Monday 21 May 2018

‘Purposeful Living’ Through Grief

Rainy Night In The City, by Alina Madan. Poster: Giclee Print
Posted by Lina Ufimtseva
Grief is like a rude neighbour in the night, knocking at your mind’s door at all kinds of inopportune moments.  Hush, you want to tell it, go away, let me sleep.  But not only is grief rude in its all-encompassing demands for attention, it also is disobedient, and stubbornly stays.  Often, for years.
I am stirring a pot of soup on the stove, and I switch it off.  The boiling liquid quickly settles, and the rolling of the surface stops.  ‘Just like my mother's blood,’ I think instinctively.  Her blood stopped moving, too. ‘Just so,’ I think, ‘a loved one's life can slip away, unceremoniously.’ And so, in the sudden memory which the soup brings back, grief stands rudely knocking.  Go away, go away.

Time allows for the body to regenerate and to heal, provided it is not put under more stress.  Years later, one may feel the strain in a joint from an old injury, but it will often be no more than a lingering nuisance.  Grief, on the other hand, can hit one like a train, no matter how much time has passed since tragedy struck. Why is emotional pain more difficult to bear than physical pain? 

The brain uses a single neural system to detect and feel pain.  The anterior insula cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex are responsible for detecting pain, regardless whether it is of a physical or emotional nature.  Even painkillers may numb emotional pain temporarily.  But they don’t help in healing.

This begs the question, why does emotional pain not heal as if it were physical?

Upon asking how a mother’s labour went, a woman may underplay her experience and reply that it was ‘painful’ or ‘a lot of pressure’.  Yet those mothers who lay in agony giving birth will voluntarily unleash the same process upon their bodies again and again.  Physical pain lingers only as an awareness that it was indeed at one time painful. 

Grief, however, has the unique ability to reiterate itself at the most seemingly random moments.  Therein lies a clue.  If we want physical pain to leave our bodies—assuming that, as it usually does,-- it affects only a certain limb or area of the body—we may use a crutch to prevent too much strain, say, on a leg.  But how does one rest from grief?

Generally one does not.

Our brains process the pain of grief in a non-linear manner.  Physical trauma leaves scars—smooth scars.  Emotional pain creates what I would call neural scabs of sorts that can be—and often will be—picked at, voluntarily or not.

The psychologist Thomas Crook has noted:
‘Indeed, when brain imaging studies are done on people who are grieving, increased activity is seen along a broad network of neurons.  These link areas associated not only with mood but also with memory, perception, conceptualization, and even the regulation of the heart, the digestive system, and other organs.  This shows the pervasive impact loss or even disappointment can have.’
Grief affects the neural pathways in a far more pervasive and ineluctable or ineludible manner than physical pain.  Emotional pain, like a scab, can very easily get picked by a casual scratch of an old memory, and the blood of grief starts pouring again.

Those who have been severely distraught by their circumstances often come to the conclusion that the greater meaning in life is not seeking happiness and hedonism, but in creating a purposeful living.  The word choice here: ‘a purposeful living’ rather than ‘a purposeful life’, is in itself deliberate.  Meaning is not stagnant.  One cannot create a purposeful life and leave it at that.  Purpose must continue to be lived out, to be striven for, to continue in some kind of endeavour. 

Purpose without struggle often loses its meaning.  In this light, grief can be given a purpose.  Severe emotional pain can be the catalyst to revaluate one’s values, choices, and path in life.  It can be one’s very own personal as well as professional spring board. 

Do you wish to leap into the bounds of further despair?  Go ahead, and grief will get you there.  Do you wish to see an armour around yourself unveiled?  Go ahead, and grief can give you the thickest skin and the thinnest heart you ever imagined.

Grief can and will redefine who you thought you were.  Can you hear it knocking?


Keith said...

Thank you, Lina, for this personal reflection. I believe that just as time is often a palliative — even if an imperfect palliative — for physical pain, it is (can be) also for grief over the loss of a loved one. As you point out, there may well be longer-term revisits from grief’s specter — eerie taps on the shoulder at unexpected, even unwanted, moments — but it’s not uncommon for a surgical site also to do that: later nuisance twinges that remind us of a previous injury and its repair. Those twinges, whether emotional or physical, may never entirely go away.

In that context, your notion of ‘purposeful living’ serves as important counsel — which, I would propose, is equally true in the presence or absence of grief. I suggest that, in defining the ‘greater meaning in life’, the search for ‘happiness’ may in some intrinsic way be bound to and achievable through what one perceives as, to borrow your expression, ‘purposeful living’. Of the 7-plus billion people in the world, there are probably 7-plus billion notions of ‘purposeful life’, ‘purposeful living’, ‘meaning in life’, and ‘happiness’. Regardless, simply — or not so simply — getting on with life, whether or not particularly purposeful in the grand scheme of things, is one key to occupying the mind and crowding out persistent reminders of a loss.

To your point (my imperfect application of your point, anyway), I believe that being able to reflect on how the deceased person had engaged in ‘purposeful living’ according to what he or she believed ultimately mattered in life — and having the opportunity to share that life and inerasable legacy with others through eulogies in their various forms — is at least a first step in assuaging grief. That process gives the person’s ‘legacy’ a certain omnipresence and permanence. Your post, I might add, is all the more poignant for me in the context of mourning my brother, who died just three weeks ago.

docmartincohen said...

Yes, I can recognise what you say Lina, about grief coming "like a rude neighbour in the night, knocking at your mind’s door", and surely it does, yet I don't really agree with uch else here. For a start, I think grief does heal, and it is right that it should do so. ( hope it will for Keith too.)

What I have seen (in my own life I have so far been pretty lucky) continuing to disturb people is injustice - for example when dies very young - or in a particularly unlucky, unnecessary way. These are judgements, and we can move beyond them.

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