When things are going relatively well in our lives, this statement feels like a welcome promise – an affirmation that this mysterious path is ours and it is right. We experience moments of coincidence and serendipity as the Universe’s way of communicating with us. But what about when loss comes for us, and our once-abundant life feels destitute? What about when we encounter grief so unspeakable, we are certain the experience must be some grave mistake? In these times, it seems impossible to believe that our paths are without accidents.
However, we enter dangerous territory when we engage in this type of thinking. To see our losses as errors made by the Universe is to close the door on our ability to find meaning in them.
Whether we are grieving the death of a loved one, the loss of a job that gave us our sense of pride and identity, or the end of a relationship with our beloved, the best way to ensure our suffering is not in vain is to surrender to the truth that there is purpose buried in it. Buried is the keyword here. We will have to mine the depths of our souls to find it. This is not effortless work.
Our Inherent Loving Nature
Purpose can have unlimited meanings. It changes from person to person, from situation to situation. As unique as we are, though, universal qualities connect us and make us human. One such quality is our inherent loving nature.
Knowing, giving, and receiving love is one of the great universal purposes for human beings. When grief comes for us, we are actually receiving an invitation to come in greater contact with our own tender hearts. The immense pain we’re experiencing in the absence of our loved one is a looking glass through which we can finally see our awe-inspiring capacity for love.
When we frame our grief as proof of our ability to love well, we commit to finding a purpose in our struggle. We’re taking the first step to using grief as the catalyst for being more loving and compassionate to all whom we encounter, including ourselves. Because we are learning and growing as a result of our suffering, it is not wasted or senseless.
In a celebrated poem, the 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz describes an interaction that is commonplace in the heavens but too absent on Earth. It is people asking each other this sacred question: “My dear, How can I be more loving to you; How can I be more kind?” While this is not a poem about grief, it presents us with a perfect picture of what living looks like when we connect with our renewed sense of purpose in the aftermath of loss.
A Renewed Sense of Purpose
Using our grief to access a renewed sense of purpose is not just a spiritual aspiration. It’s a phenomenon lived out by everyday people of all walks of life. It’s even recognized – and studied – by clinical researchers and mental health practitioners.
One such clinician is Susan Anderson, LCSW, who has devoted over thirty years to working with the victims of abandonment trauma, grief, and loss. Anderson developed a treatment framework specific to overcoming the impact of abandonment trauma – and the intense grief it brings.
According to Anderson, there are five stages of abandonment: shattering, withdrawal, internalizing, rage, and lifting. Each stage brings with it an intense emotional experience – the first four stages can be excruciating. What’s more is that these stages don’t always have clear beginnings and ends. They overlap. They spiral. What is clear, though, is that when you finally arrive at the last stage – lifting – you begin to experience the gifts of your recovery. You live from a higher frequency than you ever believed to be possible, brimming with reverence for life and love. You come face to face with your purpose.
Anderson describes it this way: “You feel the emergence of strength, wiser for the painful lessons you’ve learned. And if you’re engaged in the process of recovery, you get ready to love again.”
For Anderson, the stages have a natural cadence, but there is also self-work that one needs to do in order to recover and find meaning and purpose in their grief. When it comes to lifting, Anderson says, “the task is to increase your capacity for love and make a new connection.”
Increasing Your Capacity for Love and Connection
What does this look like in everyday life? It could mean noticing the blueness of the sky, the breath in your lungs, and taking a moment to feel connected to all beings who have lived, loved, and lost. It could mean offering a sincere gesture of gratitude to those who have shown you support in your time of need. It could mean cultivating gentle, loving thoughts, and directing them at your own wounded heart. No step is too small, and, eventually, small steps give way to strong strides. Once you commit yourself to uncovering purpose in your grief, your highest path will rise up to meet you. Growth becomes your default setting, even in the face of pain.
Nobody captures this as beautifully as Pema Chodron, who has dedicated much of her life to helping others find comfort in the uncomfortable. She says, “What we call obstacles are really the way the world and our entire experience teach us where we’re stuck. What may appear to be an arrow or a sword we can actually experience as a flower. Whether we experience what happens to us as an obstacle and enemy or as a teacher and friend depends entirely on our perception of reality.”
When grief comes for us, our perception can be our greatest strength – if we let it. Finding purpose in grief may be one of the greatest spiritual tests we are faced with, but it is also the test with the greatest rewards. If we let our grief close our hearts, our losses become twofold: we lose the thing we never wanted to lose, and we lose touch with our own loving nature. But if we decide to commit to finding purpose, our grief becomes the sustenance we use to build a life that looks more like Hafiz’s vision of the heavens. It is what we use to be more loving. To be more kind.
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