The Experience of Grief

A very special aunt died yesterday. We knew it was coming. Once it became inevitable and once her quality of life had deteriorated, we wished it to happen as quickly and as painlessly as possible. Everyone seems to be grieving healthily and beautifully. But what is grief? Why do we even have to experience it? This is one of those posts where I just have to work through something. I’m not sure where it will take me.

My favorite site in the world looks to various roots that involve the the words “heavy” and “burden”. That is the feeling, right? Grief feels very weighty. My heart, which can be light, is now heavy. And “sorrow” is another word associated. Sorrow, in terms of grief, seems to have a weight to it.

Then there is “bereave”, which is to have something taken away from you. So, when someone you are close to dies, you feel the weight of sorrow from having someone taken or separated from you.

Although I’m curious about the science behind this phenomenon, I’m not in a place to investigate anything on that level. I’m talking about the experience of grief.

In a small way, it’s not unlike the childhood experience of leaving summer camp for me–one of my first grief experiences. As a middle schooler, church camp was a very important experience for me. I made connections with other kids and new kinds of connections with myself. When you leave your daily social structure for a new one, you may realize that you’re not as trapped in your place in society as you have believed. These connections and moments of self-discovery create a powerful event. When I left those kinds of events, even though they usually only lasted a week, my feelings were similar to what I’m experiencing as I write today. I say were because it’s rare that I have those kinds of events in my adult life.

Perhaps this means that grief is grief, whether it is from being bereft of a person or an event or a place or a job…whatever the loss.

And perhaps it’s in part to do with the loss of the experience of that person, place, or thing. My relationship with my aunt was an experience….one that has lasted for my entire life. Perhaps that is the more significant thing that I am bereft of–not the personhood of my aunt, but my experience of that personhood. That experience is over because she is gone.

But I’m not even willing to commit to that as a truth. My uncle, the brother of my aunt, once told me “You think just because a person dies that you’re relationship with them is over? Nope. That relationship is something you carry with you your whole life.”

But, in this moment, I can no longer see her, touch her, speak with her, be with her, and that makes me sad, and that sadness is physical to me. It is not in my head. It is not a thought. Something deeper, more primal. It is a weight on some internal physical part of me that I associate with my heart for lack of a better piece of my flesh to house it.

But it is healthy. I need this experience for some reason. It brings me through some human life process that is universal and has some sort of value and purpose. We are such a social species. The connections we make are so deep that it is they are just short of physical attachments….like a hand or an arm. When death severs it, it is a loss that cuts deep. Perhaps grief it is not unlike the healing of a physical wound. We are a whole creature. There is no true separation within us…mental, physical, spiritual.

And perhaps there is no true separation between other humans…dead or alive. Perhaps I will experience her again.

And what helps us heal from loss? Well, we’re humans for one. We need the words, touch, understanding, and acknowledgment of other humans. We need time. And sometimes we just need what we need. Perhaps time to ourselves. Perhaps a photo album with family. Or perhaps to write.

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