This time last year I was preparing to go to Oregon to give a talk at a nonprofit charity dinner on the topic of grief. Today I reflect on the magnitude of grief occurring all over the world. It is heartbreaking. The grieving process is painful and uncomfortable, but an important process nonetheless. Below I share my talk in hopes that it will resonate in some way to anyone grieving the loss of a loved one, an experience, or anything at all.
Thank you all for having me here today. I am very honored to be here.
When I was invited to speak to you all, I started to think a little bit about some of the things I could talk about and then I set that to the side and let my other responsibilities in life take over. And then as the date approached for me to come out here and Nathan sent me a polite email just checking in about the talk and making sure I was still all set to come out, I began to notice some increasing avoidance within me in thinking about grief and loss.
And so, trying to practice what I preach, I paused, tried to be mindful, and turn inward to better understand what all this avoidance was about. And when I forced myself into that process, it all came back to me...this is a familiar feeling… I know what this is. This avoidance in thinking about grief and loss and even the familiar way in which my body tenses up- this all happens to me every time I work with a client around grief.
The word grief….the thought of loss...watching someone reel in the pain of losing someone they love…. it hits hard and it opens the floodgates to feel things quite deeply. It’s only natural for our minds to wander and begin to think about our own experiences with loss as we hear about others’ losses. We can begin to feel our own pain, sadness, and nostalgia. And we can find ourselves crying and laughing in a span of minutes as we revisit the past in our minds and think of those we have lost.
So I understand the desire for many to want to escape experiencing grief or wanting to know when it will pass. It makes sense that we might want to avoid feeling our intense feelings. Grief is painful and it involves overwhelming, intense, confusing and sometimes conflicting emotions. And escaping the grieving process is often made a bit easier in a world where we can constantly distract ourselves with work, our day to day responsibilities and being connected to our phones 24/7. And perhaps that distraction serves a purpose in protecting us from fear….Fear of what will come with making room for feelings of grief and pain. It can feel risky. It can feel like... if I open that door and begin to feel, I might fall to pieces and not be able to pick myself back up to keep living my life or keep my family afloat. So I get the avoidance. It makes sense.
But what we’ve come to know in the field of psychology is that you cannot escape grief. You must go through it at some point, or the repression of those emotions will come out in ways that can often be unhealthy or damaging. What we’ve also come to know in the field of psychology is that there really is no end point in which you’ve recovered from grief or moved on from the loss of another human being. Do we need to be healthy and functioning and living our lives past a loss? Yes. But, grief is an ongoing process. New emotions and old, familiar ones will show up out of the blue. And these emotions will come and go with varied intensity throughout your life. Our work in therapy is to help our clients confront all of their varied emotions and to ensure their emotions don’t get lost in the busyness of their day to day lives.
And so to confront my own avoidance around talking about grief and loss, I started by taking some more time to learn about Tony’s life. As I did, I noticed a lot of different emotions come up within me. I felt sad that such a vibrant person was lost at such a young age. I felt empathy for the Platt family and what they must have gone through and are still going through today. And I smiled in hearing his story of how he took care of his dog, Midnight. And I laughed when I learned about the clever Halloween costumes. And through seeing pictures of Tony and hearing stories about his life, I began to form a rich picture of what kind of person he was. And wished I knew the person who brought so many people together. And in thinking about Tony and what he meant to others, I inevitably began thinking about the people I’ve lost in my own life and what they meant to me….the friend that I lost to suicide, my friends 2 year old baby, and my 27 year old client, all lost suddenly and unexpectedly at too young of an age.
And while I was initially familiar with my own avoidance and hesitation to go through all of these emotions, I had another familiar experience as well. I was happy to remember these losses in my life because the emotions I felt honored the strong connection I had to these individuals.
As a psychologist, walking my patients through grief is not easy. Some people can’t speak about it, so I have them write. Some people can’t find the words to write, so I have them draw. Some people have no words at all, so I ask them to show me pictures and eventually tell me the stories behind the pictures. And in doing any of these things, the patient begins to feel. And when we allow ourselves to feel, the emotions we once avoided become familiar to us and something we no longer need to run from.
When I learned about the TP Forever Healing Project, I only wished I lived here in Oregon so I could refer all my clients to have this experience. My patients get an hour a week to take time for themselves to address their grief and then they’re thrown back into their day to day lives. And at the Healing Project, to have a few days to fully process grief in a therapeutic, supportive environment is something I’d wish to prescribe to anyone who has lost someone.
Having a few days away from the responsibilities of life can allow people to feel more free to make contact with memories, become familiar with all the varied emotions that come with loss, and learn that all emotions are OK - none of them are wrong to feel. And ultimately we can learn that we only feel strong emotions for things or people that we care deeply for… and we can see these strong emotions as honoring the love we experienced for someone. And so The Healing Project offering such an environment to others, will help them grow and heal through their grief.
Love may be the purest form of joy we’ll ever experience and grief, the hardest. The vulnerability we experience as we get close to people creates such joy and simultaneously leaves us open to the deepest pain we can ever know when that person leaves our life. And if you open yourself up to the grief process and live alongside the emotions that come with it, growth, healing, and meaning can come from it. I think we can see that today in what the Platt family has done in honor of Tony. The Healing Project will allow Tony’s life to continue to impact others in the most meaningful way.