Grief has usually been allied with death but it encompasses so much more. Throughout our lives grief makes its presence known through all the great and small acts of loss we suffer, be it loss of good health, the death of a pet, redundancy, loss of friendships, loss of favourite keepsakes. Each loss impacts upon our psyche in differing ways. Sometimes we recover quickly and move on, other times the loss cuts deeply and the pain never fully subsides. Each person’s reaction to grief differs depending upon factors such as life experience, personality, spiritual beliefs, culture, circumstances surrounding the death of the deceased, and family relationships.
Conflict also has a place within the bereavement process, most often manifesting during the arrangement of the funeral. Relationships may become strained as people attempt to cope with the overwhelming emotions facing them at this difficult time. Death it seems to be the last great taboo we are scared to face. The thought of our own mortality can open up a landscape of fears, a place devoid of all those we love and care for. Perhaps in our modern, technologically advanced societies we have forgotten how to approach important rites of passage, such as death, passage into adulthood and the wisdom of the elder years. There is much to think about under these circumstances.
The bereaved may undergo a process of catharsis, moving through several stages of grief ranging from:
- – Numbness and denial
- – Yearning and anger
- – Emotional despair, sadness and withdrawal
- – Reorganisation
- – Letting go and moving on
Suppressed feelings may manifest in symptoms such as tiredness, inappropriate anger, psychosomatic illness, depression, hyperactivity. There may be a sense of unfinished business to contend with. The sense of loss may continue for years without any appreciable improvement. Some people who have lost their husband, wife or partner seem to descend into a state of numbness, forcing them to live a “normal” life but with no purpose. In certain cases the partner that is living may die soon after. The grief is no less devastating with the loss of a child, friend or pet. Brings to mind Tony Lake’s comment about commitment to life in the midst of grieving:
“But these people who are less than fully committed to life seem to me to have partially given in to death. They have accepted discouragement and decided that for a certain part of their time, life is not worth living.”
How many of us can recognise ourselves in that description? Others talk about the deceased as if they have just “popped out” and will be back later. Such is the strength of the bond between the two people. I say “is” because it appears to be an unbreakable bond, untouched by death. Was this the case with Orpheus, braving the depths of Tartarus to bring back his wife Eurydice, only to lose her for all eternity due to one mistake? One can only wonder at the power of the mind and how it is utilised to revivify the dead and create memories. Letting go can be so hard but a necessary process if we are to live healthy lives and let the dead live theirs. Otherwise we bind the dead to this earth (and they bind us), which can cause all manner of ills. Soul rescue is an option we should not have to resort to but it must be done under these circumstances.
The manifestations of grief can present certain challenges to all parties concerned, in particular the Priest or Priestess involved in the organisation of a ceremony. The Officiant in a sense has taken on the (symbolic) role of the “Walker between the Worlds”, guide and protector of the deceased, priest or priestess officiating over the sacred rites of life and death. Accordingly the weight of responsibility upon their shoulders is a heavy one, as are the expectations of the family who has engaged their services. The grief being experienced for loss of the loved one may also touch upon deeply buried emotions, which may relate to their feelings around death. Sogyal Rinpoche commented:
“You cannot help a dying person until you have acknowledged how their fear of death disturbs you and brings up your most uncomfortable fears. Working with the dying is like facing a polished and fierce mirror of your own reality.” 
The pain of losing loved ones and dying a painful death can be disturbing scenarios. They may feel like the Void of no return. I’ve grieved deeply at the loss of many things in my life, and to an extent still doing so. This is not a negative thing. Our empathy, compassion and understanding shape us into people of responsibility, who are strong enough to take on the task of helping others cope with their grief. I’ve seen this in my work with bereaved people, both in paid and voluntary capacities. The important thing is to learn to transmute these strong emotions, feelings and beliefs into tools to enable us to move on and grow.
In conclusion, if I may go back to a previous point about our modern society forgetting the ritual of rites of passage. How prepared are we to face the reality of our own mortality? Death inspires fear and panic, a long shadow that we hope to escape but our steps only seem to lead back into its presence. The journey is serpentine and never linear, it is a walk into the centre of the labyrinth. We grieve at our losses (loved ones, memories, possessions, sense of self), bitterly at times. The emotion can be all-consuming, trapping us in its darkness. At other times we stand before it filled with fear but asking it to do its worst (“feel the fear and do it anyway”).
Sogyal Rinpoche comments quite wisely in “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” that we can use our lives to prepare for death and not wait for the death of someone close to reassess our lives. We can use the present to find meaning, make every moment count, take every opportunity to change and prepare with peace of mind to face death and eternity. Wisdom wrapped in simplicity but at times so difficult to put into practice. We don’t have to undergo these trials on our own, the support is there for the asking. We can also help support others through these difficult experiences, be they living or dead.
Bibliography and Resources
Cruse Bereavement Care. Information pack – Understanding Grief
Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths: Volume 1. London: Penguin Books, 1960.
Lake, Tony. Living with Grief. London: Sheldon Press, 1984.
Rinpoche, Sogyal. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. London: Rider, 1992