At the recommendation of my niece, I recently read John Green’s book, Looking for Alaska. Although the book’s target audience is young adults, he offers some deeply moving insights that are useful for anyone who is grieving. My next few posts will focus on some of these insights, the first of which will also summarize a few key points from earlier posts.
A primary theme in Looking for Alaska is the characters search for the meaning of a quote from Gabriel García Márquez’s historical novel The General and His Labyrinth, which is about the life of Simón Bólivar, a prominent 19th century South American military and political leader:
“He [Simón Bólivar] was shaken by the overwhelming revelation that the headlong race between his misfortunes and his dreams was at the moment reaching the finish line. The rest was darkness. ‘Damn it,’ he sighed. ‘How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?’” (García Márquez, 1990).
What is the labyrinth? In García Márquez’s novel, Bólivar’s labyrinth has several metaphorical meanings, but for the characters in Looking for Alaska, the labyrinth takes on a special meaning.
John Green writes: “Suffering,” she [Alaska] said. Doing wrong or having wrong things happen to you. That’s the problem. Bolivar [sic] was talking about the pain, not about the living or dying. How do you get out of the labyrinth of suffering?” (Green, 2012).
This also is an important question for those who are grieving. How do grievers get out of the labyrinth of grief, and how do they withstand its many twists and turns, the suffering of its waves of confusing and difficult emotions, and seemingly never finding the hopelessly elusive exit?
The answer for each person depends a great deal on how you view suffering and whether you think you have power over suffering or are its victim. One of the 20th century’s most influential existential theorists, Viktor E. Frankl, M.D., Ph.D., believed that people can will themselves to transcend their circumstances by choosing how to respond to them and by finding meaning, which brings hope and peace even during the most difficult times (Frankl, 1946).
Dr. Frankl’s experiences as a prisoner in World War II concentration camps offer a vivid demonstration of his premise. “Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost.” However, “when a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task.…His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden” (Frankl, 1946).
Dr. Frankl and his fellow prisoners were inspired by the poet Rilke, “who spoke of ‘getting through suffering’ as others would talk of ‘getting through work.’” They faced suffering straight on and tried to keep moments of despair, tears, and weakness to a minimum. “But there was no need to be ashamed of tears,” Dr. Frankl wrote, “for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer” (Frankl, 1946).
What this means for those who are grieving is, while very difficult, grief is an unwelcome task that comes to you as a result of loss. There is no shame in grief and no need to hide it. Grief does not have to rule your life, but it is a task that must be completed. You can choose how you will respond to this task, which gives you the power to find your way out of the labyrinth. The following are three suggestions:
First, understand that each loss is unique as is the grief associated with every loss. The way out also will be unique. As no two losses are exactly the same, neither are any two experiences of grief or their resolution or completion. Respecting this uniqueness is vital not just for those who are grieving, but also for those who comfort grievers. Grievers often find it a great relief to know that what they are experiencing may not be the same as someone else, yet is completely normal. Do not be concerned about the so-called stages of grief. Grief is not a linear process, nor is there a set time limit.
Second, understand that you are not alone on your journey. While your labyrinth is unique to you, there are others who support you and can help guide you through. Societal messages or norms may encourage you to grieve alone and pretend everything is fine when it is not. It is okay to be glad, sad, mad or afraid (or anything in between) and to express those feelings. Your heart is broken. Give yourself permission to feel and to let others support you.
Third, understand that you have a choice. You do not have to stay in the labyrinth. Grief is not a lifelong condition. You can recover and let go of the pain and suffering. Letting go, however, does not mean forgetting.
The Grief Recovery Method® offers a roadmap out of the labyrinth. In a safe and confidential environment and with the assistance of an experienced guide, you will learn how to examine the losses in your life and to discover what was left unsaid or undone and what expectations or dreams were left unrealized. Discovering these unexpressed emotional communications and sharing them allows you to bring your pain to the surface and to let it go. By taking these actions, your heart and head will work together to show you the way out of your labyrinth of grief and complete the task of grieving.
Please call me. I can help.
Frankl, V. E. Man’s Search for Meaning, 1946 English translation. Beacon Press: Boston.
García Márquez, G. The General and His Labyrinth, 1990. Knopf: New York.
Green J. Looking for Alaska, 2012. Speak, Penquin Group, Inc.: New York.
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