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Grief = “Peeling the Onion”

By: Cara Barth

“Life is like an onion. You peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep.” ~ Carl Sandburg

I was thinking this week about the coming holidays and how this time of year can be so difficult for folks and be a real trigger for grief to emerge, yet again, in their life. With this in mind, I thought about how breaking down the process of grief into palatable parts might be helpful, especially now. The journey of grief can be compared to “peeling an onion” with all its layers from hard covering to core, its ability to make us weep in the process, and even its “stinky” nature. Yet, when we get through the procedure of preparing the onion, we have something that we savor and can use….hmmm…now there’s a thought!

So, as I watch and hear people working through their grief, I always feel the urgency to remind them of some key factors:

  • Everyone goes through seasons of life, aka, some sort of grief event;
  • Change is the only certainty;
  • We are not alone in our process and therefore need to find grace in the “growing pains” each place holds;
  • The grief cycle may be triggered by any of life’s transitions, good or “bad”;
  • Each grief pattern is not a defined linear transition, but rather a touch point; and
  • There are six “Transitional Patterns” (cycles/layers) that are foundational:

1: Loss/”Pain” → 2: Shock/”Anger” → 3: Protest/”Remembering” → 4: Disorganization/”Guilt”→ 5: Reorganization/”Forgiving” → 6: Recovery/”Gratitude”

With all this in mind, let’s “un-layer” one of the first patterns of grief: Loss/Pain (“Fear”)

When we look at the term “Loss” on the surface, such as the definition in Webster’s’ dictionary, it states that a loss is: “Failure to keep or to continue to have something: The experience of having something taken from you or destroyed,”  it seems self-explanatory. However, I have come to understand that a loss felt through some of life’s transitions has depth, and we need to “peel the onion” so to speak and look at all the layers.  A perceived loss can, and usually will, cause a physical and/or emotional “Pain” as well, and the two seem to be companions of each other. It’s very hard to experience loss without a visceral and/or emotional sensation of some sort.

Take for example, when a divorce happens (and a “divorce” can be any type of break in a relationship). There is the loss of a life that one thought would take place, loss of dreams, possible loss of income, loss of companionship, loss of security, and the list goes on… With these losses comes the emotional pain and thoughts of, “What will my life look like without this person?” “How will I make or supplement my income?” “Who will I spend time with?”

As the emotions escalate, so does the physical response. Some examples might be the “divorce cough,” which I personally experienced (for 2 years) and have now observed in others. (This is a condition where one feels as though there is a dry place in the back of the throat all of the time and nothing can relieve it.) Another physical example is that many people lose significant amounts of weight when going through the divorce process. Both are physical manifestations of the body and mind under duress after a significant loss. Losses create pain, whether it’s emotional, physical, cognitive, or spiritual. We all experience some type of transitional “undoing.”

Also, I would be misguiding if I didn’t mention a final triggered “bedfellow” of Loss/ “Pain,” and that would be Fear. I define Fear as: “A distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined.”

Believe it or not, “It’s not a terrible thing that we feel fear when faced with the unknown. It is part of being alive, something we all share. We react against the possibility of loneliness, of death, of not having anything to hold on to. Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” (Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart – Heart Advice for Difficult Times)

Fear is a natural reaction to changes in your life. How we work with this emotion is and can be a pivotal moment in our healing. Will we freeze and stay “here” or run head on into the healing with a “fighting” attitude of, “This will NOT define me?” All this culminates into the continued layers of the healing.

Finally, as I close this discussion around “Peeling the Onion” of grief through “Loss/Pain  Fear,” I want to continue in encouragement and helping with finding strength in the process. Please know this truth, the Lord knew we would go through difficulties and He sent these messages:

 Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” ~ Deuteronomy 31:6

For I am the Lord, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you. ~ Isaiah 41:13


Over the next few blogs I write, I will “un-layer” all six Transitional Patterns of Grief…Stay tuned!

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