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Good grief (02/03/2008)
By Janet Lewis Burns

"If you're really listening, if you're awake to the poignant beauty of the world, your heart breaks regularly." -Andrew Harvey

It's funny how something you read or hear someone say can stick with you. I've read many nature books, which are the source of a great deal of such recollections. A naturalist looked down at a forest floor, at matted, autumn leaves along her path. She uttered, "Good death!" Just two words and such magnetic connotations! I've never forgotten.

My sister Mary and I seem to have a knack for grieving with a sense of humor. When our beloved mother Meta Lewis passed away from a courageous struggle with cancer, we sat around remembering things that made us grin and laugh through our tears. Lighthearted banter is typical of our family. We used to call it "slaphappy."

We spoke of Mother's soot-covered face, as she held the cardboard box under the hole in the kitchen wall, waiting as Dad wormed a log chain from the chimney through the stovepipe, to clean it out for our kitchen's woodstove. By the time Dad yelled his warning, there stood Mother covered with black soot, except for the white ovals of her eyes and pink lips sputtering. Our mother praised the day Dad finally gave up that roaring monstrosity!

We still bring up what we refer to as "Mom's deep-throated thing". We girls had boyfriends who actually took off running when they heard us, right along with Mother, speaking and laughing in a deep, guttural manner. To this day, our husbands shake their heads at our family's weird sense of humor. Good grief!

By reading, especially nonfiction, what is most apparent is that human experiences and emotions are universal. Those who feel isolated from others, who take pity on only themselves, and fall away from relationships in their grief are denying themselves comfort and healing.

In Mitch Albom's compelling "Tuesdays With Morrie", the dying man said, "Death is the end of a lifetime, not the end of a relationship."

It seems that people who mask their feelings and maintain their composure at times of great loss and heartache are presumed to be strong, when in actuality this shows a personal weakness. If we don't face the grief life deals out and make our peace with it, a dark cloud will continue to loom over our pathway, inhibiting us from feeling true contentment.

Psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan was born in a displaced persons camp in southern Germany shortly after WW II. Her parents were Polish Jews who had survived the holocaust, having endured every sort of torture and loss. Greenspan's recent book "Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, & Despair" makes the bold assertion that the avoidance of dark emotions is behind the escalating levels of depression, addiction, anxiety, and irrational violence in the U.S. and throughout the world.

A compelling interview with Greenspan, "On Moving From Grief to Gratitude" appears in the January SUN, written by Barbara Platek. Greenspan believes that "We increase our suffering through our attempts to avoid it." I find her message all the more meaningful considering all the tragedies and unrest she's lived through since her birth.

"We are taught that we should not accept these states but rather do whatever we can to put an end to them," the author says. "We prize status, power, consumerism, and distraction, and there is no room for darkness in any of that."

All around us we witness dependency on medications, uppers and downers, and sleeping aids. In this new millennium, children are being diagnosed and labeled too readily as having ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and given drugs at early ages to supposedly solve the problem. (Who actually has the problem with this?)

As I read her Roethke quote, "The darkness has its own light," I was reminded of my struggle and victory over panic attacks, and how liberating it felt to finally make peace with my demons of the night.

Greenspan advises that surrender to suffering brings "the unexpected gifts of wisdom, compassion, and courage." Her focus is on transformation rather than normalcy.

Believe in your potential for wholeness.

Janet Burns lives in Lewiston. She can be reached at patandjanburns@embarqmail.com. 


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