Emptiness and fullness are intertwined.
In our culture, we value being full. We associate being full with continuously producing and achieving as a way to describe a good life. This certainly can be rewarding.
In our culture, we don’t value being empty. We associate the word empty with scarcity and a lack of worth. We don’t often acknowledge the validity of another type of emptiness. This is the necessary state that follows grief and loss. It can be experienced as a hollowed-out feeling, a punch to the heart, a loss of identity.
This emptiness can feel dreadful, but in grief, being with your emptiness is essential.
Our impulse is to avoid the empty feelings. Instead, we fill our time with activities, people, and things. We will do anything to fill up the hollowed-out feeling. In actuality, the hollowed-out feeling is fertile ground for healing and growth in the new reality that we are facing.
This fertile ground is the space that needs to be accessed in our minds and hearts, so we don’t inhibit our natural movement through grief.
While it takes courage to engage with the sense of emptiness, I believe it is well worth it. By being present with the emptiness, deeper feelings and thoughts will emerge. Staying fully present with these deeper feelings and thoughts for as long as it takes allows us to mourn and gives us the opportunity to heal.
If we don’t fully engage with the feelings and thoughts that emerge from honoring our emptiness, we will be blocking off a vital part of ourselves and our life experience. We can be afraid of staying stuck in emptiness, but when we don’t engage with the emptiness, we stay stuck in our grief. Avoiding the emptiness, or too quickly filling the emptiness, we risk creating a superficial existence because we are not honoring our loss.
I had a friend whose young son drowned. He was devastated. After six weeks, he returned to work. He shared with me that he was trying to be present with the hollowed-out feeling he had from his tragic loss. He was finding it very difficult to be with some of his co-workers because they believed that since it had been six weeks since his son’s death, he should be over it. They thought encouraging him to be fully engaged with work and to be more social with them after work was the way to deal with the loss of his son. He wasn’t drawn to either of these things. He wanted to do just the necessary tasks at work, then return home to be alone, or to be with his wife. The only other people he wanted to connect with were a few close friends. His co-workers wanted him to fill up his life rather than taking the time needed to honor the death of his son. In taking this time, he would discover his new identity. While the death of his son will always be with him, he can eventually re-engage with life in a fulfilling way.
The avoidance of the process of grief is too common in our society. Many of us subscribe to the idea, "get over it and move on." The message is that engaging with your grief has a time limit. This can evoke guilt in you and a sense of inadequacy that you are wrong in how you are moving through your grief.
The process of being with the emptiness of grief isn’t an easy one. To best engage with it, it is important to tap into a sense of compassion towards yourself, your confusion, and your loss of orientation to who you were. It is important to take time to slow down, be alone, or be with a few cherished friends. This will support the delicate process of allowing the sadness, anger, or whatever feelings and thoughts you have, to emerge. Be curious about this profound human experience you are going through. Be curious about the future that lays before you. To quote Tara Brach, “In the groundless openness of sorrow, there is a wholeness of presence and a deep natural wisdom.” By staying with the hollowed-out feeling for as long as it takes, your way forward will become clear. You will have found a way to be with what should not be avoided.
Article title: Navigating Loss by Embracing Emptiness
Brach, T. (2003). Radical Acceptance. New York, New York: Bantam Books.
Yalom, I., & Yalom, M. (2021). A Matter of Death and Life. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
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