This month I had promised to deliver Part 2 of my article “Making Friends with Feelings”. And my theme is not going to diverge much from this topic, but there has been a bit of a change in my writing plan. Since my last blog post, my dad was diagnosed with and unsuccessfully treated for lung cancer— he died in early June. It was a very quick process, head-spinningly so. And as a result, the emotion at the forefront of my consciousness these days is grief.
I’ve lost family members and relationships in my life, and at times the sadness has been overwhelming. But I have never before experienced the death of a primary person, an anchor of my life with whom I shared an irreplaceable bond. I have passed through many stages of grief and mourning over the last two months, and I am now starting to feel the emotion’s tight grip loosening a bit. The old adage is that grief ebbs and flows like waves of the ocean. I have experienced the truth in this saying, and I feel that I have transitioned from being pummeled by crashing waves of sorrow to now dipping my toe into the shallow pools of sadness when I choose to.
When I first learned of my dad’s diagnosis and realized the seriousness of the situation, I was inconsolably sad. The loss hit me immediately and there was nothing I could do to escape the grey cloud of gloom over my head or the endless flow of tears. Throughout his treatment, we had moments of hope and some semblances of normalcy which served to stave off the sadness for short periods. Then when his health declined again and the treatments proved ineffective, the sorrow would wash over me just as strong as before. One of the blessings for me during this process was the completeness of my relationship with my dad and the lack of unfinished business or unspoken sentiments. I was able to say goodbye to him and to know that he was ready for, and unafraid of, what lay ahead for him. This soothed my grieving heart and allowed me to feel relief when he finally passed from this world.
This whole process would have been doubly painful if strong emotions frightened me. My willingness to be with the tears and sadness as they rained down on me helped the feelings pass— they left me alone for a while after a certain amount of time spent crying, and they also became weaker as the days passed. Had I pushed them away or distracted myself with other activities and thoughts, I would not be as strong and centered as I am today. I like to refer to crying as “taking a shower on the inside”—it is crucial to wash away the emotional buildup and debris in order to stay strong and move forward in life. This is also what I refer to as “making friends with feelings”: rather than running away from them, we can sit and allow our feelings to wash over us with an open heart. One of my favorite poems from Rumi illustrates this concept brilliantly:
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jelaluddin Rumi, translation by Coleman Barks
There have been many times during the last months when I have not wanted to cry. I just did not want to go to that dark place and feel heartsick again. At those times, I noticed that by changing my thoughts and breathing deeply, I could regain my composure and push those emotions to the back. But it was strikingly clear that this technique would not send the feelings away for good. I had to go back to them when I was in a mentally prepared state, a safe location, and either comfortably alone or with a support person. I had to spend time with my feelings and fully experience them. I had to think the dark and scary thoughts all the way through, until lighter, more optimistic ones naturally sprang up to take their place. This way, my brain and heart worked together to support and heal me from within.
Feelings are friends who help us learn about ourselves and about the meaning of this existence. When we view them as helpers rather than as the demons they can sometimes resemble, we are more likely to allow them in for a visit and learn what it is they have to share with us. Even the strongest of emotions will not devour us alive if we trust that they come to us in the service of our inner strength and healing.
© Copyright 2011 by Karen Kochenburg. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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