Last week I had 2 friends experience losses. My friend Steffi’s neighbor unexpectedly died in an accident, leaving behind a young family. At the same time, an old colleague Julie lost her long-time companion and favorite dog. Although the situations were different, the responses both show so much about how we deal with loss.
When Steffi learned of her neighbor’s death, she reached out to show her sympathy to the widowed wife. She talked and listened to her friend - a common and kind gesture. But something kicked her into overdrive. She spent the following day running errands for her friend, cooking multiple meals and walking their dog.
If Steffi had gone to bed that night, satisfied she had helped her neighbor in a tough time, that would’ve been one response. But she was exhausted and could barely get out of bed the next day. She was a self-proclaimed mess, totally burned out physically and mentally.
Julie felt the same way. Her dog’s breathing issue had rapidly escalated into a much more serious condition and her mind could not get around the fact that her beloved pet was now fighting for his life. She visited her dog at the hospital several times each day, each time getting different messages from the doctors. One minute he was fine, the next, worse than before. She was on an emotional rollercoaster – her feelings following whatever news she was given that day. She couldn’t find peace and was exhausted.
Near the end as the dog’s condition deteriorated, the vet staff asked her to make the decision to put him down. Julie couldn’t. She was supposed to have more time with him. She wanted to give her pet every opportunity to live and did everything in her power to keep him alive. Luckily for her, she later said, the dog – as if knowing she couldn’t make this impossible decision – eventually passed on his own.
Grief is hard. Losing someone or something we love is not easy and we are often left fumbling through how to respond, react and feel. Julie had to grieve the passing of her best friend. Steffi had to figure out how to support a grieving friend. Adjusting to the sudden void can take time and there is no grief playbook that applies to everyone.
What if we didn’t need a playbook, but to see grief for what it was? Could we feel those tears and feelings of heaviness arise in and move through us? Could we put a finger on the sensations happening in us? Could we describe what that sadness over missing someone felt like inside us?
For most of us, grieving does not begin and end with sitting with feelings of loss because we have a mind that churns out automatic thoughts. These thoughts can bring our grief to another level. Our minds will tell us stories that helping out enough or keeping our sick pets alive is the answer to the pain around us. People need me and I need to show up for them, we think. It’s on me to fix this – I can make it right. We have thoughts that we have to do everything we possibly can lest we make the wrong decision for those we love.
How do we actually know what is best for others?
The answer doesn’t matter. Our minds have already been made up. Many of us have been primed to believe that something horrible could happen if we don’t take care of this situation because we’ve been believing it for years. Innocently. We don’t want to feel the pain, the grief, or the discomfort that arises in us at any given time, so we do something else. We overfunction, we people please, we blame ourselves. We fall into the old story of responsibility over and over and over again.
What if these reactions have nothing to do with the reality of the moment? Because in that moment, we are not pleasing others. We are pleasing that voice in our heads that tells us we are not enough. And what if that thought or feeling of not being enough is no more important than the thought of wanting to go skiing this weekend? The only difference is our minds have given one of those thoughts a LOT more attention and meaning.
Responding to these thoughts as if they say something about who we really are leads us to extremes. For Steffi, it looked like matching the level of pain her neighbor was experiencing. She couldn’t do enough to help. For Julie, it was trying to keep her dog alive because of the guilt she may have felt for not acting sooner. On top of the grief from losing her dog she was grieving the decisions she had made. And don’t we all do this?
What if these tired old reactions to situations say NOTHING about who we really are? Who we are is the innate love, wisdom and security that resides in all of us, all the time. It is an untouchable essence that is at the core of us and that is story- and thought-free. It is that intuition that leads us in the moment to make a kind gesture towards someone in need rather than feel exhausted because we’ve done too much. It guides us to do the best we can to comfort a sick pet knowing that his passing says nothing about our efforts.
Knowing that our minds are professionals at dragging out old habitual thoughts and that we have all the guidance we need beyond thought can go a long way in seeing our behavior in a new way. Trusting in who we are at our essence can melt all the shame and guilt we feel in an instant.