The antidote to despair is not to be found in the brave attempt to cheer ourselves up with happy abstracts, but in paying profound and courageous attention to the body and the breath. … To see and experience despair fully in our body is to begin to see it as a necessary, seasonal visitation and the first step in letting it have its own life, neither holding it nor moving it on before its time.— David Whyte, Consolations
I’m a huge fan of Dr. Candyce Ossefort-Russell’s work on grief and loss. She isn’t just talking about grief and loss, she lived it. When she was 30, and her son was a few months old, her husband suddenly fell ill and passed away a few weeks later on Valentine’s Day 1992.
Since then, Ossefort-Russell has dedicated her life to teaching men and women that are experiencing the trauma of grieving how to honor the experience and breathe through the pain of both new and old losses.
I’m posting this because as I read others I’m reminded how much of what I struggle with today is a result of not confronting the losses that happened decades ago. I see I keep trying to avoid the pain of grief by recreating experiences, feelings, relationships, and moments lost, or to recapture one good moment in a life full of the other people’s emotional flotsam.
I find myself at times habitually and often unconsciously choosing to participate in a pattern of relationships with other people that are often habitually and often unconsciously not dealing with their own grief and loss either.
One relationship after another in my life has been defined by avoiding grief and it’s lessons from a previous ungrieved loss or trying to recapture one beautiful and powerful emotional experience I subconsciously long to reanimate.
I recognize how often I make choices to avoid reliving loses I regret. I see how often my choices have been defined by old, unacknowledged, and painful moments. I’m aware that living forward means making conscious choices important to me and not simply unconscious choices habitualized with bravado in the face of pain.
I pretend things didn’t happen that did. I confuse resiliency with the appearance of strength and cover with bravado. I pretend the losses don’t hurt.
For example, prior to marrying my ex-wife I told her I’d like to try and have a child with her. After we married I discovered she was unwilling to try.
This is in no way makes her a bad person or in the wrong.
Even now, thinking on this tears at my heart. And so I don’t think on it, I just get angry and punish her as I try to avoid the grief and shift my pain elsewhere…and in shame I agreed to a unnecessary, long-term financial burden in our divorce agreement.
“Loss is an injury to the psyche, to the soul,” writes Ossefort-Russell in her excellent article, Resilience: A New Grief Myth That Can Hurt You (<– definitely worth reading). “Though painful, grief is actually the brain/body/soul’s natural, necessary, healthy response to this universal wound.”
Yet I still greet this natural, necessary, and healthy response with bravado, denial, and contempt dragging out the confusion. “You cannot hurt me,” I scream at the Universe as my wounds bleed out all over my Loves, lives, and self.
I wanted a child, and I wanted a child with my ex-wife. While married, whenever I tried to talk to K about this truth, she simply told me it is my fault we weren’t trying. When I try to discuss it now she simply accuses me of holding onto the past.
At the time I heard her many explanations as some a variation of, “You aren’t man enough.” I spent the first two years of our marriage trying to prove her wrong and believing there was something I could do.
And then out of resentment and pain, I eventually stopped trying.
I should have left then. Instead I mentally withdrew, emotionally hid, and eventually turned to other types of relationships out of loneliness and bitterness.
Fifteen years later the loss feels just as raw.
Recently, on a flight I asked the flight attendant to move me away from a section where two children under ten were traveling. Not because they were doing anything wrong but because in the moment of their play and laughter, I was overwhelmed with grief. Their giggles were a meat grinder in my heart.
I will live the rest of my life feeling this loss of experience and remorse for the way I responded to K and others. It is, as Ossefort-Russell writes, a loss that is an “injury to the psyche, to the soul.”
I would have been an excellent parent. I miss my stepsons. I miss C’s boys. I miss my daughter. These are deep and meaningful estrangements in my life.
Ossefort-Russell reminds me, finding my footing in the face of grieving and loss isn’t about sucking it up or walking it off.
There is more of course…but frankly, I weep as I write on this subject. Like so much, sometimes there is nothing let to say but to simply let the tears flow.
Washington Irving writes, “There is a sacredness in tears. They are not a mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues.”
Irving finishes with, tears “are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition and of unspeakable love.”
There are many things we grieve in life beyond the death of a loved one. I feel as if I will forever grieve a child that exists only in my imagination and in the stories I will tell about my life.
Check out Ossefort-Russell.
Below are a few things worth contemplating…
Therapist Uncensored – TU24: Grief And Our Body’s Wisdom On Surviving It With Candyce Ossefort-Russell
Shelby Forsythia – E39: “Heartcore” Grief Science with Candyce Ossefort-Russell
- Ossefort-Russell, C. (2018). Grief Through the Lens of Polyvagal Theory: Humanizing Our Clinical Response to Loss. In S. Porges & D. Dana (Eds.), Clinical Applications of the Polyvagal Theory (pp. 317-338). New York: Norton. Porges Grief Chapter 2018
- Ossefort-Russell, C. (December, 2013). Grief Calls for Presence, Not Treatment: Using Attachment and IPNB to Shift Grief’s Context From Pathology to Acceptance. Journal of Interpersonal Neurobiology Studies. Vol II, 2013. Journal of IPNB Studies, Vol II 2013 – Grief Article
- Ossefort-Russell, C. (March, 2011). Individuals Grieve: AEDP as an Effective Approach for Grief as a Personal Process. In Transformance: The AEDP Journal, Issue 1(2). Transformance Article, Pub 03 2011
- Ossefort-Russell, C. (Spring, 2009). Working With Affect: Love (Mixed With Intuition) Is All You Need. In The Voice: Newsletter of the Austin Group Psychotherapy Society. Working With Affect 2009
- Ossefort, C. (Spring, 2003). On the Nature of Difficulty. In The Voice: Newsletter of the Austin Group Psychotherapy Society. Nature_of_Difficulty
- Ossefort, C. (Spring, 2001). Bearing Witness to Inconsolable Suffering. In The Voice: Newsletter of the Austin Group Psychotherapy Society. Bearing_Witness