Transformative Grief, Part I: The Art of Bending and Breaking

person sits on park bench under treesDuring a recent therapy session, I had a profound exchange with a man about how, months after the tragic loss of his sister, grief is changing him in ways that feel important and meaningful.

There is a clear delineation of causality within our conversations; there is no sugarcoating the hell he is living or the pain he will always feel. The grief is not a “gift,” and it did not happen “for a reason.” But it did happen. And the ways in which this man is choosing to live with it are giving him a deeper experience in life.

He is motivated to switch careers to something more fulfilling and mission-driven. He wants to move closer in proximity to the people he loves most. And what he organizes his life around on a daily basis is shifting toward quality of experience versus social status or traditional measures of success.

Making changes such as these, while often worth it, can be very difficult. It can be painful, lonely, confusing, filled with uncertainty, and extremely uncomfortable, to name a few. For this particular man, his newfound intentions further rattled a life that has already been turned inside-out.

Yet after the initial blackout period of grief, a period in which devastation and heartbreak were all he could see, he is now in a place where he is able to come up for air and reassess his life. He is taking inventory of where he has been, where he is now, and where he wants to be.

The grief has given him an understanding of life he never asked for—to know how short it really is. The grief from the loss of his sister forced him to go inside himself, where he found more core truths of who he is and how he wants to live than ever before. While he lost much, he is realizing through his grief journey he found more of himself.

You have to enter into a partnership with the grief. You have to agree to be changed by it. This means acknowledging that the transformative process will be hard, that you will most likely have to let even more things in your life go, but that in the end your voice will be clearer and stronger. Your life will feel more yours—even with the ever-present loss and pain.

These transformative realizations are not always easy to let in or act on. However, if you are willing, grief can change you in a way that leads to greater meaning, freedom, authenticity, and comfort. Pain and beauty can coexist. Grief and joy can both sit at the table.

To have this type of experience, to undergo transformative grief, you have to be willing to be changed by the grief. It is not an automatic process.

You have to enter into a partnership with the grief. You have to agree to be changed by it. This means acknowledging that the transformative process will be hard, that you will most likely have to let even more things in your life go, but that in the end your voice will be clearer and stronger. Your life will feel more yours—even with the ever-present loss and pain.

The point is not for your loss to be softened or minimized. Why should it be? The point is if you are willing to work with this horrible loss, you can allow it to change you in meaningful ways, perhaps with the help of a therapist. Grief and pain can contain an alchemical process that empowers you, points you straight to your truth, and removes old fears.

This does not necessarily mean your life will be better than before. It does not mean the pain goes away. It means you adjust to your new normal and find a life inside of it—a life that still hurts, but that also finds beauty, love, courage, and truth. Transformative grief allows you to live more fully.

In Part II, we will cover how to enact this transformative process—and the pitfalls you may face in excavating joy from within the pain.

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  • Weston

    February 24th, 2016 at 7:26 AM

    Sometimes it is funny how a life changing experience like this will naturally bring you sadness and grief but it can also open your eyes to the things that you have been missing all around you as well. It can be that one little motivational thing that you have been seeking and even though you would likely prefer to have had that motivator in a different way, it is one way of looking at how something bad can ultimately bring something good if you are open to accepting it.

  • clay

    February 24th, 2016 at 11:16 AM

    With this must come toe willingness to bend and to grow.
    It may not be what you would have ever seen in your life happening but here it is and there is no changing that action. But what you can change is how you react and then receive from that. It does not have to define you but it sure can do a heck of a good job of molding you into a better person if you are willing to go with that and let it.

  • Linsay

    February 25th, 2016 at 9:59 AM

    Losing someone that I loved more than anything on this earth has been the hardest thing that I have eevr endured.
    But I did not wish to stay stuck in the hurt. I wanted to persevere and get past it.
    I am not too sure that that was good for me because I sort of feel like I rushed the grieving process and I haven’t really been able to move forward because of that.

  • Kiara

    February 27th, 2016 at 8:17 AM

    aaahhh but it is the change that tends to scare us most of all

  • tom b

    February 28th, 2016 at 7:28 AM

    I have a friend who just lost his daughter after she fought a long and courageous fight against cancer.
    I think that I will be sharing this with him.

  • Lanna

    February 29th, 2016 at 7:21 AM

    A lot of times in life it takes losing someone very important to you to be able to clearly see what it is that you most want out of life.

  • Kevin

    February 29th, 2016 at 7:04 PM

    I’ve wondered what it would be like to Only lose someone.
    My Partner completed suicide in front of me 2/16/15.
    We were together ten years, living out-of-state. He’d lived out-of-state fifteen years: in those fifteen/Our Ten, his family never came down to visit, help or otherwise.
    We ran the same company with intentions to buy It: He put 300% into his work, trying to build-up Our Future, making more money than the owner’d made before, dragging-out “selling the company” to Us for ten years.
    More so, that in 2005, He had Major Back Surgery, leading to years of pain and the Pain Meds Rollercoaster. He endured, always believing we would own the company so He could hire others and take a less physical role.
    In 2009, his Dad passed: just after, the boss said “you’re like a son”, though never treating him so. I believe He’d taken This deeper than the boss ever meant. He had just lost his father.
    Years of pain, meds, extreme stress, no family support, no gratitude from work, etc. were wearing Him down.
    I found out later on that He’d endured Physical Childhood Abuse, I could see confusion to in-that He sought his mom’s attention but also blamed Her for allowing the abuse to happen. His parents divorced early-on because of her infidelity, but she could not be alone and it was two of her male companions who’d abused him.
    He would always help without expecting anything in return. Paying for employee Doctor Visits when the boss dropped their insurance, fed/helped the homeless, helped his mom anytime She needed, prayed with customers when They lost loved ones, etc.
    We’d tried several times to get him help, generic procedures failed, leading to more frustration.
    A week before, I’d called his mom, begging her to come down, that he “needed his mom and an apology for the abuse”.
    She denied the abuse, and made the excuses “I have a sick friend and have to get firewood ready for the snow storm”. Said friend is still alive today, she’s never done her own firewood and money/time or otherwise were no object. I even hsd my mom call: hopefully “mom-to-mom” would persuade her…….”I love my son, stop harassing me!”…..and hung-up.
    Yet, days after he passed, she yells “there should’ve been an Intervention” and her friends All believe She’s this wonderful mom Who did, and always has, done everything possible to help Him.
    I was his Sole Caregiver, noone else, ever. Hospital Stays, countless sleepless nights of pain, doing both our jobs/taking care of the house/caring/worrying about him. We worked hard, payed bills, helped people: everything expected of Society.
    When Florida finally recognized Civil Unions in Jan., 2015, his issues were too far along, he hadn’t left the house in seven months, I was 100% covering both jobs, That he’d always put-on one face in public/at work, and another at-home, noone else’d ever known our private hell. His family knew, little good that did: his mom would say “call 911”, but He had enough capacity to play-it-off when the police showed.
    Florida has the Baker Act, but only police, doctors, etc. can have a person evaluated. And only if they have Means and Intent
    He’d often cry, wanting help, to just “live without pain, like everyone else”: suggesting help without alarming him was tricky.
    Once, I did get him to agree, but minutes later, he panicked and refused.
    His Pain Doctor’d disappeared a year before: had him on Fentanyl Patches 200mcg/2 days, Oxycodone, Trazadone and Clonazepam for 9 1/2 years, same dosage, except the patches. As he was afraid to, I told the nurse, in Oct., 2014, That I thought he was having Benzo W/D symptoms, nothing was done. *She’d always been really kind, his current doctor took over after the other “left”, and did not have the compassion like the nurse. I asked her to discreetly talk to the Dr.: if My Partner’d known I said anything, given he’d said I was the only person He could trust.
    Cops got there, gave the looks I expected: so busy doing what the dispatcher asked, didn’t realize my arms/shirt were covered in blood. Cops made me stand at the front door, promising they were doing the compressions the dispatcher was Still insisting on: after ? minutes, the cop at the door admitted “they’re waiting on the Fire Dept.” Who got there last, no lights/sirens, the paramedic was alone, no gurney, equipment, partner. All odd, moreso the hospital, ambulance service and fire dept. were All less than a mile away!
    That I was smoking hot pissed and questioning Them, the police took me on the side porch, out-of-sight, for six and a half hours, saying nothing, treating me no better than a roommate or friend because we didn’t have a Civil Union.
    Sorry, I’ve been do busy doing two jobs, taking care of our household, watching My Soulmate go from caring/loving/outgoing to a crumpled mass, laying nauseated in the fetal position. We’d always been so busy, and loved so perfectly, then been so overwhelmed later, a piece of paper to prove our love was the last thing on our mind.
    It wasn’t until weeks later, his family graced me with his Death Certificate, that I actually knew When he died. And an email from BCBS showing ER charges, that I knew Where.
    His family never came down, took his person, are Not honoring his Last Wishes, a year later, I don’t know where his ashes are….what his urn looks like.
    Our boss saw to me missing His Service, harassed me into quitting, That his family never came down, all our “friends”, coworkers, everyone we helped……..never even bothered.
    Going in the house caused anxiety, shaking hands, nausea…….sat outside everyday until exhausted. Fought The House three months…..alone, of course…..trying to clear-it. Couldn’t stay…….gave/threw away 90% of Our Life, couldn’t afford a move.
    Imagine All This, then having to fill-up a 13x8x5 dumpster with Your Life, and watching the garbage truck crushing parts of your life. Finally just loaded the p/up truck, abandoning The House…….It kept me there long enough. My prison without bars for three months of Hell.
    And now, a year later, I fight the VA for “help”: been criticized for my ADHD symptoms…..had lost my insurance/meds eight months prior, after the suicide.
    **Look-up ADHD Brains & Stress/focus, then imagine adding That disfunction on-top of everything…..I had to when The VA Psychiatrist called me a liar when I told her my meds had helped. Even presenting articles by Neuroscientists…….ignored!
    Told me you can only have PTSD if the Trauma happens directly to you. And-
    “just say you’re suicidal if you want faster treatment” And-
    “Our Group Therapy wouldn’t work because “you talk too much/fast, and noone’s interested in all you have to say”
    Recently, finally, I guess, put me on Zoloft…..although My Complicated Grief, Disenfranchised Grief, PTSD, some kind of Anxiety problem in public, and best I can guess: Learned Helplessness.
    *Have never got a diagnosis, my Free Bereavement Counselor has more compassion in one finger than ALL the VA doctors.
    MY POINT: Life’s robbed me of US
    We complied to The Norms, only to have his life, Our Love stripped away!
    I honorably served my country.
    His Family never gave a sh_t, Society handed him over to people who never cared.
    Know what? I couldn’t even pursue Wrongful Death: Florida Law, No Spouse, no Minor Child…….can’t do anything about It.
    I’m intelligent and resourceful, very intuitive, hold nothing back, yet am still dealing with This alone.
    I envy those who say “It’s been a year, and I still haven’t touched their stuff” or
    “put flowers on their grave today”
    ……….no grave, no home, no untouched closet, nothing……………Thanks Life, Society.
    ~~ Now, kindly explain my incentive to jump right back into It!~~

  • Jade Wood

    March 4th, 2016 at 1:15 PM

    Hi Everyone, thank you for your comments. I agree 100% with your sentiments. Linsay, I am so sorry to hear of your very significant loss. It can be easy and normal to rush the grieving process and look back and realize we have more we need to work through. Taking the time to do this for yourself, as you are able, is very important. I hope you are are able to engage with this process when you are ready, and reach out for support as needed additionally. Tom, I am tremendously sorry to hear of your friend’s loss of his daughter. My thoughts are with him and his family.

  • TerriW

    March 20th, 2016 at 9:50 AM

    I lost my husband of 34 years five months ago, He passed suddenly and unexpectedly from multiple strokes and today is our wedding anniversary. Since his passing, I’ve mostly been going it alone, although I have had sporadic help from friends and a few family members and my grief is complicated by an already existing anxiety disorder. I want very much to move forward, but still have difficulty seeing a future for myself that doesn’t have my husband in it. However, I did find this article to be very comforting and informative. Thank you for that. When will part two of your blog be posted?

  • Jade Wood

    March 20th, 2016 at 7:36 PM

    Hi Terri, my heart goes out to you as I read about your loss and the unexpected nature of the tragedy you have had to deal with. Not only are you experiencing a devastating loss, but it was sudden, which can be incredibly hard to process. Having to go it alone as you said can make it even more to wade through and live through. I can completely see how you would have trouble seeing a future without your husband – the loss of him is quite recent and he played such a central and ineffably significant role in your life. At this juncture I would imagine the future seems very hard to put into view and difficult to care much about at times. It sounds like you are holding a lot on your own – and while we all ultimately have to carry our load – I wonder if finding a therapist if you have not already would be supportive and comforting during this difficult time. My thoughts are truly with you. Part 2 is almost complete and should be posted in the next few weeks. Please do not hesitate to reach out and thank you for your vulnerability in sharing. Warmly, Jade

  • TerriW

    March 21st, 2016 at 12:17 PM

    Thank you, Jade. Your kind, wise words mean so much to me. You would be surprised (or perhaps not) by the number of people who will tell me that “it’s been a few months, you should be moving on and feeling a lot better by now”. I honestly have no words when I hear this. They just do not get it. I am very interested in finding a therapist to help me navigate both my grief and my anxiety. I’ve become a bit more agoraphobic since Paul’s death, due to the fact that my husband used to drive me anywhere I needed to go. Having to once again—“go it alone”—will be anxiety producing in and of itself. But, I will use the therapist locator on this site to see if there is someone close enough that I stand a better chance of making it there on my own. My husband and I were like a team; we helped each other out. I find it difficult having to rely on others, especially certain family members who make me feel as if helping me interferes with their regular lifestyle. I am looking forward to reading the next installment. Thank you again for caring. Terri

  • Jade Wood

    March 22nd, 2016 at 9:04 AM

    Hi Terri, I am very sorry to hear you have received messages regarding expectations of moving on or feeling better. You can only feel what you are feeling in the moment, and given the nature of your loss your current emotions and state are quite natural and understandable. This is a major event and can take a great deal of time and a lot of grief to move through – it is not a fast or simple process. Others not being able to get it is unfortunately a common experience those who are coping with loss encounter – as you said a therapist can help to mitigate this, as well as bereavement support groups where you connect with people over the shared experience. I am very sorry to hear about the complications around relying on people and having to manage so much on your own – it sounds really tough. I am thinking of you and hope you are able to find some nearby support that can help even a little bit during this difficult time.

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