Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Grief and Violence

            As a grief counselor, I find myself often describing the four primary emotions of grief as sadness, anger, fear and regret or guilt. These primary emotions and their many variations are the emotional landscape of grief.  And grief is what humans experience after any significant loss, whether death is involved or not.

            See for yourself:  recall a recent experience of any of those four emotions and see if the feeling isn’t in response to one kind of loss or another. Remember that loss is not only death related but is almost always a part of the experience of change, e.g., a child leaves home for school or marriage, a job is lost or changes, an illness comes upon us unexpectedly, etc. Loss also involves immaterial things, like hopes and dreams. How often is “mid-life crisis” the experience of the loss, i.e., the lack of realization, of the hopes and dreams we had about who we would become and how we would bring about changes in the world?  Yes, change and the loss that accompanies it, and the grief that comes in response to it are common threads of our everyday experience.

            These threads are, unfortunately, intimately connected to a great deal of the violence that exists in the world.  Too often when afraid, we react with some form of violence to protect ourselves.  Too often when angry, we react violently to avenge what we’ve lost or to throw off the conditions that have been imposed. And too often these violent reactions substitute for allowing ourselves to feel the sadness and the pain of the loss. 

Men are particularly susceptible to this pattern due to the USA dominant cultural conditioning that encourages males to be angry rather than sad and to express their anger aggressively.  We needn’t look far to see countless examples of  fearful and/or angry men inflicting harm in an attempt to right a situation in which they feel they have been wronged. There is often a felt obligation  “to do something” (where inaction is perceived as weakness), fueled by the energy of anger, and shaped by judgments clouded by the intensity of the emotion itself. 

One possible way out of this cycle is to develop the skills and nurture the intention required to feel the emotions and cultivate a caring and kind relationship with them.  This requires the ability to be with what is unpleasant and even painful, and to consider that it is not harmful or a sign that there is something wrong, but is, rather, an intimate part of a process that is healing and beneficial, e.g., the pain that occurs during physical therapy, the pain of childbirth, the emotional pain of grief, etc. This does not mean that the circumstances that brought about the loss, e.g., losing one’s job without just cause, the death of a family member or friend in an auto accident involving someone driving while intoxicated, etc., are not wrong, only that there is nothing wrong with you because you are feeling the pain of your grief.

This does not mean that one does not address the wrongful conditions that have caused the loss, but only that one cultivates the intention to be careful that their judgment when considering different responses not be clouded by the intensity of the emotion. This may require postponing a response until the intensity of the emotions have subsided enough that one can make a truly wise judgment, one that chooses the course of action that is most beneficial and least harmful.

There are countless causes and conditions that lead to violent speech and action. One cause is the inability of many of us to relate to and embrace our grief in its fullness, including the sadness and pain that often lie just beneath the surface of our anger. Creating physical and emotional places of safety where we can explore the full range of our emotional response to the changes and losses in our lives is a part of the daily work of nonviolent living.

 Chris Klug


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