Becoming intimate... with grief
I have wanted to write a piece on grief for some time now but hesitated out of fear that I would be taking us off-course from the topic of pleasure or, more accurately, that I would not be able to articulate convincingly the innate link I feel between the two. Then, at the beginning of this year, I found myself looking into the eyes of grief once again following the loss of a loved one. The topic was so present in my mind that it couldn’t be ignored any longer!
In truth, grief is a topic that has played a central role in my life from a young age. Some of my most vivid childhood memories relate to the pain of loss and my inability to express and move through it. I worked hard to keep it all bottled up inside, the way I saw those around me doing so reflexively. I doubt I'm alone in this experience.
"We are far away from our griefs, which are the truest parts of ourselves. There is no path toward oneself that leads away from the pain".
Günter Grass, as quoted by Gabor Mate
For something so utterly fundamental to the human experience, we - or at least the society in which I was raised - seem so ill-prepared to face grief. Even setting aside for a moment our own finitude, it is inevitable that grief will make an appearance in our lives whether through bereavement or another loss such as a relationship breakdown, a job or financial security, quality of life through illness or injury, or other aspects of our identity as a result of a transition.
I can't help but see the striking similarities between pleasure and grief. Both are things that we are under-educated about. Both persist as taboo topics that "we just don't talk about". And both have the capacity to bring you into an acute sense of your own aliveness in the present moment. A friend recently described this latter part as "the exquisite joy of grief".
Perhaps there is something in this last part for me. Having gone from being super sensitive as a child to a pretty numbed-out adolescent and young adult, those experiences of grief and loss reminded me that I was capable of feeling something. They were reminders of my capacity to love, to feel something deeply. Loss - either through revisiting memories of lost ones or unconsciously creating new types of losses romantically and financially - had an almost addictive quality for me, which is unsurprising given the intensity of the emotion it could generate.
Sarah McColl captured this perfectly for me in her piece on the Perverse Pleasure of Grief:
“If depression had been a lack of affect, grief was an overabundance of it”
Over the last few years, we have collectively been confronted to varying degrees with the uncertainty, fear, or reality of mortality at the hands of Covid. Of course, Covid is just one example of the collective crises we are facing but it serves as a powerful example due to the scale of its impact and visibility. When discussion of mortality rates becomes as commonplace as talking about the weather, how do we respond? Whilst we may not have seen widespread extremes akin to The Black Death’s flagellant movement (religious followers who would whip themselves to invite God to show mercy) or choreomania (dancing mania sometimes theorised to have been caused by shared stress), it has been equally polarising. Anecdotally, I know that many people have struggled with this unwanted reminder of their own mortality and have been leaning harder than ever on their coping mechanisms to distract, numb out, and avoid the discomfort. Others have used this as an opportunity to reassess their lives and make changes. To draw the most simple conclusion from this - there is no unified way to experience grief.
What I found interesting as I got more curious about my own experience is how my perception of its focus changed. I’d previously assumed that grief was very much rooted in the past - revisiting and reliving old memories - but the emotional charge of it is actually future-focused. I experience the most suffering when I am pining the loss of future experiences that I will no longer have, grasping for more rather than being able to access contentment with what was. A friend once described grief as “love with nowhere to go” and this stuck with me because it highlights one of the exquisite griefs (or pleasures) of living - to love even with the certainty that it will end.
“It is a fearful thing to love what Death can touch.”
Josephine Jacobson, The Instant of Knowing
And this links me back to pleasure. I've mentioned in previous posts how a pleasure-oriented life often conjures up images of rolling around in hedonistic bliss whilst the world burns around you. For me, true pleasure is being aware of and being with (rather than avoiding) the grief of living, of our own mortality, of the inevitability of loss, pain, and sadness, and despite - no BECAUSE of - this choosing happiness, choosing love, choosing joy whenever we can/remember to.
So this time around, I've been meeting the grief with curiosity - how did I expect to feel, how does it really feel, and how does all of that want to be expressed. I gave myself time to be with the grief. I found myself writing a poem and listening to music that connected me to my loved one. I chose to do things whilst grieving that were specifically for my pleasure. And, I have been working on keeping my heart open to love!
“If I’ve learned anything … it’s that’s sometimes you must take a chance, love more than you ever thought possible, and allow yourself to be vulnerable.”
I leave you with some beautiful words from Mina Aidoo, from a post they put on FB last year that I deeply appreciated:
Today I was able to choose to slow down
Today the awareness that I was running from something was there for me.
Today I had the capacity to be with the fear.
Today I was able to sit and allow myself to feel it.
Today I was able to stop addictively scrolling
Today I was able to stop over stimulating with music, podcasts and screens
And when I was able to stop and sit with myself
The nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach was grief.
Since being in my 30s I understand a different kind of grief
The grief of being alive.
Often when I’m feeling low (I used to say depressed, but now I am able to say low thankfully)
I notice that it’s often because I have been pushing away the grief of being alive.
However the thing is,
The grief of being alive, can/ is also what makes living so vital.
What allows me to feel ecstatic about life.
It feels that I’m constantly living life/death
And that this is as it should be.
As it’s made to be.
I don’t think this is talked about enough,
And perhaps if it was there might be a little less suffering, isolation and anxiety
And more connection, intimacy and commonality between us as humans.
Sources (not an exhaustive list!):
Sarah McColl The Perverse Pleasure of Grief https://modernloss.com/the-perverse-pleasure-of-grief/
Charyn Pfeuffer Owning My Sexual Pleasure Helped Me Work Through Grief and Loss: https://www.sheknows.com/health-and-wellness/articles/2116081/sexual-pleasure-grief-loss/
On Hedonism during the time of The Black Death: https://www.thegreatcoursesdaily.com/last-days-of-pleasure-during-the-great-mortality/