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Grief & Love: Why We Can’t Have One Without the Other

“Love” is a word that I hear referenced weekly in my office. Rarely, however, do I hear what is being described as having anything to do with love. Most often, when I hear someone say they love someone, for example, they are not describing love at all. Instead, they are describing something quite the opposite: an intense dependence rooted in fear and desperation. It has a very constricting, obsessive and possessive quality to it: there is no peace, no joy, no curiosity, play or excitement to be found.

In order to be someone who can both give and receive love freely, more is required of us than having a strong desire alone. Genuine love requires that we enter into a non-negotiable contract with grief. Simply put: we cannot have any more than we can handle losing in this lifetime. As such, grief is a fundamental prerequisite to love—it is what stretches our capacity for love. The greater the love we allow, the more devastating the heartache when it’s time to say goodbye, something we all have to do with everything we hold dear in this lifetime.

In an unconscious attempt to avoid future heartache, many people now have to avoid true love at all costs, even though they so desperately crave it and will never be fully fulfilled without it. Tragically, an inability to cosign with grief keeps them from ever being able to meet this deeply fundamental human need. I have known many people who will not let themselves be psychologically touched in any deep and meaningful way because where there is a genuine, intimate connection (love), there must be equal room for the pain when it’s time to let go of the connection (grief). And, the deeper the connection, the deeper the sorrow that is to come. There is no way around it: it’s the price we must be willing to pay at the end of a loving experience.

Generally speaking, most people are not well-versed in the practice of grief because grief is seen as a “negative” emotion, a weakness, and an “ugly” experience (yes, I’ve heard emoting described as “ugly” too many times). In our insane cultural drive toward the “light,” we have forgotten the necessity of the “dark,” which is required to make the light visible in the first place. We have been terrible spiritual hosts to all the shadow emotions in modern times, but perhaps none more so than to the great deity of grief.

My heart breaks for those who so deeply desire to both give and receive love. I watch them wrestle tirelessly to obtain it, but their unwillingness to engage in any deep and meaningful grief work leaves them continuously coming up short. In the business of love, we are not allowed to take out a loan for more that we can afford to pay back. A wonderful man and shaman, the late don Howard Lawler, once told me while I was working with him at his Ayahuasca retreat center in the Peruvian Amazon Basin many years ago, that the spirit world operates on reciprocity. I barely understood what this meant at the time (even though I thought I did), but in this context, I believe it means that to be given the gift of love, we must be willing to pay it back with a broken heart in the future.

When someone comes to work with me and I hear or see a deep longing for love, even self-love, they are universally rejecting their grief. Most people do not want to ever appear or be seen as “messy” and many will directly say so; and grief work is messy, very messy (if it’s true and authentic), but also quite beautiful if one is not intimidated by it. Further, most people do not want to “lose control” and deep grief work requires a loss of control—a complete surrender in order to fully clear the residual material held in a broken heart. Most people are deeply concerned about what they will look like and how they will be perceived in this terrifying, broken-down state, so if they understand what is needed at all, they prefer to go it alone—to not be seen in the process—and yet, perhaps most disappointing of all, to be transformed and cleared, grief requires a compassionate witness.

Every day we have the choice to go about becoming a gracious host to the deity of grief, thus becoming open to receiving love once again, but I am not seeing many people willing to open up to the great pain of significant loss that’s required. Instead, I have witnessed greater and greater efforts towards denial and suppression. In the last few years, I have further witnessed a very troubling phenomenon: where there was once a tiny allowance for a sliver of grief-related emotion at funerals, quite sadly, that too is now being replaced with a more “up-beat” counterfeit: the “celebration of life” event. No more funerals. No more room for even a modicum of grief. We have traded away our willingness for the possibilities for love, because of our refusal to be welcoming hosts to grief when the loss comes. Tragic.

Time alone will not heal the wounds of significant loss; it will only give you the opportunity to further deny your needs in the pursuit of more and more distraction techniques (commonly read: addictive-compulsive behaviors). Rest assured, however, no matter how many layers of distraction you develop, grief will never stop chasing you down, especially in your sleep. Like the dearest, most loyal friend and ally you could ever have, grief does not want you to miss out on the opportunity for love the entirety of your life.

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