Grief and Anger- using Self Portraiture to let go.
The author C.S.Lewis once wrote that ‘Bereavement can be a time of despair and disintegration, as well as a time for a surprising renewal of faith’.
I started my disintegration project in March 2019 just a week or two after my father was diagnosed with advanced vascular dementia. Although he was still with us I was already grieving for the father who I loved so dearly who was disintegrating in front of my very eyes on a daily basis.
As I watched his body and mind disintegrate I felt my ‘self’ begin to disintegrate. He had been a loving and compassionate father for 47 years; he was part of my navigation system for moving around this world. How was I going to get through this life without him?
As a Buddhist I am continually reminded that I am not on solid ground but I am also a ‘Bombu’ foolish being, that forgets this. Like most people I plod along in life grasping on to objects around me that give the world some solidity. We fall in to the trap of believing that everything will be okay that our lives our permanent. However the reality is we will all experience sickness, old age, and impermanence and there is no escaping it. There is no solid ground.
When I shot these self-portraits I wanted to show the side that we all hide. Grief is painful for us, and unsettling for those around us. We don’t allow ourselves to fall apart publicly and often our friends and family don’t want us to do that either. So where do we put our grief if we can’t talk about it? Mine is here recorded by my camera, it is my witness. We all need permission to mourn, however painful it may be, we need to grieve in our own time. Sometimes we try to bury our grief because we just can’t cope with the pain of it. The first year after someone dies is often described as the crazy year where some impulsive decisions might be made. Some people change jobs, move house, start new relationships because there is a desire to escape the unbearable grief. I too feel that sense to do something impulsive, I want to escape, but I am aware that this is a natural pattern when we are scared or suffering. But we cannot escape it, no matter how hard we try it will be there, but we can find a way to live with it, to go through the grieving process and become a better person for it. If we can accept that there is impermanence and suffering in this life we can appreciate each day as a great gift.
Grief isn’t just sadness, there are so many physical changes. Would you recognize them? Christine Longaker in her book ‘Facing Death and Finding Hope’ describes the following symptoms: shortness of breath, dizziness, irregular heartbeat, disruption of normal sleep patterns, difficulty eating, manic energy, aching muscles, disorientation, short-term memory loss, difficulty concentrating or a sense that the normal world is now “unreal”. This is part of the process and needs to be recognised in ourselves and acknowledged by loved ones around us that this is us grieving.
C.S. Lewis in his book A Grief Observed wrote, “No one ever told me that grief was so much like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.”
It’s not a great feeling, and I don’t want it but I can’t simply transform it by someone telling me my grief will fade.
As an Amida Buddhist I also hold the light of Amida Buddha with me. When I feel the darkness and the intense sickness sitting in the pit of my stomach I call out to Amida with Nembutsu practice. Friendships can help too; ask a friend to help navigate you out of the darkness. If you don’t know how to support someone through the grieving process here is a great list of things you can do written by Christine Longaker.
- Offer your continued support and friendship
- Validate the person’s mourning, and give them permission to grieve. Reassure them that their intense feelings and sense of losing control are normal in bereavement.
- Accept the person unconditionally, regardless of any thoughts or emotions they might express.
- Inform the bereaved and their closest family about the normal process of mourning. Reassure them that grief can be finished.
- Invite them to speak about their memories of the deceased person, even repeatedly.
- Encourage the person to complete any unfinished business.
- Consider what practical support they might need and offer your help in specific ways: shopping or cooking, spending time with children, maintaining the apartment or garden, working through bills or paperwork associated with the death.
- Assist the bereaved person in identifying friends, professionals or other resources in the community they could turn to for support.
- Encourage the bereaved person to take care of themselves and to take the time needed to nurture themselves and allow this deep wound to heal.
- Identify activities they formerly enjoyed, and invite them to join you in doing some of them, especially outdoor activities which entail some physical movement or contact with the beauty of nature.
- Share comforting hugs and affection. Relate stories from life and cultivate a sense of humour where appropriate, knowing that uncomfortable moments will be inevitable.
- Let the survivor know all the ways they have contributed to your life. Allow them to lend emotional or practical support to you sometimes.
These are all really helpful ways to support someone you know who has lost a loved one.
Roshi Joan Halifax suggests that when we walk through the fractured landscape of grief we can find the pieces of our life that we ourselves had forgotten. Through the sadness and the sorrow we can find joy again, it will return when the grieving is over.
My father past away in May 2019, the sun was shining, the birds were singing. I chanted the heart sutra to him as he took his last breath. Peace came, the birds carried on singing, the sun will keep on shining and on my darkest days the light breaks through the cracks and I don’t feel quite so broken with grief.
Grief Resources used in this post: