The Alchemy of Grief
Years ago, I was working in a stressful management job and one day, I walked into the executive vice president’s office and began to cry. He pushed a box of tissues toward me and, not unkindly, nodded toward the door, suggesting that we continue the conversation later. I took a tissue and turned toward the door and then stopped. No, I said, turning back toward him, my eyes red, my voice unsteady. No. I won’t be eloquent. And this might not be pretty. But you need to hear what I have to say.
The truth was, so did I. I needed to hear what I had to say. I had avoided the heaviest truths in my heart for so long, I didn’t know what they were myself. Learning to speak through my tears was a turning point in my relationship with my own sorrow. Ever since, I have been discovering what my grief has to teach me.
You may be well practiced at listening to your grief. But for many of us, we’ve learned instead to turn grief away or box it up or pass it off for someone else to bear. We’ve been taught well by the dominant culture in the United States to disregard or mistrust our grief – and to defend ourselves from it. Directly or indirectly, we genderize grief, insisting that men should not express it or even feel it. While women, more often allowed to feel and show sorrow, are then shamed when they do and judged as weaker for it. For all of us of any gender identity, the dominant culture’s message is clear: Grief and its many expressions are unseemly, unproductive, unnecessary and unwanted.
But here we are, in a pandemic time of countless losses and many of us are awash in grief we don’t know what to do with. Grief for loved ones who have died, grief for a way of life no longer possible, grief for lost employment, opportunities or health, and for the absence of gatherings and activities that comfort us and bring us joy. How are we to process so many losses coming at once, when the mathematics of grief are seldom calculations of simple addition? (See my earlier blog, “The Mathematics of Loss.”)
Grief is necessary to spiritual growth. Practicing love and compassion will break our hearts – and, thankfully, that breakage will open our hearts wider to love more, both in our personal lives and in our work for justice in the world. “The broken heart,” notes adrienne maree brown, “can cover more territory.” she says, “…grief is the growing up of the heart that bursts boundaries like an old skin or a finished life.”
Author and therapist Miriam Greenspan calls this the alchemy of grief, meaning its transformative power and invitation to let go of old ways of being and grow into new ways. “The gift that grief offers us,” Greenspan says, “is the capacity to see deeply into the way things are. Life is limited. We are here for a short time. Grief asks us to know this, not only in a disembodied, cerebral way, but in the marrow of our bones—to look into the reality of death and loss without our usual egoic blinders on.” When we do this, and listen to our grief, feel it and learn from it, the capacity to give and receive love is just one of the gifts that we will receive. Another is the profound gratitude that grows from being fully present to what life brings our way. And yet another is the sense of belonging we experience when we overcome the isolation of private grief and allow ourselves to share grief in community with others.
Ironically, learning to feel, welcome and surrender to our grief will actually empower us to use its energy for our own growth and for good cause in the world. That’s where its alchemy occurs – taking time to feel our grief will transform it into gratitude and love, belonging and compassion capable of healing us while also supporting the healing of our wounded world and planet. Imagine that: the power that could be unleashed if we transformed our grief today into tomorrow’s healing.
If you would like to join me for “Writing Our Way through Grief” on March 16, please RSVP here: https://bit.ly/marchopenpage.
 Miriam Greenspan, Healing through the Dark Emotions: The wisdom of grief, fear and despair