By Janet McLean, Education and Engagement Lead for Family Caregivers of BC
Tom Attig was a panelist in our “Coach Caregiver” webinar on Loss & Grief held February 23rd, 2017. If you missed the webinar you can watch the recording on our website by going here: https://www.familycaregiversbc.ca/education/tele-workshop-podcasts/. Tom has written several books on the topic of loss and grief and provided a handout for webinar participants entitled “A Dozen Good Things about Grieving” – also available with the webinar recording on our website. In the essay Tom offers a unique perspective about “the grieving response” which explores the hopeful aspects of grieving. A summary of key points is outlined below.
When something happens in our lives that is tragic and not within our control, the loss and grief we experience can make us feel hopeless. Tom calls this the “grief reaction” and distinguishes it from the “grief response” which focuses on what we do with the grief. By turning some of the grieving energy into hope, we can move into a stage of “active receptivity.” In a state of active receptivity, loss and grief aren’t treated like an illness that leave us broken but instead are refocused on re-engaging in living again. Learning how to live is something we have been doing since birth and living in bereavement is important since we will never stop missing or loving those who have died.
Tom contends that as humans we are amazingly resilient. He encourages us to tap into our natural resilience recognizing not everything is broken and drawing upon that which isn’t – our own health and physical stamina; our ability to solve everyday problems, make decisions, and protect ourselves from threats; our capacity for courage, faith, hope, and perseverance; our continued love for fellow survivors and the deceased; and our ability to reach out to countless lifelines of support. Through a process of reintroducing order into the brokenness of our lives, our resilience will help us relearn the world by a) learning how to carry the pain of missing our loved one; b) relearning how to live in our physical and social surroundings; and c) learning how to love in separation.
Learning how to carry the pain involves paying attention to our emotions instead of suppressing them so we can come to know our deepest selves and needs. Reach out to others, keep a grief journal, meditate, dream-keep, and open the heart in prayer. As we do this, the intensity of the emotions will tend to ease up. First encounters with painful physical and social reminders are usually the most difficult (places, experiences, events, other people) because they remind us of a connection to our loss that we still value. When we reach past the pain of separation, the memory will be a legacy no one can take from us.
Learning to love in separation starts by recognizing we were apart from loved ones most of the time when they were alive and didn’t stop loving them just because we weren’t with them. While we can no longer love one another in ways that require physical presence we can continue to love in the other ways we know well and fulfill our desire to continue loving and feel loved. Remembering to remember is a key to loving in separation. Memories bring the past into present awareness – enabling us to reach across time and retrieve some of the very best of what was. By re-engaging with the past that we cherish, we reconnect with stories of our loved ones that no one, nor anything can take away from us. Memory enables us to recognize the legacies of loved ones, appreciate how they contribute to making us who we are and how they live on in and through us.
Finally, as Tom points out, a focused grief response can ensure we recover our physical health and all dimensions of our being. We find: ways of returning to wholeness in our daily life patterns, new trajectories in our life stories, improved interactions with those who survive with us, reshaped family and community lives, ways of being at home again in our lives, renewed and deepened connections with our roots, and life-affirming ties in separation with those who have died.
Books by Tom Attig:
Attig, T. (2012). Catching Your Breath in Grief…and grace will lead you home. Victoria, BC: Breath of Life Publishing.
Attig, T. (2011). How We Grieve: Relearning the World (Revised Edition). New York: Oxford University Press.
Attig, T. (2000). The Heart of Grief: Death and the Search for Lasting Love. New York: Oxford University Press. Web site: www.griefsheart.com