Grief isn’t linear…but there’s a gift in that!

I’ve been dealing with grief in a number of formats lately, the most recent being that my beloved dog died last week, adding to other versions of grief I am feeling right now, over loss of people, even lost ways of life. As I’m walked through yet another reminder of what grief “feels like”, the above header really struck me this morning; grief really isn’t linear. Just as soon as you think you have “got this thing” and are back on a slightly more even keel, the feelings come up again, like hot oil from a geyser, or ice fingers wrapped around your heart, or something inexplicable that feels lacking, a dark cloud hanging, a rock in your gut, a long silent lonely scream of yearning and sadness. An absence.

The thing is to move…and to keep on moving when the instinct to do so nudges you and in whatever format that comes in (don’t let polite or socially ingrained conventions tell you otherwise…if you need to belly laugh or book a trip away, allow that without any judgement or explanation) so as not to suppress the feelings or ignore them, but to allow them to supply the undercurrent of your movements for the next few days or months. This is your personal journey through the hinterlands, no one else’s (though others may share your grief). Follow the dance of those feelings, be curious, or persuade their heaviness to join you in some leap of faith, into the newness, rather than stagnate, because there’s opportunity and growth in grief too.

I’ve experienced this many times, not least after my mother died which launched, arguably, the biggest quantum leap of my life, though I didn’t see it until years later. There’s energy released when something makes way, leaving a space, so the very same absence that can seem to haunt you can also break open a paradigm, making room for something never even imagined before, because it was simply out of bounds until something that meaningful in the fabric of your reality shifted and, in so doing, caught your attention enough to question the very nature of reality. How can something that meaningful, pivotal, still “felt” as real, still needed and even longed for be here one minute, gone the next?

This really gets us treading those hinterlands of experience, if only in our sleep but maybe also in our waking hours, if we are prepared to remain curious and open to it. We begin exploring and searching and combing for understanding…where did this once living and physically present energy go?…which can take us on an Alice in Wonderland experience into the unfathomable, launching a whole new layer of awareness.

So, as I said, not linear and this in itself teaches us something…that nothing really important ever is! We spend our whole lives being trained, even indoctrinated, into “this” linear reality but, when the chips are down, we find we are all seasoned adventurers beyond the constraints of time space. Because, where the heart leads we naturally go…finding we can transport ourselves way beyond the narrow, fenced-in lanes of conventional experience, to truly be where our heart was the happiest with this person, whenever and wherever that was…and it may truly be an amalgam of several such times, all at once, that we lean into when we spend time with them. The feeling may even lead into the never-never lands of of where we once hoped we would be in some rocking chair future yet which, in this harsh 3D land, was never to be yet, suddenly, we are making that quantum leap without effort…experiencing some key ingredient of it anyway,

How many times have I thus spent time with both my mother and daughter playing together, ribbing each other, sharing moments between them in some golden experience that feels as real as anything, though they were never destined to meet in the flesh? Perhaps, in accessing this, I have somehow been the better bridge between their never-the-twain realities, so that my daughter feels she “knows” the grandmother she never met and I sometimes forget they didn’t. Twenty five long years of water have flowed under the bridge since my mother’s passing yet she is still as real and present to my daily life as ever; seldom far from my thoughts.

Thank goodness I have experienced that first-hand because I am into the territory again over the loss of a very dear friend, possibly the closest of my life, who knows she is about to transition, having had cancer for a number of years (I know she has no issue with me sharing this, whether she reads it or not), my grief over which is so profound right now, though it has yet to happen. In essence, I am missing her already, experiencing the grief of loss that is imminent. Yet, so clearly, I feel us hugging each other in her kitchen, beside the table she has so often described, then sitting on her porch to chew the cud for hours, both of us silver-haired and wise beyond description, sharing the fruit of our several decade’s intimacy, though we have really known each other for just 5 years. Already, I am there so no need to live the experience that will never get to “happen”; it fuels who I am today, what I am capable of, who I step up to be, in my wisest, broadest, most expansive moments…the way my friend already sees me…on days when I don’t buckle or drown in a sense of loss and victimhood and profoundest sadness at the physical absence of my friend. How do you even prepare for that? I am surrendered to the flow of grief, which will surely carry me through to the other side.

Which is not to deny such feelings but to hear their sad song and express it, perhaps wordlessly (dance has been such a true friend to me these past months), through journalling, through long unaccompanied walks through the woods listening to the trees. By allowing it to move through me, informing my humanness, which needs to be fluid and allowing of all that I am, and that I feel, in order to be healthy.

As it happens, I am reading Peter Levine’s extraordinarily great book “Waking the Tiger” right now and his whole premise is that, in order to heal trauma, we need to remember how to move, to shake, to allow the acute experiences to process through us, as animals instinctively know how to do (as we see them do in the wild when, say, they have been pursued by a predator and narrowly escaped being caught). When these things happen, an enormous amount of energy gets frozen in the body but in the animal kingdom the instinctive process is to shake that energy back into flow, back into vitality and life in order to recover and move on. All too often, we human’s tend to do the opposite, perpetuating the frozen state, holding the trauma in.

Movement is no less necessary when that stuck energy happens to be grief; by letting it move, express, lead the way, explore the new, whatever it takes to keep fluid and soft, we process grief differently than many of us were taught by human example. The energy doesn’t, then, lock in to the flesh, to become next year’s physical pain or long term illness. Stiff upper lip was my forebears downfall; let me be of the generation that hears and learns from, moves, and expresses my grief, in the moment it occurs, allowing it to inform my next iteration. Let it be included in me, not disgraced or denied.

In the day following the loss of my beloved four-legged boy, who had been my close companion for 11 years, even more so since he hasn’t been well for some time (nor I, plus lockdown), my first inclination was to not go out for my usual morning walk, without him…what was the point? Yet, once I had processed a little of my grief through my journal and through dance that morning, the far stronger instinct was to go anyway and to make retracing our steps part of the very processing I was doing. I then fully expected to prick some tears in the woods, on the same winding path that we had had to stick to for months due to his hips not being able to walk further or up any inclines but it wasn’t until I climbed the hill we had avoided since early in the year that it happened…the cracking of my grief, out of my body. Because, just as I reached the top, a remarkable thing happened; a dog that was the spitting replica of him when he was more agile came tearing through the long grass, straight towards me, suddenly dropping down into the idiosyncratic crouch he used to do right before springing. I had never seen a dog of his build or colouring in this place before; not in 20 years!

That was it…I was in tears…and when the woman came up she expressed surprise that her dog was, by now, all over me, leaping to kiss my face repeatedly, because he is “normally pretty wary of strangers and we tend to keep our distance”. What happened next was all the more extraordinary, bearing in mind I seldom strike up conversations with people close to home (people in this commuter belt don’t tend to be open to it) and certainly hadn’t met a woman to talk to for many months. In this case, the only reason we struck up conversation was because of my obvious grief. However, this woman and I turned out to have so many, pretty quirky, interests and mindsets in common (which both of us seemed to be oddly prepared to share with the other “stranger” as though we had known each other for years) that neither of us could quite believe it; she kept saying that other people think she is a bit weird but she and I were like peas in a pod. We must have stood there talking for three quarters of an hour!

So, if I hadn’t followed my more fluid grieving process the moment it fired up like a promising spark of new life (initiated by free-flow writing and dancing my feelings out of me, before which I had woken up feeling almost paralysed into a kind of rigomortis of the emotions that first morning), going along with the flow that urged me to go straight out the door on my usual walk, none of this could have happened. As it turned out, it was a both a healing balm and a reminder that a new life was about to open up, out of the old one, though I have no way of knowing what that will look like…the key being to remain open to the unexpected, not locking myself down into a concept of “how things used to be”.

Having lost a few friends to other kinds of circumstance lately, which can also cause its own kind of grief, this is just what I need to be reminded of; there is nothing whatsoever to be gained from locking down into a holding pattern of loss when there are opportunities for newness around every corner. I want to add that, just because a friendship might feel like it is ready to end, for instance if you grow apart from each other and feel like you are headed in opposite directions, doesn’t mean you don’t grieve its loss, or perhaps even grieve all you once hoped it would turn out to be; something I seem to have been reminded of a great deal lately. Wherever there was once a person that you invested in, who felt like a meaningful, even profound, connection, even for five minutes, a hole is always left when they are no longer there; whether this is to do with geography or changing points of view. This can take a similar degree of processing as any other form of grief; the key being to feel it all, express it, and encourage movement. That includes movement in your body, in your furniture, in your routines, in your location. Use dance, use shaking, use music (which is so powerful in these circumstances); I find I’m having to almost force myself to listen to music rigth now but, when I do, its so powerful as a vehicle for processing grief feelings through and out of the body. Hang up a bird box on your window; their energy and vitality almost can’t fail to move you in your more stagnant, precarious moments. Read “Waking the Tiger”; I am only a short way into it but finding it so very helpful, for processing traumas old and new.

Because grief over our “old life” can be every bit as real as any other kind of grief and I suspect a lot of people are feeling that these days, for obvious reasons. Another version can come out of abrupt changes in family dynamic. I’m all too aware that I largely avoided the sinking feeling of being an “empty nester” when my daughter moved out because of my dog being so needy and taking up a lot of my time and attention. Now he is also gone, the house feels newly empty…oddly so (we have both commented on it, my husband and I) as we rattle around all the considerable space freed-up from two massive dog beds (he was a Rhodesian Ridgeback) and assorted paraphernalia, all the routines of walking and feeding and doling out supplements, attending to all the quirks and rituals of an elderly dog stuck in his ways, of being greeted at the door, preparing for bedtime and listening out for when he was poorly at night; in fact, alert to him all day. One of the first urges I acted upon was to wash and recycle all of his bedding, out of sight, then completely rearrange the furniture so that nothing in the room looks the same, his space absorbed (at least in 3D!) so that now I find I can, once again, be in this room without feeling overwhelmed.

I realise I can also mix up my daily walks, to travel further than his elderly legs allowed, opening to new experiences and people, shaking free some energy out of its previous gridlock; we both can, as we plan more trips away from home at last, which is all a necessary part of processing grief. As in, we do what is necessary to shake up our physical space, remove what is no longer needed, barring a few meaningful keepsakes, then opening our spirits to the possibility of pastures new…if not immediately then at least pointing in that direction. We trust that the deep feelings we hold for loved ones and times past exist way outside of the linear, and are always with us…so, we can then, confidently, let go of physical trappings and make space for the kind of movement that instigates vitality and renewed life. When grief bubbles up again…as it will (as mine is right now, as I finish this writing process) we feel we have some incling, some vague plan (“follow the subtlest movement urge, shower, get outdoors…”), as to where to place our next soft tread on the earth, one step, one day at a time.

Grief can be propulsion energy, if we allow it, not burdening it with fixed ideas that suggest it means “the end”. I’m hoping this is something the whole planet can realise, at which point we not only gain a tail wind out of the collective grief of recent events but start to bend and flex our way out of fixed linear thinking, to become far more than the sum of our experiential parts.

About Helen White

Helen White is a professional artist and published writer with two primary blogs to her name. Her themes pivot around health and wellbeing, expanded consciousness and ways of noticing how life is a constant dance between the deeply subjective and the collective-universal, all of which she explores with a daily hunger to get to know herself better. Her blog Living Whole shines a light on living with high sensitivity, dealing with trauma and healing from chronic health issues. Spinning the Light is an extremely broad-based platform where she elucidates the everyday alchemy of relentless self-exploration. A lifetime of "feeling like an outsider" slowly emerged as neurodivergence (being a Highly Sensitive Person with ADHD, synaesthesia, sensory processing challenges and other defecits overlapping with giftedness). All of these topics are covered in her blogs, written from two distinct vantage points so, if you have enjoyed one of them, you may wish to explore the other for a different, yet entirely complimentary, perspective.
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2 Responses to Grief isn’t linear…but there’s a gift in that!

  1. cathytea says:

    Thank you for this. And condolences for the moving on of your dog and friend.


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