to greet her, "Naomi is back!" was the exclamation. Naomi in the throes of her grief declares to them, "don't call me Naomi, call me 'Marah' (which means bitter) for I went away full but God has brought me back empty." Here Naomi blames God for situation and her shame is experienced as bitterness. Shame can manifest itself in many forms, rage, depression, suicidal thoughts, and helplessness. When we are able to unmask the shame and see it for what it is, we can release it and move on to more life affirming thoughts, feelings and actions.
5. Releasing shame enables spiritual connection
Releasing shame enables us to reconnect with ourselves, others and God in a healthy way. This is the basis of spiritual growth and healing. As I have written elsewhere; spiritual growth includes increased ability to manage one's emotional state. Unconditional love and acceptance replace fear and shame. Over time those negative emotions no longer possess the destructive power they held over us.