What if Grief is a Skill?

“What if grief is a skill, in the same way that love is a skill, something that must be learned and cultivated and taught? What if grief is the natural order of things, a way of loving life anyway? Grief and the love of life are twins, natural human skills that can be learned first by being on the receiving end and feeling worthy of them, later by practicing them when you run short of understanding.”
– Stephen Jenkinson


These questions from Stephen Jenkinson, author of Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, continue to challenge my beliefs about the nature of grief each time I read them. If grief is a skill – and I’m ever more certain it is – then what am I doing to learn it more comprehensively? I’ve definitely been on the “receiving end” with not only the physical deaths of those I love, but with endings and transitions in relationships, livelihood, health, dreams – the countless and sundry goodbyes that are part and parcel of living.

How can grief and the love of life not be twins? They’re inseparable, and yet we continue to polarize them. We badmouth grief and hold it apart from the love of life like an island we’re banished to when things get really bad, and if we dwell there too long, we’re in trouble. Maybe we don’t feel worthy of grief at all considering the ways we attempt to avoid it? And if that’s true, then how can we feel worthy of love?

I am worthy of my grief for Kissie because I was worthy of her love, and she of mine. I don’t believe they could exist without each other. I love life anyway. Intensely so. I “practice” my grief by experiencing it, writing about it, talking about it, and questioning the ways in which our culture hinders its acceptance and expression.  How do you practice?

Continuing Bonds

“Letting go” of Christine, whatever that means, is not an option for me. Our continued bond not only feels natural, and vastly preferable, but some days it’s what gets me out of bed and into the day with a desire to be present in all my relationships.

So what are continuing bonds? The concept, as named in bereavement lexicon, was first written about in the 1996 book Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief (Klass, Silverman, Nickman), which reconsidered the popular 20th century notion that the purpose of grief was to “sever bonds with the deceased in order to free the survivor to make new attachments.” In Continuing Bonds, the authors present their research, offer historical perspective, and present a model for a “resolution for grief that involves a continuing bond the survivor maintains with the deceased.” An idea that lost favor about 100 years ago. Before that it was the prevailing cultural paradigm. Thanks a lot, Freud.

In short, the model of “continuing bonds” is one where interdependence is sustained even in the absence of one of the parties. If you think about it, don’t we do this everyday in all our sustaining relationships with the living? We can’t be together every moment, and yet our bond is not shattered by this reality. As Phyllis Silverman, one of the book’s authors, so aptly put it, “A person does not always have to be present for us to feel connected.”

I continue to feel deeply connected to Kissie, and though that connection has radically, irreparably changed, and though I miss her physical presence so enormously, I nurture that connection, long for it acutely, and make a concerted effort to maintain it.

Here’s a thoughtful piece Ms. Silverman wrote in her Raising Grieving Children blog for Psychology Today: Thinking About Continuing Bonds.