Holding on to anger, fear, or resentment can cause physical pain, but when we heal our emotional pain, our physical pain often subsides. The emotions need to be in motion in order for us to be healthy. We've got to move them and feel them and let them express themselves.
This is especially true with grief. In our culture, we don't know how to grieve properly; we get sick from the lack of it. Jerusalem has the Wailing Wall, a place to express grief. We need a place for allowing grief because it sits there in our cell tissue and depresses our immune system if we don't voice it. Grieving is looked down upon here. You can go ballistic at a funeral, but then you're supposed to be done. The ones who are stoic and shake everyone's hand are considered admirable even as they're imploding.
Take a courageous path: feel your grief and give it expression. Perhaps to someone close to you, it might seem like you're wallowing or drowning, but you do need to immerse yourself in your grief to move it out of your body. It's a sign of respect. Perhaps a parent has died, a friend has drifted away, or a child has left the nest. If you're grieving for a loved one you've lost, you're honoring that person by allowing those deep feelings of loss as well as anger and betrayal—how could you leave me?—to rise up and wash through you. Sometimes when we’re grieving a person, we’re also grieving the loss of a part of ourselves. Unexplored grief is like little glass shards that the body builds scar tissue around, and that can turn into sickness. Grief commonly shows up in the lungs as congestion, asthma, or other forms of entrapment. (In acupuncture, the area from the nipples to the collarbone is called the well of sorrow.) You can drown in your own grief when those areas aren't in motion.
Ceremonies—formal rituals, which might involve candles, tobacco, or sage—can be helpful for some people in expressing grief; for others it's just one more damn thing to do, an external that doesn't touch with inside. For people who can imbue the ceremony with what's going on inside, it's very powerful. Ceremony may be beautiful, but in order to be healing, it has to move the stuck emotion. It's obvious when it happens: there's a lot of snot, a lot of strong feelings. You might have the shameful thought, Oh, I’m just wallowing in poor pitiful me, but if that's what it takes, go for it.
How long does it take to step out of grief? That's a very personal issue. When I was working on my own issues, friends really wished I would get over it because it made them uncomfortable. Some friends are able to tolerate your grieving more than others; that's why therapy can be a great thing, because that person is paid to sit through your pain and anger—"Here's a check. You walk me through this." Friends don't always have the tolerance and skill to navigate those deep waters. Everyone has their own "I've had enough" level. If friends have expressed theirs, don't take that as a judgment or allow self-mutilating thoughts like I should be done grieving or I'm repulsive. It's just that they need a break.
When my friend died, I struggled because I was with someone who is much closer to him, and I felt I wasn't entitled to grieve because she'd known him so much more. When I was able to articulate this to her, we both cried and got to share a beauty moment, one that acknowledged both the pain and the release of pain that moved us both into healing. As we talked it out, a deer came up to us, very fearless. It was obviously what Native Americans call a medicine moment—an important, pay-attention moment. You never know when you're opening a doorway to someone else's healing…or your own.
Excerpted from Fierce Medicine: Breakthrough Practices to Heal the Body and Ignite the Spirit by Ana T. Forrest. Published by Harper One, a division of HarperCollins. © 2011 by Ana T. Forrest.