The Short and Long of Grief

My aunt Deb died a few weeks ago. I received an email the very next day from my friend Don. I'm in a writing group with him and his wife Jean. And he asked me about grief.

Here's part of the email.

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Hi Jeff,

Interesting to browse through your comments on grief, thanks. Question: can one grief about the present, case in point, can we grief that we are stuck in a lockdown on account of a damn little virus that is killing some of us. Given your implied sense of time relativity, I’d guess that grieving the present situation is possible. Today certainly means the future we were anticipating is different. We’ve already had our trip to the Netherlands canceled, after planning on it for more than a year.

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Obviously the trip to Europe is most likely annoying, but not a major emotional issue like the loss of a life. Although emotions are complex things, and it's hard to know what's going to hit people the hardest. Across all of these situations the process of grief is the same, although the range of intensity seems almost limitless.

I've been struggling to communicate my own discoveries around the grief process for the last few years. It was a personal phenomenological process that led to insights which have been immensely useful to me. The thing with personal insights is that we must learn to communicate them to be useful to others. That's what I've been working on with grief. The core idea is that when we suffer a loss it is not the past that died. The past cannot die. The future is what dies. Rewriting our future is the intensely emotional psychological process that is grief.

Here is my email response. Afterward I'll have a short note about the longer process of grief.

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It's good to hear from you.

That's a great question to contemplate, and I have somewhat. I think my insights on grief are genius, but I've struggled with communicating them in any useful way so far.

Yes, the grieving process results from any loss of an expected value. So, whenever we become aware of that the grieving starts. The Netherlands trip being an expected future value that is now gone, means that that's a fairly normal version of grief. But, you end up with weird timeframes when people don't go through the grieving process, which there is no way to avoid and stay mentally healthy. For instance, if someone dies and a person ignores their grief, which is common because it is painful and you can distract yourself with various activities, then you are passing through a time where you are violating expectations. This means that when you start to accept the loss and go through grief you are actually grieving about moments that you've passed in time, yet, the grief is still because they were a future expectation that was violated. I'll see if I can do a short example that is pertinent. There's an even more complex scenario that often occurs when there are various types of deception from others, but I'll ignore that for now.

My aunt Deb died yesterday from complications with the virus down in Battlecreek. My uncle Ron is obviously in a bit of shock. Plus, now he is quarantined in his house completely alone, trapped with his grief and guilt. So it's a bad situation. In a group family chat this is my attempt at emergency mental health intervention. He wasn't allowed to be with her in the hospital, and he can't have a funeral. So, it's slightly odd in those aspects as well.

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Devastating news. She was a very good person. Death does not erase a person. The existence and life of a person lives on, in memory, and then beyond. The things they did, the conversations they had, it changes things, and it changes people. Those changes lead on to more changes. And so, what Deb did over her life will reverberate through time. And it can never be taken away or lessened.

I remember her hiding behind a couch during a nerf gun war not so long ago, while Ron used the slingshot. Lol. Good times.

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In a loss of life situation people often fear that the person's life is erased. So I worked to quell that fear first. Then, people often try to remember a person in general, and then freak out because they cannot. So I referenced a specific shared memory to help make a good memory real for him, and start that process in a good direction.

If he starts grieving now then he has to rewrite basically his entire future. She was healthy, so he wasn't expecting this. He planned on doing tons of stuff with her. The closer you are to someone, and the longer your expected future interaction, the more grief you must go through, because the more expectations you have. Now, he'll start traveling through the emotional ups and downs of coming to terms with a new future. For as long as that is happening he will be grieving. Some people never make it through that process when someone is close enough to them, largely because they resist the process. Which is why I write on it, to help people to realize what's really happening and to realize that they can come through it.

But, if he doesn't grieve and start reformulating all of his future expectations, then he's going to go past things that are losses. For instance, maybe they planned on watching a certain movie at home on Saturday together. Instead of doing that maybe he ignores that contradiction of his old expectations with what should be his new expectations. People do that a myriad of ways ranging from drinking to working to cleaning. When he gets to Saturday he now has a greater contradiction, the discrepancy between what he expected and what happened. As these things build up without him accepting them then he is accumulating things he's actually lived through that he still needs to grieve over. At some point in the future he will have to grieve over the fact that they weren't able to watch that movie together on Saturday. It's still a false future expectation, but it's a false future expectation that is in the past because it wasn't dealt with at the time.

With a spouse the process will be somewhat long no matter what, because there are just so many expectations built out in the future, many of which are subconscious and unconscious creations of the mind. A lot of times you have to be reminded of these things before you can even attempt to grieve. For instance, maybe a couple of years from now he's at a store and sees a postcard of flowers. That reminds him of a plan they had to go to some specific place. He now has to grieve that (rewrite and reformulate that expectation, in the loss of a loved one this often involves crying as various images of the old expectation and the new expectation fly through the mind crashing and smashing together until the old is supplanted by the new). It's a thing he forgot that he lost, but he lost it nevertheless, and when he's reminded of it then he must confront it and grieve to move through it. When it's a major loss there's no good way to make sure you've covered everything that is possible, everything that you've ever thought about your future experience and relationship, so it will inevitably come up over a fairly long period of time. It will become less frequent as more and more expectations are rewritten. That's the idea and process that people are referring to with "time heals", even though I don't know of anyone that has articulated this specific mechanism before me.

I don't need anything in particular at the moment. I still teach every morning. And reading, writing, and meditating haven't been hindered in any way. So most of what I do on a daily basis has remained the same.

I hope both of you are also doing well.

Jeff Martin

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In that email I went through some of the ideas about handling the short term psychological problems. But, really, there's no great way to go about it that I've ever seen. Then, over the next couple of weeks things really get trippy because you feel like life has stopped, like the world should have stopped, but it hasn't. People are going about doing their thing, when it seems like life should be over, but it isn't. Reconciling that is difficult. That's the idea of grief. It's to take that feeling and sense of the death of the future and change it. There's no way around it.

Around a week ago my mother and I had a video chat with my uncle Ron and I went through how to do meditation with him. There are many types of meditation, and they do different things. The type that I use to manage my chronic pain issues also helps to process a lot of psychological and emotional issues. He said it helped some, so that's good.

Whether it's done with or without meditation, over the long term the process remains the same. To get through grief you truly have to go through it. There's this immense contradiction between what should have happened and what did happen, what should be happening and what is happening, and what should happen and what will happen. It's like a collision of the soul with the world.

Sometimes when the soul and the world collide, the world moves. But not in case of loss. Then the soul must transform itself. It's a rebirth of your future. And it's painful. But, if we voluntarily confront it. If we remember that the past cannot be erased. And we keep moving forward. We can honor the past, and build the future again.


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