Read an Excerpt
Awakening from Grief
Finding the Way Back to Joy
By John E. Welshons
Inner Ocean Publishing Copyright © 2003 John E. Welshons
All rights reserved.
Being Fully Alive and Fully Human
* * *
People say that what we are seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.
In the midst of emotional pain, it's difficult to imagine ever being happy. It's difficult to see anything positive or hopeful. The world looks bleak, dark, and dreary. Our heart hurts with a deep, relentless ache. All we want is to have our life, our body, our heart returned to fullness, to have our loved one back ... to heal the hurt ... to heal our wounded heart.
We wouldn't ask for experiences that hurt so much. We wonder what kind of God would create a Universe where such sadness is possible. But these experiences are an inevitable part of being human.
* * *
We live in a culture that has sought to protect us from sadness. But we live in a world where sadness is inevitable. So we have a problem.
Every time people have said to us, "Don't cry." "Be strong." "Keep a stiff upper lip." "Don't think about that." "Let's talk about something more pleasant." "Here, have a drink, you'll feel better," they have taught us not to grieve.
These messages have come from our parents, our siblings, our teachers, our friends, and, for the most part, they have been given with the best of intentions. They have been given with the hope that our lives will be happier if we distract ourselves from sadness.
But, inevitably, we find that isn't possible. And we usually find that out when something cataclysmic happens — when we suffer a loss that is greater than all the other losses. A loss we can't ignore. A sadness we can't subdue. Then the buried sadness from all the other losses in our lives rises to the surface like an endless emotional volcano.
We quickly shift into numbness. The feelings are too overwhelming, too big. We fear we can't contain them all. So we turn them off. We stagger around in an emotional stupor, only partially alive, filled with sorrow, anger, confusion, and despair.
The numbness is a natural process. It is similar to the state of shock our bodies go into after serious physical trauma. But when we turn off our sadness, we also turn off our joy — if we turn off our feelings at one level, we turn them off at all levels. Then we don't feel fully alive. Eventually, our challenge is to come out of the numbness.
This is difficult to do. Each time we let down the barrier and allow ourselves to feel, we move right back into sadness, despair, and anger. It seems that joy is nowhere to be found.
But peace, love, and joy exist — always — in the heart, just Being Fully Alive and Fully Human 3 beneath the despair, confusion, and anger. The perplexing reality is that the only route to joy is through the despair, confusion, and anger. Being fully alive requires us to be willing to feel it all.
The world's great religions offer us some extremely helpful images. The Christian tradition refers to "The Sacred Heart of Jesus." And what is that "Sacred Heart"? It might be seen as a vast nurturing womb of love and compassion, an immense, infinite fountain of healing and forgiveness for all human suffering, all human failing — the sacred space where love and compassion meet suffering.
Those beautiful meditative statues of Buddha, so common in people's homes and gardens, provide another useful insight into the real challenge of human life: He is peaceful, still, meditative, sitting cross-legged in the lotus posture, quieting to hear the inner wisdom, to experience his full awareness.
In that state of quietness, peace, and inner awareness, a subtle smile radiates on his face. His smile is known as "the smile of unbearable compassion." It is the smile that radiates from the depths of his being. He sees it all. He is fully aware of all of the world's suffering. Still he smiles.
Nothing is hidden. Nothing is ignored. Nothing is overlooked. He sees all of the suffering clearly. He drinks it in. He understands its root cause. He experiences unending compassion. He has made it his life's purpose to alleviate human suffering.
And still he smiles.
His joy exists within the fullness of the human experience. And this fullness includes both joy and suffering ... both loss and gain ... both sadness and laughter.
These elements of our beings are not mutually exclusive. We do not have to push one away in order to feel the other. The full experience of being human is to feel all of them existing within us at all times.
The challenge of being human is to find that "Sacred Heart" within ourselves, to smile "the smile of unbearable compassion," to give ourselves and others love, compassion, and forgiveness no matter what happens ... even in the midst of devastating loss and grief.
In seeking to protect us from that which is unpleasant, our society has left us completely unprepared for loss and sadness. Our work now is to begin learning that which our society hoped we wouldn't have to learn — how to be whole, to be loving and happy living in a world of unpredictable, often uncontrollable, change.CHAPTER 2
The Teachings of Loss
Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.
After more than twenty-five years of counseling people Who Are Dying And People in grief, one thing has become abundantly clear: Most of us spend much of our lives sleepwalking.
Even when we are frantically active, a part of us is usually asleep. The part we keep asleep is our full awareness, the awareness that observes and absorbs all of life, in its totality ... both the joy and the sadness. The part of us that sees it all, all the time. The place inside us that knows everything. We selectively filter out that which we don't want to see, that which we don't want to acknowledge. We close our eyes to everything that frightens us.
At some level it is the frantic pace of our modern lives that forces us to keep that part asleep. At another level it is the result of decades of cultural training.
Our culture encourages us to avoid looking squarely at the realities of human life. We live our lives on "autopilot." We busy ourselves with "the daily grind." We distract ourselves with television and other forms of entertainment. We numb ourselves with alcohol and drugs.
We seek happiness outside ourselves — in other people and external conditions. We seek fulfillment in the acquisition of material objects and possessions. We look to others to tell us who we are, to affirm our worth and value.
This conditioning leads us to keep postponing our lives, thinking that if we just do what needs to be done today, if we meet all our responsibilities now, happiness and fulfillment will come later:
... when we can drive a car.
... when we go to college.
... when we fall in love.
... when we meet the right partner.
... when we get married.
... when we have children.
... when we buy the dream house.
... when we buy the dream car.
... when the children get through college.
... when the children get married.
... when the children have children.
... when we get a new job.
... when we lose fifty pounds.
... when we have enough money in the bank.
... when the therapy begins to work.
... when he or she comes back to us.
... when we retire.
... when we recover from surgery.
... when someone we love recovers from addiction.
On and on it goes.
We postpone fulfillment. We postpone joy. We postpone happiness. We postpone our lives. We allow our inner state to be dictated by external people and circumstances. Our heart tells us to give more attention to our loved ones, to our inner selves, to our unique sense of purpose, to our secret yearnings and our special talents.
But we ignore our hearts. And we ignore our intuition.
We rationalize our lack of attention by telling ourselves we will take care of these things later. When life calms down, when more of our ideal life — as we imagine it to be — is in place, we will make up for neglecting these aspects of our lives now. Later we will be loving. Later we will be kind. Later we will have time for family. Later we will be fulfilled.
Then suddenly, unexpectedly, change comes. Sometimes in the form of illness. Sometimes in the form of death. Sometimes in the form of divorce. And our whole world looks different.
Unfortunately, many of us will be shaken into wakefulness only by some cataclysmic event. And it doesn't seem to have any correlation to age. Some people live well into their seventies, eighties, and nineties and still approach death wondering what their lives were all about, feeling empty, amazed at how quickly the years passed. They say, "I never thought about this happening. I thought I was going to live forever. I always thought I was going to be happy later. I always thought my life was something that was about to happen."
Others face the end of their time on earth with a sense of fulfillment, gratitude, and completion.
I have seen many people in their teens, twenties, and thirties who have learned how to work effectively with some debilitating emotional or physical injury. And I have seen people in these age groups face their own deaths or the death of someone they love with grace and inner peace. Quite often they come through the experience pulsating with life, enthusiasm, and hope. No matter how difficult the circumstances of their lives have been, they find a way to be fulfilled.
On the other hand, I have seen people in their teens, twenties, and thirties who are experiencing good health and relatively secure economic circumstances who still spend much of their lives frightened, becoming embittered and despairing about the ways life has disappointed them. At some level, it's as if they are already dead.
What is the difference between those who seem capable of finding happiness no matter what age they are, and no matter what happens to them, and those who feel embittered and victimized no matter what age they are and what happens to them?
And how can we learn to use all of the experiences of our lives — including the difficulties and losses — to open our hearts more fully, to quiet our raging minds, to pulsate with life, enthusiasm, and hope?
How do we keep from closing our hearts and numbing our souls?
How do we keep from drowning in sadness?CHAPTER 3
Deaths and Rebirths
* * *
We do not see things as they are. We see them as we are.
Most of us want to live happy lives. we want peace and stability. We don't want difficulties. But the difficult experiences in life are the ones that really cause us to grow. We may not ask for these experiences. We may not want this growth — but here it is. We have no choice.
The difficult experiences capture our attention. They consume our awareness. They change our perspective. They often force us to see ourselves differently, to live our lives differently. They bring us face-to-face with our fears. They give us exactly what we don't want. The difficulties in our lives can wake us up ... if we let them.
In that sense, death and loss have been the greatest teachers in my life. Perhaps they can be for you, too. They have taught me the significance of every day, the preciousness of each relationship, the need to stop postponing what is important. They have forced me to explore deeper and deeper levels of love and acceptance. They have forced me to learn that love and relationship exist beyond the limits and constraints of the body.
But they are fierce teachers. And like the other great teachers I have had, they have pushed and prodded me, sometimes ruthlessly, to gain a deeper understanding of who and what I am. They have forced me to deepen my understanding of what life is about. They have brought me more and more into the moment. They have helped me to learn what love really is.
A raging storm of emotion is triggered by the loss of something or someone we love. And in that storm we feel unprepared to navigate the turbulent waters of our own grief. Sometimes grief is so overwhelming that we panic, we go into a kind of "emotional shock." We become numb. At times we say, "I don't feel anything." Hours, days, and weeks go by. It's all a blur. We feel "disconnected," like we're watching our lives through a hazy fog. They don't seem to add up to anything. Whatever peacefulness and security we once had has been shattered by an inevitable reality we've spent our lives running away from.
At other times, in other circumstances, we feel panic. We rage against the seeming injustice of it all. We cry, we sob, we pound our fists. We feel a pain that is all consuming. Our hearts are breaking. Our minds feel violated. "Why, why, why?" we ask, but no one answers. Our friends, family, clergy, and counselors may try to give us answers, but it all seems contrived, useless, unrelated to what we feel.
The teachings of death and loss involve much more than the grief that follows a physical death or separation. Every loss in our lives forces us, to some extent, to reexperience the grief we have carried with us for all of life's unresolved losses.
My own life has been profoundly affected by many different losses. When I was three, I had polio. I lost the opportunity to have a normal childhood. A part of me died. Because of the polio I was a terrible athlete. Every time I failed to "make the team," every time a classmate ridiculed me on the athletic field, every time I found myself face down in the football field mud, a part of me died.
My most cherished companion, a beagle named "Punkin," died when I was ten. And a part of me died. My father became an alcoholic when I was eleven. My idol, my hero, my role model turned into a raging demon ... and a part of me died. Vicious, screaming battles between my parents became a nightly ritual. And a part of me died.
On my twelfth birthday, my favorite baby-sitter was hit and killed by a car while crossing the street. She was on her way to my birthday party. A part of me died. Later that year, I saw a boy my own age drown in the surf in Puerto Rico. His lifeless corpse was dragged onto the beach; his vacant, bloodshot eyes were wide open but not seeing. His salt-parched body was covered with sand. He died, and a part of me died.
We came to the brink of nuclear war with Russia in 1962, and a part of me died. Our president was murdered in 1963, and a part of me died.
When I was fourteen, I didn't pass the audition for a rock band I really wanted to join. A part of me died. The next day, another boy was cast in a theatrical role I really wanted, and a part of me died. When I was sixteen, my first love left me to date someone else, and a part of me died.
As those deaths added up and added up, with no tools to process the feelings and no wisdom to integrate them into my life, each loss became another stone in a thick, hard wall that surrounded my heart. When I was seventeen, I left my second love because I could feel nothing. She loved me with a vibrant, nourishing, heartfelt love. But I felt nothing. Too much of me had died.
A few months later, when my mother was diagnosed with cancer of the colon, I again felt nothing. And it only occurred to me in passing that something was amiss, that my reaction, or lack thereof, was not what "normal" people would feel. I loved my mother dearly. But her life with my father had become a tortured nightmare. At an earlier age the possibility that my mother might die was my greatest fear. But now I felt nothing. Perhaps it was just one too many tragedies for me to cope with.
The great irony was that my mother's death was what finally tore away the veil of numbness I had hidden behind for so many years. It gave me the first inkling that the parts of me that were dying were paving the way for a much more profound "birth." Fear, doubt, and anger were mysteriously, almost magically, replaced with an intuitive sense that everything was "all right" — that there was an underlying order to this seemingly random, chaotic, sometimes malevolent Universe. Where that intuition came from, how I finally tapped into it, and the manner in which it has grown in my life will all be explored in the pages of this book.
Suffice it to say that I now know that death and loss can be our greatest teachers. They're our greatest teachers because, in tearing away the people, the possessions, the hopes and dreams we all cling to, they offer us the opportunity to find out who we really are, to discover the depths of our beings, to know that which lies beyond our attachment to external people, places, and things — to find the place in each of us that is never born and never dies. In that process, we have the opportunity to find real and lasting happiness.
Excerpted from Awakening from Grief by John E. Welshons. Copyright © 2003 John E. Welshons. Excerpted by permission of Inner Ocean Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.