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Unattended Sorrow: Recovering from Loss and Reviving the Heart Excerpt from Unattended Sorrow: Recovering from Loss and Reviving the Heart

by Stephen Levine


Acute grief is the immediacy of loss-the inconceivable tragedy. It can feel like a stabbing sensation in the body and mind. It slams shut the heart and leaves exposed only raw emotions. It leaves very little space for anything but the sorrow, anger, fear, and doubt that attend to it.

Acute grief is a thunderstorm, a monsoonal downpour, a sudden flood that submerges almost everything in its path. This was Darla's experience when her husband died suddenly in an automobile accident.

"At first it was as though I had been struck by lightning, as if everything was stripped away. The shock was like a terrible jolt to my heart.

"At first when he died, it was like a great opening tore through me. I didn't know what to do with my life. I came into the kitchen and didn't know which way to turn. Everything felt so unreal. It was like I was waiting to wake up. I could barely hang on."

In acute grief, our difficulty finishing business with a departed loved one, as painful as it can be, may create repeated images of previous loss; the loss of one's mother, for instance, can cause us to recall in some detail other losses in the family. Or a radio news flash about an accident on the turnpike might bring the mind back to the bloody emergency room and the body to be identified. And yet as each fresh loss recapitulates all loss, it may inundate the mind with all the unfinished business of life. The grief of unacknowledged, seemingly irrational--but nonetheless painful--feelings of abandonment, anger, fear, and even unrecompensed love may persist in the resonance between one loss and all loss.

Jamal, who was reeling after the death of his partner, Peter, began to question whether he was grieving the acute loss of Peter or for all the people he'd ever lost. As he unsuccessfully wrestled with the inclination of acute grief to attach to all the pain and fear already residing in his mind from previous loss, numbed by an overload of feelings, he said,

"I feel like I'm drowning. I don't know how to live anymore. It seems all I do is put one foot in front of the other, just to get through it. It feels as though it's never going to end. And I think that's the most difficult because I don't know who I'm grieving for. Is it Peter? Is it all the others? Who is it?"

When acute grief is entangled by the loose ends of previous loss, the ensuing confusion can stymie the mind and leave the heart out in the cold. What odd creatures we are that when the heart aches most, calling us to most directly attend to its pain, we may be least likely to do so. Our mind is so full we have no refuge in our heart, which during this time would be the only safe harbor.

Chronic grief is this persistent ache in the heart--the phantom pain at the irreducible absence of a loved one or of ourselves. The initial acute grief of the loss of a loved one often resonates with the chronic grief that accumulates over the course of a lifetime. Chronic grief is the slowly receding waters and the damage revealed when the tsunami of acute grief subsides. It's the reservoirs caught in the depressions left by one unintegrated loss after another.

To oversimplify, there are at least two kinds of chronic grief. The first is the unresolved grief from earlier loss, the incomplete or interrupted process of finishing business by which we might sense our loved one more as a presence in the heart than one dislocated in thought. The second kind of chronic grief is our inherent, ordinary grief that results from unsatisfied desire, from the frequently unfulfilled ambitions and lost loves, and from the battering flow of impermanence in the world within and around us, which puts what we want at our fingertips, then pulls it away. It is a subtle nausea that undulates just beneath our ordinary, well-composed exterior.

It is not only the loose ends of recent traumas that are the cause of our grief, but those traumas long sequestered in our flesh and bones. The hurt burrows into the tissues of our body and the fiber of our mind and contracts around pain, turning it into suffering. The unwillingness to touch our pain with mercy, even with forgiveness, amplifies our discontent and throws our life out of tune.

The leap of faith necessary to cross the broken heart is yet to be taken. The history of loss that is still encoded in our senses warps each incoming perception and outgoing message. We construct labyrinthine defenses and a moat around our heart to allow some semblance of safety from our grief. Unattended sorrow gradually displaces the joy of youth and adds to the diminishment of trust and hope.

We grieve the deaths halfway around the world from famine, war, and spiritual poverty--losses that seem so distant, yet the sting of unattended sorrow's tears wells behind our eyes. It is a single grief that connects us, world-weary, to those everywhere who are barely surviving life. We grieve the loss of love and loved ones; experience fear, remorse, and the loss of trust in what may come next. And we grieve the tendency to mistake our pain for the truth, to think we deserve to suffer just because we are.

We keep so much of ourselves at a "safe distance" from the rest of our life that seldom do we directly experience the moment. And there's nothing in us that makes us feel quite so unsafe, so insecure, as trying to maintain that safety, that failing sense of control. It is the "normal human unhappiness," which Freud felt was the best that could be achieved by psychoanalysis. It sells us short.

I certainly do not mean to imply that what follows in these pages will cure all that ails you. But there are keys here to locked doors, lights for unlit hallways. These are maps to the center of our sorrow that can deliver us from deep forgetfulness and self-neglect. Maps that once pressed against the heart lead toward a life greater than what we might imagine is possible.


We are learning to live with the consequences of love. So we must bear loss as deeply as we cared. Throughout spiritual literature we are told that attachment creates pain, and here we are, trying to learn how to love more fully in the shadow of that very painful truth! But the irony is that without some level of attachment, there could be no love. As the Dalai Lama has said, 'No attachment, no compassion."

It is the balancing act of a lifetime.

Attending to our sorrow, queasy with bewilderment at whom we might be without, we must first cultivate mercy for ourselves, which will gradually expand into compassion for other sentient beings. We send wishes for the well-being of all who, like ourselves, share this same pain at this same moment and who also wish only to be free. Using the mirror of compassionate mindfulness, we recognize our reflection amongst the throngs of sentient. beings to whom the true heart, the healed heart, pledges service.

As the Buddha said, hard as it may be to embrace, "You can look the whole world over and never find anyone more deserving of love than yourself."

Reprinted from Unattended Sorrow: Recovering from Loss and Reviving the Heart by Stephen Levine 2005 by Stephen Levine. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098.