I recently learned I have atrial fibrillation.
As human beings, we are constantly learning. We seek out information on a given topic out of interest (like how to play the guitar) or necessity (like how to maintain a car). All learning has value, but I have found that it is particularly satisfying and valuable when interest and necessity intersect in the process. Learning how to grieve has been that type of learning experience for me. I learned out of necessity when my wife Shirley died of leukemia at 39 years of age and I became a widower with 4 children and my job with a company that I had been with for 18-1/2 years was eliminated. The more I learned about grieving, the more I realized that I would benefit from this learning long-term.
As we get older and experience more of life, we encounter more losses. There are the usual forms of loss that might immediately come to mind such as
- the loss of a loved one through death.
- the loss of a relationship thorough separation or divorce.
- the loss of a job, position or promotion.
But as we get older, we encounter another type of loss. Those of us who have been blessed with good physical health throughout much of life must come to grips with the fact that we are not going to be physically perfect for the rest of our lives. We experience wakeup calls along the way, some big ones and some small ones. Perhaps you have experienced a heart attack, learned that you have diabetes or high blood pressure, or are struggling with high cholesterol. Perhaps you are diagnosed with cancer, are losing your eyesight, or have noticed a loss of mental capacity. Maybe you are adjusting to a loss of mobility or physical dexterity.
I recently learned that I have atrial fibrillation, a common type of heart arrhythmia. While not a life-threatening condition if treated, it means medication for the rest of my life and the loss of the reassuring assumption that my heart is a flawless machine beating inside my chest. I felt devastated by this news, and soon after, angry about it. These feelings would have been bewildering to me had I not recognized them as signs of grieving. You see, losses of physical health such as this are often accompanied by the loss of our dreams, physical fitness, and energy. These losses are a reality of life as we age, but by educating ourselves on the process of grieving, we can effectively move past the loss and continue to live the good life on purpose. And that is just what I am working on right now regarding my new heart health reality.
Grief: a primer.
While its important to know that grieving takes time, its also important to know that generally it goes through phases:
Source: Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA)
While it’s commonly believed that depression and sadness are the overriding emotions experienced by
those in grief, Holly Prigerson, PhD and her team of researchers at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute have found that yearning is the predominant emotion. People grieving a loss yearn for things to return to what they once were. They yearn to go back to a time that once was and is now over. They yearn and pine with a hunger for life to return to the way it used to be.
While these 5 stages of grief are the most common, some suggest there are two more – guilt and bartering – that get added into the mix as we grieve.
Why Should I Learn About Grief?
Life is not a dress rehearsal. This is it. There are no do-overs. It is what it is. Life is short and it’s my view that it’s simply not worthwhile to spend more time in grief than is necessary. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, nor is there a right or wrong length of time to spend in the process. I am not trying to diminish grief, but I do encourage people to learn about grief in order to move through as expeditiously as possible for them and their situation. There is a real sadness for me when I see people spending a lot of time in grief because they miss out on celebrating and enjoying life in the present.
Learning about grief has been very helpful for me, because it has armed me with the techniques that I need to honor the loss I am experiencing to move through the grief and on to a new beginning.
Learning to live with loss requires you to:
- Accept and adapt: recognize that the loss is permanent and adapt to the new reality.
- Release and let go: recognize when you are yearning and instead choose to let go of the old dream in order to design something new.
- Transition: recognize the resistance to letting go; realize that you must let go of one trapeze to swing onto the next one.
- Move on: focus on your new beginning.
Let it go.
Grieving is not a straight, linear process. As you move through the stages, you may go back and forth a bit. But the key to moving through grief as quickly as possible is in letting go. According to Hale Dwoskin, CEO and director of training of Sedona Training Associates, if you are able to let go, you have a better shot at compressing the stages of grief. He encourages us to be open to the idea that grief is just a feeling; it’s not who you are and you can let it go.
Accept that you are going to be moving though a lot of emotions. Your goal is to accept that what you loved is lost and let go of expectations of what it should have been. It won’t do me a lot of good to stay stuck yearning for a heart that doesn’t have atrial fibrillation. I recognize that I must let go of the dream that I have a perfect heart and instead accept the situation. I must remind myself that grieving is a feeling and once I let it go I can then decide on a new beginning. When I look at how much time I have left on Earth, I realize I don’t have a lot of time to spend in mourning.
Join me in moving though this loss by addressing any struggles you’ve experienced with your own grief. Always look for the new beginning. Creating something new can be tough, but it can also be very exciting. If you can get into the exciting part, you are off and running again.
The following book on grieving has been really been impactful for me:
The Way of Transition: Embracing Life’s Most Difficult Moments by William Bridges.
Now it’s your turn.
What losses are you dealing with in your life right now?
Are you actively working on letting go, or are you stuck on yearning?
Do you have a desire to move through your grief more quickly so you can focus on a new, fulfilling dream for yourself?