The Irony and Inconsistency of Grief

by Charles W. Sidoti and Rabbi Akiva Feinstein

1026Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart. Don’t scratch for answers that cannot be given now. The point is to try to live everything. Live the questions for now. Perhaps then, someday far into the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. – Rainer Maria Rilke (German-Language Poet)

When life turns difficult, a common way of trying to get around the pain is to try to think our way out of the situation. The problem with this is that it assumes the process of effectively dealing with emotional upset and spiritual challenges is linear, sort of like a Betty Crocker recipe, in that one step necessarily follows another in order to get the desired outcome. The truth is that the process of inner healing is inherently non-linear and is often contradictory. When things do get better and our inner struggle eases for a while, we often don’t know how or why we feel better, we just do. Have you ever gone to sleep with a problem on your mind and awakened not troubled by it anymore? As the saying goes, “What a difference a day makes!” Nothing about your problem changed, you just went to sleep.

Our mood and therefore our perspective change constantly, and that has much to do with the way we process the problems that come our way. Sometimes we wake up feeling great and ready to face the day’s challenges. On these days, problems that come up don’t bother us too much. We process them easily because we approach them from a positive perspective and keep moving along. The very next day (or even hour), we may feel totally different. The world seems to be spinning in the wrong direction and it seems that everyone is working against us. In addition to affecting the way we handle the daily problems that arise, our moods and our perspective affect the way we handle the big problems in our lives. This is especially true regarding the way we process grief, the pain involved in losing someone or something very important to us.

The Jewish tradition, which is full of wisdom gained by facing pain and suffering head-on, says a great deal about mourning, and how to understand the life path and grief process of the mourner. Mourners often suffer deep anguish and trauma; and helping them to recover, according to Jewish tradition, requires the implementation of customs and practices that can seem contradictory. Yet these work well in helping mourners deal with their own contradictory feelings. For example, individual mourners can feel the need both to be alone and to be surrounded by people and love; the need for silence, and the need to be able to tell their story; the need to give and the need to receive; they can experience waves of denial and waves of acceptance. It’s contradictory, yes, but it all can be a very real and necessary part of the healing process and the nature of mourning. It is very wise counsel to advise a mourner thus: “Let these contradictory feelings be, feel what you feel. Live with the contradiction and don’t fight it, for it will eventually evolve intoRabbi Feinstein something else.”

It is very difficult to put this advice into practice, for in our rational, modern society, we find these contradictory truths difficult to accept. The fact is that the suggestion to learn to live with contradiction is not just some remnant of a confused, out dated psychological model. Rather, it’s a keen insight into the human condition itself and is a testimony to the power and efficiency of contradiction. For example, human relationships are uniquely able to stay intact despite competing feelings of pure love and absolute frustration. There are rules to human emotion and pain, but the hope and the salvation lie in the fact that for much of it, there are no rules. It is what it is. You can be sad and happy at the same time. You can harbor a lot of pain, but still move on. You can cherish a memory of a lost dream and still pursue a brand new one.

Quantum physics, which helps us to at least begin to understand the universe, is based upon one of the most poorly understood contradictions known, yet it works and does its job just fine. Quantum physics teaches that it can be scientifically proved that light travels in waves (up and down) but it can also be proved that light moves as physical particles. A person with knowledge of quantum physics understands these principles to be mutually exclusive, yet the whole science of quantum physics is based on both of them being true.

Connecting Point:
If we cannot answer life’s questions, we should not go into despair. Many a Jewish grandfather would tell his children, “From and unanswered question, you don’t die.” Living with the questions makes life more exciting. A life lived looking for something that has not been found yet is a whole lot more interesting. Consciously deciding to live the questions is a way of responding with trust to life and its inherent challenges.

Prayer:
God, before whom generations rise and fall, increase in me the ability to live peacefully with the multitude of feelings and emotions that flow in and out of my consciousness. Help me to trust that ultimately it is you who is guiding my life, regardless of what I may feel in a particular moment.

This was an excerpt from Living at God’s Speed, Healing in God’s Time, Charles W. Sidoti with Rabbi Akiva Charles SidotiFeinstein. Available on Amazon.

About the Authors:
Author, Charles Sidoti, is Coordinator of Spiritual Care at South Pointe Hospital, Cleveland Clinic Health System. He is the author of two books, Living at God’s Speed, Healing in God’s Time published in 2011 by Twenty-Third Publications, and Fortune Cookie Wisdom: a contemplative perspective, published in 2013 by Tau Publishing.

Contributing Author, Rabbi Akiva Feinstein, is a chaplain at NCJW / Vinney Hospice of Montefiore, Beachwood, Ohio. He is part of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland’s Chaplaincy program, visiting patients at Cleveland Clinic Health System and University Hospitals.

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