Grief is a process of expansion and contraction that takes place over and over again.
Within this model, contraction is not wrong or bad; contraction need not be halted or controlled. Contraction is necessary for expansion—and thus, contraction is itself part of expansion.
A contraction of grief occurs when our attention and energy are pulled inward, our surroundings made smaller perhaps because, in this particular moment, we feel overwhelmed. Feeling overwhelmed, we contract and tighten emotionally; we conserve our energy and attention, focusing intently on grief—and on self. In a moment of contraction, it feels as if our very survival may be in question. We may feel unsteady, unsafe, unheld; we may feel tenuous, desperate, fearful, and vulnerable. In such moments, we may curl up and hold our breath. In such moments, we feel the call to self-protect. We sense, on some level, that contraction will save us.
Expansion may come with the deep in-and-out breath, in a period of small, even minuscule, growth post-contraction. Allowing contraction to just be, in time we see it naturally ebbs, and the tightness loosens, we grow larger, and we become more willing to venture out and explore, to take risks, to open and unfold. And we find ourselves in a moment of trust, safety, curiosity, willingness, connectedness, belonging—and maybe even hope. In previous moments, the contraction saved us; in this moment the expansion will save us.
In this model, expansion, too, is not wrong or bad (or good and right!); expansion, too, need not be halted or controlled. The expansion, too, is necessary for the next contraction—and thus, expansion is itself part of contraction.
Rolann’s wife Susan and only son, an infant, were killed in an automobile accident only four months before we met. Roland, a shy and understated engineer in his forties who married late in life, was understandably devastated. He rarely made eye contact in our first few meetings. Most often, his head hung down, and as he spoke, his words were mumbled, barely intelligible.
Then, around the six-month mark, Roland came in feeling lighter. A few days earlier, he’d reconnected with some old friends. They’d asked to see pictures of his baby, Jackson. Everyone could see how much he had looked like Roland. He described feeling both heartbroken and heart-warmed as others talked to him about his son. That night, Roland went home and put his wedding pictures back on the walls of the bedroom he had shared with Susan. He watched Jackson’s birth video.
This session was the first time he maintained eye contact with me in the many hours we’d spent together.
“I think I might make it,” Roland said, with a tinge of hope.
Six months later, near the one-year anniversary of Susan and Jackson’s death, Roland and I met in my office. Roland’s face, drawn and sullen, expressed what his words could not. “I don’t know how to live anymore,” he said, speaking the truth of that moment. “My whole life is gone. I’ve lost it all. Why should I be here?”
I asked him what it felt like to not want to be here.
“Everything has lost its meaning. Everything in my world lost its color. Nothing tastes good . . . A few months ago, I thought maybe I was making progress . . . now, I’m in a hole, a tiny little hole, a closet. I feel just the way I did in the first few months. I just want to run away.”
We talked for more than an hour about running away and about that tiny, contracted closet of pain. I asked if he could stay with it until it changed.
“What if it doesn’t change” he said, sounding almost panicked.
“It will,” I said. “Everything does.”
Roland began to make peace with uncertainty in that meeting. Then, after a few weeks, he began to notice that he felt lighter again, and that the door of that tiny, contracted closet of pain was cracking open.
We worked together for almost three years, and Roland started to be able to see his grief as a series of contractions and expansions. One day, late in our relationship, he shared an epiphany: during a contraction (to which he had now learned to surrender) he only felt safe when he knew that he could talk about what he felt with a safe person. If he didn’t feel well-supported through the contraction, if he didn’t know someone was on the other side of that closet door, near even if apart, he felt easily overwhelmed by his grief and couldn’t tolerate being with it.
About a year after our last meeting, Roland emailed me during a contraction.
Just knowing he could reach out to me helped him feel safe. This contraction, he said, was prompted by an emerging romantic interest in a coworker. As a result of those feelings, he’d sunk into a place of questioning, feeling like he was betraying Susan and Jackson.
Roland came to see me a few times during this period. We would stay with those feelings for a few weeks, watching them intensify and then wane. Eventually, he started to notice a more lasting shift.
Two years later, he married that coworker, a woman named Nancy, in a ceremony that would also venerate Susan and Jackson. Nancy and Roland placed a photo of Susan and Jackson on the altar and had a moment of silence for them at the end of the wedding ceremony.
Roland told me that Nancy’s willingness to honor his deceased wife and son expanded their intimacy and connection.
During contractions, it is essential to have others who can stand by us so that when we arrive at the pinnacle of suffering, we can turn and look into the eyes of another’s compassion and hold through to the other side. During expansion, it is essential to honor contraction too, to remember contraction, and recall that we have endured many contractions—and will endure yet more.
We may fear that we will experience contraction only—that a period of contraction will be permanent, leaving us paralyzed with pain for the duration of our lives, fearful of love and life, and terrified of more pain, in a kind of living death. We may long for expansion only—a futile endeavor, a phantom, a ruse. Trying to live in expansion only is a state of self-delusion and inauthenticity that will ultimately leave us unsatisfied with our identity, soulless, worn out from persistent pretense.
The natural course of grief, as in the rest of nature, is contraction-expansion-contraction-expansion-contraction-expansion—perhaps endlessly.
Our emotions move within us, through us, and between us.
Disintegration comes first. Reintegration follows.
A contraction allows an expansion.
This is the wisdom of the universe, the wisdom of your body, the wisdom of your heart.
Excerpted from Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss, and the Heartbreaking Path of Grief by Joanne Cacciatore. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc., wisdompubs.org.
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