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How to navigate the inevitability of grief when life falls short of our great expectations.

At this time of year, it is so common to hear and express the platitudes of “Happy New Year” or queries of “did you have a great holiday?”.

It is a new year and the start of a new decade. It is generally a time to look forward to the future. A time to make plans, set goals and be energised and excited. Something feels so different this year though. 

I know for so many the festive season is hard. There are the inevitable disappointments of things not being as we might have hoped for. The rituals of family occasions can be intense, brimful with expectation and ripe for relationship dramas.  While others are reminded of the one’s they have lost. 

Some may have longed for respite from the daily grind. The opportunity to go slower, to reconnect with oneself. To find calm and the presence of mind that might move them closer towards their special one. 

For so many, around our country just now, this special time has been lost. Family holidays have been interrupted. Replaced with the challenge of accessing fuel, or food for their family or a mobile phone signal to find information that might help them evacuate to a safer place.

Others have lost so much more. Family members, their homes, their communities, their livelihood. For some the entire landscape of their lives. 

The fires have not ravaged suburban Melbourne or other major cities, where the majority of Australians live. Our daily life has been severely affected though. From the air we breathe, to the skies we see and the privilege and opportunity we usually take for granted.

Our nation is grieving. We have lost so much. Our heritage as a nation, of what it means to be Australian, to live in “the lucky country”, is now at risk, endangered or destroyed.  

There are moments, we all fall short of our own great expectations. How we see ourselves, our own identity and how we want to be in the world. 

Sometimes this feels close to home. How we are as a partner, a parent or friend. The decisions we make, the behaviours we choose, the things that we do.  

At other times we fall short of the expectations others have of us. This is blatantly clear right now, in our countries political landscape, and within our online and offline communities. It is every present in our couple and family relationships too.

Life is not straightforward though. It is complex and multi-dimensional. Yet, when things go wrong, when we fall short of our own or others great expectations, the tendency is to simplify, minimise and reduce the complexity of what we see.  

When our threat defences are activated, we seek only to protect ourselves. We judge; ourselves, others and our relationships. We are filled with doubt and fear. 

“Blaming is a way to protect our hearts, to try to protect what is soft and open and tender in ourselves.” - Pema Chödrön

In such moments, some move away, withdrawing to protect themselves from the emotions that stir inside. While others move towards, expressing anger, frustration and desperation. Neither expect to be heard or understood. 

The nuisances of one’s life, the individuality of one’s lived life and the frailty of the human condition, are lost in the judgment. We resist what we feel. We disregard our common humanity and a compassionate response.

To navigate the complex landscape of life, we need emotional courage and agility. We need tools and techniques to enable us to:

  • recognise our thinking traps, how we create suffering
  • learn how to 'turn towards' emotions, and anchor them in the body
  • engage with difficult emotions, naming or labelling them
  • finding words for feelings to deactivate the stress response and calm the brain
  • respond to ourselves and others with compassion or loving-kindness, rather than judgement, criticism or blame
  • cultivate presence, not perfection
  • repair relationships and reconnect with others when we get it wrong

Right now, I am grieving, so many losses; our beloved pet, Jasper (the wonder dog) and a beautiful client, both due to illness, a sense my own identity in some domains of my life, the sense of security I had in our nation’s identity and environment, and places in nature that have been a part of so many special moments in my life. 

So, what does the counsellor do in such moments? I slow down. I make space and time, to appreciate the unique and irreplaceable gifts of being human. I practice self-compassion. I focus on cultivating acceptance of myself and responding compassionately to the pain of imperfection, and my own shadow side. When I get it wrong, I do my best to acknowledge that and repair the connection to myself and my relationship with my special others. 

Why is self-compassion important?

"Feeling compassion for ourselves in no way releases us from responsibility for our actions. Rather, it releases us from the self-hatred that prevents us from responding to our life with clarity and balance."—Tara Brach


Even with practice, I am imperfect. So I’m off on retreat this week, to further train in Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC). 

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