Adrienne: The terrible tragedy in Leduc has shattered many lives. And in these dark times it can be difficult to feel that any useful meaning can be taken from these experiences. Wellness columnist Scott McPherson is here to talk about grappling with grief, and how an ancient Japanese practice could — with time — help people move forward. Hi Scott.
Scott: Good afternoon Adrienne.
Adrienne: Obviously, the terrible tragedy in Leduc has left people devastated and looking for answers. What advice do you have for people who are grieving the death of 17-year-old Jennifer Winkler?
Scott: Well… the simple fact is that right now is a time for grief. Far from escaping it, we are better to be present and surrender ourselves to it. We’ll only increase the pain if we resist what is natural. Those feelings are all the result of people being loved and cared about. To deny the pain would be to deny the love. Our bodies only have the ability to create these wracked, tortured emotions because there are times in life where nothing else is suitable.
Adrienne: Some might be tempted to push past grief or tamp it down. What do you think of that strategy?
Scott: Regardless of the circumstances, humans are healthiest in a state of flow. We stretch experiences out by resisting them. Allowing them to ‘be’ allows us to travel through them. Otherwise it’s like damning a river. Whether we try to hold back reality or not, the pressure eventually forces us to face that reality. So the best we can do is face it mindfully, in the present, knowing that the pain is appropriate and healthy. It’s only after that pain starts to leave little gaps for, really, anything else, that any practice can start to help.
Adrienne: How long does the overwhelming pain of grief persist?
Scott: It will depend very much on each individual. Some will be searching for some sense of all of this almost right away. Others will not be ready for that for some time. As long as the person is flowing and not stuck, everyone eventually moves through it, but we’ll all each take as long as we take. But no matter when they reach that point as an individual, they need some kind of way to think about all of this where it can make some kind of sense in their lives.
Adrienne: How can people do that?
Scott: Time often helps because it’s about putting terrible events in a larger context. Up close, things are always huge and all encompassing. But as we back away and get perspective, even tragedies find their places in healthy lives. There’s an ancient Japanese practice that can help with this. Pardon my Japanese, but it is referred to as Kintsugi, or sometimes as kintsukuroi. It literally means ‘golden joinery,’ or ‘golden repair.’ Most listeners have probably seen them. These are the pieces of pottery that have been broken, and then repaired with gold, where we can still see the seams. The idea is that tragedy don’t need to be hidden or concealed. It treats the breakage and repair of any object as part of its overall history. Obviously there is no pretending this didn’t happen for anyone involved. And so this will be a part of many people’s histories whether they like it or not. The real question is, can we find ways to make peace with our future history, by using a philosophical idea to help us make sense of something so terrible?
Adrienne: So the actual practice is about gold and pottery. How does this apply to living with grief?
Scott: Well, before the tragedy, it’s like inside of us was a vase made just to hold our love for that person, and it’s been shattered. So thinking about their loss will always generate a lot of pain. But there is a point where we do start to naturally feel an impulse to pick up the pieces and return to life. And at that point, continuing to be angry is to leave the vase shattered. That’s when this metaphor can really help. Because we still love that person we’ve lost. We want to honour that love. So we still need an intact vase to put that love back into. So, this is where we need some ‘gold.’ And in cases like these, the ‘gold’ is found in our reactions.
Adrienne: What are some examples of healthy reactions?
Scott: Anything that prevents a similar future tragedy. Or anything that helps others through the current tragedy. And we also want to maintain our love for the person we’ve lost. Our minds need a way to accept the terrible event, while still leaving us with a sense of meaning. So, for instance, there is an organization called Mothers Against Drunk Driving. That is a classic kintsugi-styled response that helps ensure fewer other people have the same experience going forward. And if they do, it ensures the victims have support.
If we haven’t had an experience, the best we can do is sympathy. But as we’ve talked about before, that’s like looking into a hole and yelling down to someone that it looks bad down there. But empathy is when we’ve been there ourselves. Fortunately, there aren’t a lot of people who have had an experience this bad. So only those who have had it, know how to jump right into the hole with the other person. And because they have been there before and know the way out, a person experienced with grief can act as the best possible guide to those going through a similar tragedy.
In that way, we can take our tragedies and give them value. So as our wanting is replaced by the desire for meaning, we can take our shattered lives and weld them together with insight, and wisdom, and a new level of compassion. And all of that means we are bigger and more expansive people, capable of helping more people than we could before the experience. Of course, everyone would just rather have their loved ones back. But when that can’t happen, honouring them by caring for others is often our best bet for both feeling better, and for making a difference. I believe I’ve already heard rumblings of some people starting anti-violence campaigns as a result. And those efforts may well save future lives.
So, while many will need much more time to grieve, we are already seeing some people’s love beginning to manifest as action. Over time, people will spend less time on grieving as their efforts to make a difference start to help create change. At that point, while the tragedy is still very real and painful for all involved, at least there is a sense that at least some positive things are emerging from it. Then the grief becomes the sort of action that really does leave the world as a better place. And there is likely no better way to honour someone more than doing that. But until the natural time for that arises, the best we can all do is just pour our love out to everyone who’s hurting. There are no words. So we’re best to start with just our strong and silent presence.
Adrienne: Thank you for this today Scott.
Scott: You’re welcome Adrienne. You take care.
Please note that I regularly join Radio Active‘s host Adrienne Pan, on CBC Radio One here in Edmonton. You can listen via AM740, FM93.9 (in Edmonton), or elsewhere through the CBC Listen app, or via the web on Radio One at CBC.ca. Today we’ll be on at 5:20pm.
Once the show has aired, if there is an audio version available I will add a link to it here. A listing of all of the columns is here. For those without audio versions, I will attach a transcript of the column to the top of this post within a few days of airing.
When facing life’s worst moments, all we can do is to remain present. In situations of enormous loss, the love flowing away from us is so great that we feel that as the pain and agony of loss. But even the greatest lives have been littered with tragedies. So it does no good to wish them away. But there are approaches to experiencing tragedy that can help us move through our pain all while seeing our love manifest in beneficial ways.
If you get to hear it and haven’t before, I’m sure you’ll enjoy their show. They have a great team.
Take care everyone. Here’s to a grateful day for all of us.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.