"Grief is a selfish emotion." I heard this phrase for the first time and was immediately appalled. It initially seemed that this statement was completely devaluing the validity of grief and dismissing its importance in our emotional lives. However, if you look at the statement at deeper level it is actually quite true and can help us to move through our grief in a more self-loving and conscious way.
In my estimation, grief, while not the most pleasant of emotions is immensely revealing. It can show us what needs to be released. We can grieve about anything. And as psychologist Elizabeth Kubler Ross notes we may go through the stages of grief multiple times a day for various large and small things. The 5 stages of grief are:
1. Denial 2. Anger 3.Bargaining 4.Sadness 5. Acceptance. If its a small loss, like losing your favorite pencil, you may cycle through these stages in less than five minutes.
If it's a large loss, like losing a loved one it may take months or even years to cycle through these stages (sometimes perpetually cycling as I've heard from parents who have lost a child). The stages do not necessarily happen in consecutive order and some personalities prefer certain stages more than others.
We may ping back and forth between anger and denial for some time before moving to sadness, and then in order to get out of our sadness move to bargaining. Whatever the case, these stages seem to be fairly common. These stages are particularly common a the average Westerner, however we are taught that grief should be largely hidden and and socially undesirable.
This is an odd social norm compared to some other societies where community ceremonies are given to expressing grief at a communal level which arguably helps it move through quicker. Malidoma Some, African Shaman talks extensively about the ceremonies of grieving in the Dagara tribe and how both men and women are encouraged to wail in processional and how the spirit or emotion of grief is allowed to move through more quickly. Funerals were supposed to serve this purpose in the West but there is still a clandestine atmosphere around grieving that contributes to repression.
Much of our grief comes from an attachment to form (whether physical or mental thought-forms). Even the most spiritually aware among us can experience a pang of grief over the loss of something dear because our form attachment wants the object of our projected sadness here with us. We want to enjoy that person/thing/situation in three dimensional time. We want our way. We enter into an argument with what is.
When we lose another person, it implies that they were ours in the first place. Which of course they weren't. However, because we live in the human condition we naturally attach to people (and things, ideas, outcomes, etc) as a way to stay tethered to this world, and as a means to give us a sense of identity.
Some people want to gloss over or mask their grief and this often results in a variety of various psychological and emotional pitfalls that can eventually become quite damaging. Unprocessed grief can create a bevy of mental, emotional, physical and interpersonal issues that snowball and wreak havoc on our lives. So recognizing and moving through the feelings of loss is an integral part of being a human being. Acknowledging the stage of grief we are in is one such way we can do this.
Now I'd like to return to the quote from the beginning of the post: grief is in many ways a selfish act because it is the clinging attachment to what is no longer here. If you read the statement without the story that "being selfish" is negative then we can begin to work with this statement in a way that is immensely emancipatory.
The attachment, while perfectly human, is indeed selfish because grief is in essence a way of holding onto our idea of what was. We want the person, thing, outcome or situation to match our conception. When a person dies we are grief stricken for a few basic reasons 1-we weren't ready for them to die 2-we want them to stay alive, so we can continue to feel better (which we say is because we love them) and 3-because it reminds us of our own mortality.
These are all valid reasons to enter into grief, but they all cycle back to us. One of the most profound moments of clarity I had about grief was listening to a woman do The Work with Byron Katie. She was terror and grief stricken about her mother's alcohol and drug abuse. The woman was grieving the death of her mother before her mother even died. Unable to escape the mental images that plagued her mind about what would happen and what her mother's death would be like for both of them, she was constantly in a state of anxiety, sadness and grief over past and impending loss.
Her attachment to the idea: "my mother shouldn't die" was holding both of them hostage. The woman was concerned that her mother would never find the spirituality she had found as long as she was in the midst of her addiction, and hence never experience God the way the woman thought she should.
Katie then posed the question, in her characteristically simple and loving way, "Sweetheart, what if your mother's only path to God was through drugs, alcohol and ultimately death? Who are you to keep her from her path?"
The woman was frozen, and suddenly began to soften, she breathed for the first time during their 40 minute session. She realized that the idea "my mother should be alive" was for her, not her mother, and was ultimately a hindrance to both her happiness and growth and her mother's growth. She stopped loving her mother (and Reality) and was instead living in a story of what should be. She was in war, and suffering.
This is what is meant that grief is a selfish act. However, we grieve until we don't. It's also important to note that sometimes we need to be selfish (in the highest sense of the word), and that judging ourselves for our grief will not move it through faster but likely keep it stuck in an unnatural space in our psyche.
When we begin to acknowledge that our grief over our perceived loss is really an attachment to our idea of what things should be like we can allow the process to unfold in the light of day.
We can discuss it with others if necessary and not feel shameful about our grief, and we move through it with more grace, knowing we're really meeting ourselves in those moments and re-ordering our own conceptions of reality, yielding them to the only real Reality of what is.
We may still get angry, kick, scream, sob, wish for, blame, rationalize or spiritualize our experience outwardly, but ultimately we know that all of that is for us, and that Reality is always kind.