This post is part of a series for the witness to grief. If you’re supporting a friend or family member in pain, be sure to check in each Wednesday for a new post.
I’ve spent some time this morning talking with a colleague about grief. I love our conversations – we cover a pretty wide range in our weekly rambles. Our conversation today prompted a question that I want to pass on to you. But before I get into my topic for this post today, I want to take a minute to talk about the difference between theory and practice.
See, I’ve been a therapist for what feels like forever. I worked as a therapist, and as an educator, well before I was widowed. I love the study of people and culture. There’s a great deal of truly fascinating talk about grief, about family lines and epigenetics, about how we fail or don’t fail as a culture to attend well to grief. These things fascinated me before, and to be honest, at this point in my grief, have begun to become interesting again.
But they had no place in my early grief.
If you tried to talk to me about family systems at any time during maybe the first two years after Matt died, I might have stopped talking to you all together. If you tried to talk about the cultural process of grief, or about inter-cultural responses and the ways we make rituals in grief, I would have dismissed you. Rudely or gently, I would have dismissed you altogether.
Our ideas about grief, our theories about grief, are nothing compared to the reality of grief. Not grief of this magnitude or scale.
There’s a time for talking about theory. There’s a time for wondering about systems and responses, and how to build more skill into a culture, a family, a life. But when someone has just been thrust into life-altering grief that is not the time.
Theories belong to the mind. In early grief, they become just another way to distance ourselves from the intensity of pain, a separation from what is unbearable.
I say all this today, because I have a question, a reflection question, for all of you reading who are witnessing intense grief in someone you care deeply about.
And what I don’t want you to do, what I want to encourage you not to do, is to process this question with the one in pain. They are living in the rubble of their hearts. Theories do not belong there.
But outside, a few steps outside that intense grief, that’s where the witness is. And from there, it can sometimes be useful to ask yourself questions about who you are and how you witness grief. Being witness to someone in deep pain is challenging, challenging work. To keep yourself open, without blinking, without turning away – is hard. It’s differently hard. It’s not exactly something we’re taught.
My colleague and I spent a lot of time today talking about epigenetics – the ways that our familial ancestors dealt with, or did not deal with, trauma and loss, and how that influences our own genetic make-up. How our family lines have approached grief and loss can have a huge impact on who we are now, in the face of our own losses, and as we witness grief in others.
So this is where I turn the question back to you, as you learn this practice of witnessing, as you lean into the practice of witnessing.
How does your family of origin, modern and a few generations back, tend to deal with grief? Is it a problem, or a punishment, or a silver lining? Is it something to be swept under the rug? Are you like your family in these ways, or have you grown in a different direction? Are there styles you wish you didn’t inherit, or approaches you wish you had?
How did you learn how to be with grief?
Let us know in the comments. You can also let me know directly, by sending me a message here.