Spiritual Networks

GOOD GRIEF: Healing Through the Shadow of Loss

Reviewed by Allan Schnarr, M.Div.,Ph.D.

Am I willing to bless loss? This is the provocative thought with which Coryell ends her profound meditation on grief. It seems a fitting place to begin this review. The question flows between the lines of the whole book. Am I willing to bless loss? It seems a simple enough question. All the years of my inner work rise with a resounding yes. I have learned the importance of letting go. Then again, something in me is doubtful. I have walked with loved ones and clients through their revolt against loss on the way to eventual, and often hard won acceptance. Resistance to the acceptance of loss is as real as the attachment to the loved one. I also know all too well the depth of my own once entrenched resistance to facing all that I lost through the violence of my early years. It's all too easy for my head to say yes, loss is a blessing. I feel my heart revolting, even as I type the words.

Good Grief is a deceptively simple, deeply challenging book. It's nothing less than a countercultural call to continual conscious grieving. For those willing to respond, Coryell promises a full life. There is always a teaching in the school of grief, for those willing to be lifelong students. The learning provides continual experiential enrichment. Each avoidance of grief, on the other hand, feeds the morbid monster in the shadows. For anyone who has suffered, the self-evident lifegiving choice is not always easily chosen. Coryell is a brave companion for those who wish to deepen their yes to the mystery of grief. To walk with her is to take up the challenge. How might my life be different if I could let each loss be what it is, nothing more, nothing less? My heart wants to know.

The author of Good Grief has clearly walked the walk. She tells of profound losses which initiated her into the mystery of life. The person who awakened on the other side has dedicated her life to companioning those traversing traumatic loss. To this end she established the Shiva Foundation, a place of refuge for the lost mourner. In this book she leads the reader through the landscape of grief. She proves herself a wise and sensitive guide. What she offers are a series of meditations on themes regarding loss. The uninitiated may find themselves to be strangers in a strange land. For any seeker of truth, however, the culture shock will not last. Not with a guide whose clarity of insight and articulation flow from a wealth of experience giving birth in the fullness of time. Recurrent gems pop up along the path. Each glitters with a light that says, of course you knew this all along. The warmth of the light found its way again and again to my heart.

I may not always be ready to feel glad that I am grieving, but page by page, I was always glad to be reading this book. I consider it a treasure for all the wisdom it reminded me to cherish. It goes on my short-shelf for recommendations to clients and gifts to friends. I'm glad to have this chance to join Deborah in proclaiming some of the good news about grief.

At the time of this writing, it has been just a week since my father died. Our relationship was anguished by the loss that comes with the abuse of power and concomitant emotional insensitivity. I lost my father at a very young age. Through my years of conscious grieving, and eventual reaching out to him, and through his gradual letting go of the need for control, we found each other again. What he and I (and other family members) had learned about letting go helped him to the experience of a profoundly peaceful death that was healing for the whole family. The completion of my work in relationship to him was the blessing for me that came through the process of his dying. I have become more whole and my heart is glad.

The great gift of grieving is its initiation into the mystery of life. Coryell has an exquisite grasp of this truth. She speaks of "core grief”, the grief at the center of our being that comes from loss of union at birth. She calls us to recognize that grief is vital to consciousness, essential to differentiation of self. To grieve well is to live well. The cycle of life is the cycle of growth. Nothing new is born unless something old dies. Each loss, however small or overwhelming is such a challenging opportunity. The loss of the beloved means the loss of ourselves. The process of grief is the recreation of ourselves in the face of who we no longer are. Reality has been altered. It is no longer the ordinary "what was". As we grieve, we are the shamans journeying for the healing of what is broken in the old ordinary reality. Assumptions about life, beliefs about the way things are, my concept of who I am and what my relationships mean, all of this comes into question. According to Coryell, the pain of loss breaks open the container we are in order to expand our capacity for what we can hold. To "bear" our grief means that something is born from it.

The way to this rebirth is simply to stay in the present with the experience of the grief. This means taking time with the loss to see what is there. Coryell is a wise guide regarding practicalities for how to do this. She invites the mourner to stay attentive to what is happening in one's body and mind. The body is the vessel containing the grief, and pain is the teacher. If one is willing to breathe and stay soft through the pain, one learns ever more deeply to surrender to the flow of life. The danger in grief is in attaching to the pain, fear, or confusion, thereby entrenching oneself in the unresolved anguish. Coryell is especially insightful about the cognitive challenge of being mindful in grief. She invites the mourner to learn to discern which thoughts increase the anguish, and which support the letting go. The bodymind challenge is clearly to experience and understand the pain, so as to let it pass. It becomes evident to the reader that awareness and choice are the heart and soul of grieving. One of the recurrent enriching discoveries of such conscious grieving is that all is not loss. Coryell calls the mourner to use imagination and ritual to allow continuity of contact with the loved one who has been lost. The ongoing challenge is to clarify what is lost, what is not.

My way of summarizing this wonderful little book is to say that grieving is the practice of the skill of letting go. How much better would the world be if greed, addiction, and other forms of winning at all costs gave way to the conscious practice of loss? Why not rise to the challenge of developing the capacity that is strengthened or atrophied through each experience of loss throughout life? Why build up a backlog of all the big and little unresolved losses until a loss comes along that's big enough to send us-feeling as everything suppressed floods us? Why not grow into flowing with the joy of what lives on?

Reading Good Grief can help you find your way to the love that can never be lost. Only in a loving heart can loss become known as a blessing.

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