Grief and Loss

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Grief is an extreme course in learning to let go.  It can have many sources and many expressions but the one thing most forms of grieving seem to have in common is pain.  There are a lot of emotions involved in experiencing loss and most of those emotions are normal and healthy reactions that must be felt and addressed in order for healing to occur.   However there are times when we find ourselves so consumed by mourning that life becomes unmanageable.

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”  ~ C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

When we think of the word grief our minds most often drift to the death of a loved one.  If you have ever experienced that kind of loss you will probably agree that mixed in with the sadness there is something that feels a lot like fear.  We are faced with not only the fear of dying but sometimes we find that we also experience a fear of living.   It is in this fear of moving forward into a life we hadn’t planned for that the natural process of grieving can become an unhealthy and destructive obsession. This is not to say that sadness should be ignored, pushed down or denied.  Feelings need to be expressed in healthy ways in order to work through the mourning process.

Emotions and expressions of mourning differ from person to person as do the losses.  Some of us have experienced intense grief over relationships, addictions, abuse and neglect.  We grieve over past regrets, broken dreams for the future and as many other reasons as there are people and situations.  Sometimes our grief is of our own making and sometimes the source is utterly outside of our control.   It’s all very personal but the details don’t matter nearly as much as the broader truth that we all experience grieving on some level and nearly all painful emotions contain some component of grief. It is interesting to note that our emotions and in turn most of our actions stem from either the desire to avoid pain or acquire pleasure.  Even more interesting is the fact we will most often do more to shrink from perceived pain than we will to reach out for true comfort.  When we are stuck in the cycle of grieving our fear of stepping back into the flow of life can seem more uncomfortable than the isolation of our sadness and the idea of letting go far more difficult than holding on to misery.

There has already been an incredible amount of material produced on the subject of the stages of grief but for this post I’d like to explore the possibility using the 12 Steps to help work through the process. Addressing past and present grief was a major factor in my initial journey through the Steps. I strongly believe that the replacement of the words alcohol or addiction with the word grief (or any other painful emotion) can provide a very useful tool for processing the feelings we experience in mourning.  The writers of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous were no strangers to loss and the program is truly a course in healing.

The Steps in Relation to Grief:

1. We admitted we were powerless over our grief – that our lives had become unmanageable. Denial can be a blessing at first, a shock absorber in the early stages of grieving but not a healthy place for us to stay.  The admission that we are powerless over our loss and realizing the unmanageability of our response is the First Step.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.  The stages of grief progress from denial to anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance.  Once again these are normal phases to pass through and include various emotions including many forms of sadness, rage, helplessness, hopelessness, apathy and isolation.  We may pass through the stages moving toward acceptance or find ourselves stuck in the cycle.  This can be a scary and lonely time.  I believe that grief is one of the many spiritual maladies.  Sometimes there is an emptiness in us that can only be filled by something that is greater than we are.  The belief in a Higher Power gives us hope and allows us to work through our loss from a more peaceful state of mind.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him. Much of the bargaining phase relates to the lack of control involved in loss.  We can easily become frustrated and confused in this stage.  Sometimes we find ourselves angry with God or wondering if He even exists.  The chapter called “We Agnostics” in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous can be helpful for those struggling in this area.  As we make a conscious decision to turn the controls over to our Higher Power, whatever that means for us right now, we can move through thoughts and emotions that aslo relate to bargaining in a healthy way.  We learn that we don’t need to understand everything in order to accept it. This step is very helpful when we feel frozen or afraid of the future.  In letting go we find the freedom to move forward.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.  We travel through a wide range of emotions when we suffer loss.  Anger, depression, remorse, guilt, regret, fear and resentment can all play a part in creating our own personal brand of pain. Taking an inventory gives us an opportunity to express those feelings fully.  When we take an honest look at ourselves we may find reasons for feelings that we didn’t fully understand.  Much of what we fear and much of our sadness and anxiety is rooted in what we hide, not just from others but from ourselves.  We can often find clarity in the simple act of writing it all down.  We can admit that there are some aspects of our continued suffering that we are responsible for while there are others that are completely outside of our control.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. Confession, admitting and expressing the results of our inventory to the God of our own understanding and to ourselves will make a huge impact on our recovery.  However I encourage you to find someone you trust and speak the words out loud.  If you don’t have a sponsor or friend for this step consider making an appointment to meet with a therapist or religious mentor in order to thoroughly work through it in a way that feels safe and healthy.  Allow yourself the time and the proper environment to honor your needs.  There is great relief and healing in fully experiencing Step Five.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.  Let’s be clear, grief is not a defect of character in and of itself.  Still we do have traits, thought patterns and past experiences that may be driving some of the pain and most certainly driving our fears and obsessions.  Obsession is a result of faulty thinking, whether through denial or fixation, it is the expression of our inability to release that which is outside of our control.  In this step we find the willingness to let go and begin to move into acceptance.

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings. We ask God to remove all of them, trusting the process and accepting the benefits of rigorous honesty even in painful circumstances.  We are gentle with ourselves when we’re hurting but we don’t turn away from what is true. This is also a very good time to ask God to remove the pain and help us to realize the comfort available in our current situation.  We ask Him to remove the blinders of our grief, to remove our anger, regret, any guilt and all resentments so that we are open to experiencing forgiveness and relief.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.  Some of the anxiety and depression we experience while grieving comes from holding things in that need to be brought out into the open.  Allowing ourselves to admit the harms that we have caused can be necessary in the healing process.  Perhaps including the harm we have caused to ourselves.  We may not be able to make face to face amends to those who are no longer in our lives (and in some cases we shouldn’t) but this should not discourage you from listing them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. Direct amends should be our first choice whenever possible in circumstances that are safe and healthy for everyone involved.  However when dealing with grief some amends need to be made in other ways.  Writing letters is a good alternative for these situations.  In some cases these letters may be sent but when someone has passed on we can find relief in the writing itself, through reading what we have written and by choosing a meaningful way to release it.  Do what feels right, read it out loud, read it to a trusted friend or even to an empty chair.  Say what you need to say and feel what you feel, know that you have been heard and then let it go.  Put the message in a bottle, shred it or have a small burning ceremony.  Whatever method you choose will be effective and powerful if it is meaningful to you.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it. The practice of daily inventory keeps us on the right track as we move forward.  We review our day, we begin to notice when we fell into anger, self pity or morbid reflection and we ask for peace.  In time our thoughts will come to this step automatically throughout the day, we now have a practical tool for addressing our thoughts and feelings in a constructive manner.  We are living in the present moment addressing our emotions and even our mistakes in new and healthy ways.  This ongoing inventory frees us from carrying our burdens into the next day.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. As we continue to improve the relationship with our Higher Power we grow stronger.  We will still have feelings and at times the grief may still surface but we will neither ignore nor embrace it.  We no longer feel the need to deny or control because we have a place to lay our troubles down.  Through prayer and meditation we strengthen our connection with the Source.  Exploring options like yoga and affirmations can be helpful in this step as we learn to take care of ourselves.  Each morning we consider our plans for the day, practicing the Eleventh Step with the Third Step in mind.  Allowing God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves and accepting the good in our lives as they are now with hope and gratitude for the future.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. The Twelfth Step is the culmination of all the progress we’ve made so far and our instruction for continued healing.  We have learned that anything that separates us from our Higher Power makes us spiritually sick and there is only one cure.  Spiritual awakening is restoration, perhaps not to what we were before but to what we are meant to be right now.  It doesn’t require a specific program but it does require consistent practice.  The daily practice of connecting with the Spirit is the answer for situations in which we are powerless and that connection is greatly enhanced through working with others.  Sharing the strength and hope of our journey to accepting loss reinforces our own recovery.  This can take many forms but when we apply these principles in every part of our lives we can find the serenity to overcome our grief.

Even if you don’t go through the Steps in an “official” manner with a sponsor consider using them as journaling prompts or maybe even going over them with a grief counselor or therapist.  There is great theraputic value in step-work that applies directly to healing painful emotions on many different levels.  These twelve steps can provide some direction and support as we move through the grieving process.  The future may be very different than what we had planned but it can still be very good.  Above all that is my heartfelt prayer, that you will honor your losses and every part of yourself by stepping out of fear and sadness into the many blessings that life still has in store for you.  Believe that there is comfort, there is peace to be found, you can be healed.  Find the willingness to let go… and believe.


More detailed resources for working through grief with the 12 Steps:

The Steps

  • cinderellasue

    A beautiful post on a very deep subject.  Makes you think about how it can be applied in so many areas of your life…

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