Beyond Loss into Renewal
I was sharing a table with a stranger at Whole Foods, enjoying an al fresco summer dinner, when two sweet 20-year-olds I know stopped by to say hello on their way into the store. Afterwards, the fellow with whom I was chatting remarked that it’s nice to have friends of different ages. I told him one of my dearest lifelong friends had passed in 2014 at 101, and I still miss her keenly. And then this man I’d been talking with for the better part of an hour said, “My father died a week ago.”
Our conversation took a deep dive into death, grief, and healing. He told me his father had been very ill for fourteen months, so his passing was a blessing, and the family, all local, are close-knit. We spoke of aging, how conventional medicine often seeks to prolong life to the patient’s detriment, and the different ways people grieve. Then we said good night. It was an illuminating evening.
The Five Gates of Grief
There are many ways to approach talking about grief, and many ways to grieve, but what most people in Western culture don’t know is that death is just one of grief’s doorways. We’ve touched on the idea of anticipatory grief, such as losing one’s eyesight, and how that might manifest behaviorally. We can also lose people due to conflict and misunderstanding, and these losses can feel like a death.
These other forms of grief, suppressed, can be misdiagnosed as depression — or show up later as chronic disease, says noted psychotherapist and author Francis Weller in The Wild Edge of Sorrow. He elucidates five “gates of grief” and provides tools for navigating these uncharted waters. It is important for reverse mortgage professionals to be aware of these grief gates so you can more fully understand the seniors you serve:
1. First Gate: Everything We Love, We Will Lose. Accepting life’s impermanence helps mediate the pain we experience when someone dear to us dies — and enables us to keep our hearts open in the face of inevitable loss. Illness is part of the first gate, and offers us an opportunity to go deep into life and come through the challenge with an expanded vision of who and what we are. A health crisis in my mid-thirties served as a huge wake-up call, and set me on my path of purpose and service. People who ignore what their health is trying to tell them forfeit this opportunity, as Weller explains with his example of a client who, after a heart attack, wanted to get back to business as quickly as possible. Weller told him, “I’m concerned that you’re going to waste a perfectly good heart attack!” Illness asks much of us, and if we recognize this and answer the call, how we perceive life, loss, and grief can shift dramatically.
2. Second Gate: The Places That Have Not Known Love. Shame, unworthiness and regret can close our hearts to compassion, and almost everyone has experienced them to some degree. These emotions are like a slow trauma that, unresolved, eats away at the soul.
3. Third Gate: The Sorrows of the World. We experience this every time there is an oil spill, or we see a dead animal in the road. Most of us in modern culture suffer from “nature deficit disorder”, and this creates soul loss that we experience as emptiness.
4. Fourth Gate: What We Expected and Did Not Receive. This gate encompasses what we may not even know we have lost. Weller gives the example of participating in an evening community circle among West African villagers, who shared food, drink and conversation as their children wove in and out, welcomed by all. Our equivalent to this nightly ritual is happy hour, which may be how we anesthetize our loss, he says. We have no communal rituals, and we grieve them even as we don’t know what is missing.
5. Fifth Gate: Ancestral Grief. Previous generations lived under great hardship, adapting to American ways and forsaking their traditions, language, culture, and even family “back home.” This grief and loss lingers silently in their descendants, who may feel a bone-deep sadness they cannot identify.
The rest of Weller’s book offers rituals and practices to heal and renew us, and finally a chapter on how to prepare to become ancestors. When we serve this “apprenticeship to sorrow,” we have more of ourselves available to offer in service to the world.