Friday, December 7, 2012

Good grief

Endless Conversation

Express Staff Writer

Not all of us proceed through the holiday season with choirs of angels singing in our heads. The shortening of days, combined with heightened expectations, can bring to mind sadness and loss. How do we prepare for the celebration of Christmas with sadness, anger and other negative emotions stewing in our hearts?

The Hospice of the Wood River Valley will host a memorial tree-lighting ceremony in Ketchum on Monday, Dec. 8 at 5 p.m., for those who are suffering from loss during the holidays. 

Bearing up under the stress of personal tragedy during the holidays is tough, but giving way to a full expression of grief can bring about a more profound experience of compassion and forgiveness. 

I lost my best friend to suicide a few months ago. Because he first inspired me to explore literature and eventually become a writer, and because I could do nothing to save him from himself, the sense of anger, loss and self-recrimination over his death are all wound up together. 

Because our relationships are flawed, our love for one another imperfect, the opportunities for mourning are never exhausted. But I have learned there is a difference between mourning a loss and cleansing the soul of regrets. It is described in biblical terms in 2 Corinthians 7:10: “For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.” 

There is no “reasoning out” the anguish that follows personal loss, yet the catharsis of cleansing that comes from grief work has become an article of faith for me, a practice which connects my grief with the grief of others. Oftentimes a cascade of potent images and memories emerges to push the experience along. 

This backlog of emotional content is brought to us not only by personal events, but by the daily news as well. The turmoil of conflicting emotions needs to be purged from time to time. The good news is that breaking old patterns of remorse and regret can bring about a renewed sense of wonder about the world and one another, providing us with fresh choices. But the path from the head to the heart can be a long and arduous one. 

In Homer’s epic poem “The Iliad,” the great warrior Achilles, after destroying many Trojan warriors in battle, finally wept with his arch-enemy, King Priam. This moment of shared grief led to an 11-day truce between the Greeks and Trojans, during which time Priam was allowed to bury his son, Hector. 

In the heat of battle it is near impossible to sympathize with one’s enemies, or the unlucky civilians who happen to be in harm’s way. But in grief it becomes apparent that winning isn’t everything, that the sorrow in our own hearts can grow to encompass the grief of strangers, or even supposed enemies. 

Alas, according to myth, the truce between Achilles and Priam ended, and the Trojan war resumed, with full fury.

Because falling into grief makes us vulnerable, and even insensible, we avoid it at all costs. Yet the full expression of grief is a reliable way to get a glimpse of our divine human nature.

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