Only Broken Waves Know the Ocean:
The Nature of Grief
We all have grief, however much we may mute or bypass its expression. It is what we feel when our heart registers a loss that is of considerable significance to us. There is grief over the death of a loved one, grief over missed opportunities, grief over damage suffered by someone else. It is intensely personal, even when it stretches us far beyond our usual selves.
Grief breaks the heart, however concretized its “casing” may be. The broken heart can go into endarkened contraction (a myopic shrinking or “going to pieces”) or it can go in a very different direction — if allowed to, grief doesn’t just break the heart, but breaks it open, ultimately breaking us open to unbroken Being.
Grief includes sadness, but is much more than just sadness. Its tears may burn, but sooner or later they also illuminate. In grief, we are stripped down to our feeling core, registering the bare facticity of suffering — and quite often not just ours — without any buffers.
We begin with “my” grief and may remain there, but sometimes this shifts to “our” grief as our rawness of heart radiates out compassionately, and then may shift even further to “the” grief, as we feel our collective/shared suffering and allow that feeling to pervade us — which doesn’t bring on more sorrow, but rather more love, love that remains itself no matter how deeply we are crying. Huge heartache, huge hurt, huge opening — carrying us through the deepest sorrow into a spaciousness as naturally compassionate as it is vast. In such spaciousness, such exquisitely raw openness, there is, eventually, room for all.
A famous rabbi, when asked what could be done about the Mideast conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, said, “Both sides have to grieve together.” Together. The deepest grief is, however solitary its expression, a communal event. It touches all. Its hurt blows the cover off its sky, carrying us far beyond the dramatics of conventional sorrow.
Grief is a passion. Sadness is not a passion, nor is sorrow, but grief is.
Like other passions — rage, lust, ecstasy — grief has the power to overwhelm us, for better or for worse. Grief usually works best when it is uninhibited. So many want to hush it, to muzzle or mute it, perhaps so as to minimize any potential embarrassment — such suppression being quite common at funerals. Anyone who really wails, really lets it out, often tends to be looked upon as behaving poorly or inconsiderately. Not surprisingly, many end up doing therapy years after the fact, dealing with the grief that was not expressed, or expressed fully enough, back then.
Unleashed grief is not mere venting nor self-indulgence, but rather Life-energy on the healing loose, cutting new channels in the terrain of self, uprooting obsolete stands. Such a wild, wild storm it sometimes can be— such a dark yet luminous outpouring, such a radical ripping of the heart, such a deep dying into Life, birthing us and a truer us in its wake.
The full-blooded, openly vocal expression of other emotions often catalyzes an undamming of grief, of a feeling of loss sometimes so immense and deep that it can, eventually, embrace other losses — losses that belong to all of us — thereby making deeply significant links not only across space, but also through time. Thus do we move from the interiorized community of voices that make up “I” to the community at large, widening the circle of our reach, our love, our caring.
In such a panoramic intensity of heart-hurt, however agonizing it might be, there usually emerges some sense of a sobering ease, the ease of simply being — not being this, not being that, but simply Being. This is not the bliss of immunity-seeking, fear-fueled transcendence, nor that resulting from any other flight from painful feeling, but rather is the natural joy of simply existing, equally at home with the high and the low, unable to be other than compassionate toward all.
Such is the prevailing condition of the heart that — though already bruised — is nonetheless sufficiently open to have room for all that we are, however dark or lowly or frightened. In grief, the heart is broken in the same way that a stream rushing down through a mountainside forest is broken — it’s still cohesive spiritually, still unified in essence, its elemental dying only strengthening and affirming its fundamental aliveness, its rough-and-tumble course only furthering its dynamic yet utterly vulnerable surrender.
Where reactive sorrow just contracts and isolates us, unimpeded grief expands and connects us, grounding us in natural openness.
Grief can be just as spacious as it is earthy, existing as a deeply personal yet also significantly transcendent sense of loss pervaded by a more-than intellectual recognition of the inevitable passing of all that arises.
As such, grief provides not only a bridge between the personal and transpersonal (with neither having a “higher” status than the other), but also between pain and love. That bridge awaits our step, our crossing.