How many times have we heard someone say, after a profound loss: “I feel like I’m dreaming. I feel as if I am going to wake up and none of this will have happened.” I hear this when any kind of deep loss has been encountered — whether it be the death of a beloved, a relationship, a job, or a dream. It is one of the ways we have of protecting ourselves from being overwhelmed by the intensity of the loss.
We need time to reconstitute ourselves after a loss. Not only has there been a death of someone or something in our life, but we too have died a death. It is not only the person, place, or thing with whom we had the relationship that is no longer present, but the person we thought ourselves to be is also gone. We need time to think and feel and be in this world without what we have come to identify as ordinary reality.
Loss defies us to remain complacent. It challenges us to see whether we are still the person we believed we were before this moment. Does the loss of this person or this aspect of our lives mean that we are no longer who we thought we were? How often have I heard the cry in the face of loss: “I don’t know who I am anymore!” This loss has brought us to the very edge of the world and we’re not sure on which side of the divide we want to be. While we’re deciding, we’re living in a non-ordinary reality. Hence this feeling of being in a dream. Ordinary reality blurs the boundaries between past, present, and future. In non-ordinary reality, how we see, think, and feel is unfamiliar. What we believed would not or could not happen has happened. What else is subject to change? What can we trust? What are the beliefs that will stand up to these changing times?
When reality begins to shift, we slow down and start asking questions. Stop, look, listen. Those three words we were taught when we first set out to explore the world alone still apply. When we find ourselves on unfamiliar turf, we need to stop. We need to look for signs that will give us the information we need to continue on our path. “Ask and ye shall receive, seek and ye shall find.” Listen. What are you hearing? More questions than answers, like as not. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke exhorted us: “Live the questions now!” What are the central questions of loss? A Buddhist teacher lies dying. His students are gathered around him weeping and wondering what they will do after he is gone. Laughing, the Roshi asks, “Where am I going?”
Loss cuts us off from all of our habitual ways of thinking, and just being is exhausting. Questioning tires us out and takes so much time. Grief awakens us to a new sense of time. Suddenly, we have a relationship to time that is disconcerting and demanding. Time, which was a more or less predictable progression of events, now separates us from what we feel has been lost. We struggle to cross and recross that moment of time before the loss and after the loss. Often, we find ourselves sleeping a great deal. This is one of the body’s great healings. Sleep. Even Shakespeare understood this: “Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care.” Time and the time healing requires cannot be circumvented. Just as we cannot pull on the grass to make it grow, we can’t manipulate the time it will take each of us to heal.
In sleep, we encounter what tribal cultures call the “Dream Time,” which is a space of deep inner healing. To the dreamer, the dream is absolutely real. In the days, weeks, and months following a loss, we dream about that loss. Many of us don’t know how to remember our dreams or are afraid of what we might recall. Whether we remember our dreams or not, they are bringing us back into connection with what or whom we are missing. We awaken from those dreams with a deep sense of well-being having visited with a part of our lives we thought lost to us forever. Contrary to what we might fear, dreaming about something or someone we are missing fills a very real need in our psyche. When Marsha dreams about Joel, she always reports feeling happy, satisfied, and as if she had received a gift with the visit. Even if it is a disturbing dream, she has spent time with her son.
Dreams are gifts to be enjoyed on many levels; once we decide we are interested in our dreams, we usually begin to remember them. Setting aside extra time for rest and sleep is important when we are grieving. Too often, well-meaning family, friends, and colleagues want us to keep busy and keep moving as if that will keep us safe from our pain. It won’t. The only thing to keep us safe from our pain is the pain itself. “Learn how to suffer and you shall be able not to suffer.” We might as well make time and room for our pain. When we set aside time to reflect quietly, time to allow our pain to talk to us, we let our grief take us where it will. We contain the grief within so that when it jumps out at us, we can say quietly, “Not now. We will have our time tonight or this afternoon.” Knowing when you will sit with your grief allows you to choose a place of comfort, a safe haven.
Sometimes we fall, like Alice, down the rabbit hole. One minute we’re sitting at our desks and the next moment we’re plunged down into an abyss so deep and dark we fear we’ll never get out. We’ve crossed over into non-ordinary reality again. Stop — breathe. Look — where are you (emotionally)? Listen — what are you hearing? There is wisdom in taking time-out after a profound loss in order to stop all ordinary activity and live in this non-ordinary time and space. There is wisdom in taking the time to share your story and talk about what you are experiencing with family and friends. There is wisdom in marking this loss because it is yours and will be yours as long as you live. The more time we give to this journey, the more potential we have for healing through our loss so that the best of what continued on in us.
I remember hiking with my friend Patricia the day after our friend Harvey died. We were in the Catalina Mountains outside of Tucson in late spring. We hiked silently for a long time. I was vividly aware of light, colors, smells, and shapes. I felt that life had suddenly come much more vividly into focus, almost as if I were in a drug-induced state. Was it because we were touching the edge between two world: our world and the world into which our friend “crossed over” — the unknown realm? We too were experiencing an unknown realm; the realm in which both our friend and an important part of our ordinary lives was changing form.
I have heard Wm. Brugh Joy, M.D., speak of scientists who, by measuring sound vibrations, know that the caterpillar in the cocoon is shrieking! Screaming in pain as its body changes form from the caterpillar — a lowly creature, in most senses — to the beloved and beautiful butterfly. The butterfly is used in many traditions as a symbol of transformation and especially transmutation through death. Yet, in our highly romanticized versions, we do not acknowledge the transformation as a painful process. Painful, but not fatal. Reassure yourself that, like Alice in Wonderland, you have fallen through a rabbit hole into a totally different reality. Things look the same, but they aren’t. They sound the same, but they aren’t. You don’t recognize yourself. You aren’t crazy — you’re in an unfamiliar landscape. And there you need to trust yourself and your instincts just as if you were lost. Send out flares and stay put. Help is on its way.
This article has been excerpted from Good Grief: Healing Through the Shadow of Loss by Deborah Morris Coryell. The co-founder of The Shiva Foundation — an organization dedicated to education and support for those dealing with loss — Coryell offers the wisdom gleaned from working in the field for more than 25 years, in short, manageable chapters. Good Grief guides you through and beyond the suffering associated with the loss of a love — whether that loss is through death or divorce.