Eating the Elephant

Recently, a long time friend experienced a loss of a life partner. Right away the grieving process kicks in, the endless thoughts of what was said, what was unsaid. In this case it wasn’t death, it was much more complicated. It was the legal system and addiction.

For some this adds several factors. How did it get this bad? What could have been done? What about the personal choices that were made?

The reality is that grieving is grieving. It is an emotional disconnect that places you in a different circumstance. Death by disease, old age, accident… different causes but the same emotional stress. We may find some comfort in parts of the cause, as an example, “Well, he was quite old, and lived a long time.” This is a common narrative but really it is bandaid. Grieving someone is real and it doesn’t matter if they were ancient, or long suffering.

The same can be said for people that leave you because of argument, legal issues, moving away, or slothful friend maintenance. Reasons for the grieving are separate from the need to grieve and it would be a mistake to rely on the “reasons” to fix a broken heart.

Often, friends and acquaintances will suggest distractions to help in the immediate circumstance. In many ways this is a good step. Grief can build up by dwelling on the reality. Going over and over any guilt, real or imagined, can cascade into a torrent of emotion. Not necessarily a good or healthy thing.

But throwing yourself into a new hobby of activity is really just stuffing the emotion into convenient mental boxes. It’s a little like too many t-shirts in a bureau drawer. It looks neat and tidy, but it is actually useless and no longer functions as it should. And if you actually try to open it, the drawer contents will explode across the room.

Have I ever used this technique? Of course, I am human. But I also realize that I need a drawer that doesn’t explode, a drawer that still functions as a drawer, something I can easily search through, something that is useful.

It should always be an emergency fix, stuffing things away when you have visitors. Re-adjusting things later for the long haul.

What do I suggest for grieving? Hmm, it’s a little like eating an elephant or a Buick. Take it one bite at a time. You must address it, but you can’t let it break it free like a rollercoaster after the climb up. Unless you like to live emotionally dangerous.

How long does it take to eat an elephant? It depends on your size of bite. If you nibble it will take years, if you stuff your cheeks you may choke. Again, other people’s advice will rarely be better than your own.

Having a clear assessment of the character and reality of the relationship is probably the best place to start. Sometimes individuals fill a role that is expected by tradition, but is far from the reality. Pondering the nature can go both ways. You may find that there was less than expected. You may find that there was way more. Being honest about the reality will give you the best shot of coping with the grief.

Oh yeah, crying is good. Sobbing uncontrollably is less good.

The next best thing is communicating your grief with safe people. Remember that you are vulnerable. Throwing your emotions out to the general public may get you some pity, but pity doesn’t fix the hurt. What if you don’t have safe people? See a professional therapist! This is extremely important.

On a personal note, faith and scripture is my go-to solution. This is true because I have developed a “relationship” long before the actual need. This is not something to take up in a crisis generally speaking, although God is miraculous.

After grieving is addressed, then the causes, reasons, and guilt can be looked at. You may be convicted, you may assess blame. Both of these are to be consumed in the same manner. One bite at a time!

I pray for my friend, and anyone in grief. It is the other side of joy, and not fun to visit. Please don’t stay there!

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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