The Virtue of Grief: Life Lessons from a Powerful Human Emotion

by Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac.

Every human emotion provides a unique message that helps us learn about ourselves and others. Emotional intelligence comes from managing our wide spectrum of emotions and harnessing their respective power. 

The problem is that most of us have been taught to value certain emotions more than others. Joy is considered a "good" emotion while anger and sadness are often considered "bad" emotions. Since "good" emotions are more acceptable, I believe many of us feel shame or self-doubt around fully expressing the "bad" emotions. This leads us to suppress these feelings, which can exacerbate the emotional upheaval internally and cause damage to the corresponding organ system with which the emotion is associated.

Grief is one of the most difficult emotions to process, but when properly transformed, it can provide powerful life lessons that can propel you to grow immensely on your path of self-cultivation.

Grief is the path to heal past wounds and arrive more fully into your authentic self.

Grief is the path to heal past wounds and arrive more fully into your authentic self.

The Emotions According to Chinese Medicine

Huang Di Nei Jing, a foremost classical Chinese medical text, defines seven emotions as major internal causes of disease. These emotions are joy, anger, fear, fright, anxiety, pensiveness and grief. We all experience all these emotions but when any one of them become excessive or are not properly transformed, they can damage their respective organ systems.

It's important to note that all emotions have the potential to negatively impact your health, including the ones we often deem as positive, such as joy. According to Chinese Medicine, over-joy can be likened to anxiety, which is an emotion with which many of us are familiar. Anxiety has the potential to aggravate the Heart and Pericardium system, or Fire element.

Other emotions can also cause damage when chronic or in excess. Worry, or pensiveness, leads to obsession and can damage the Spleen and Stomach system, or Earth element. Anger can turn to rage and damage the Liver and Gallbladder system, or Wood element. Sadness can turn to chronic grief and damage the Lungs and Large Intestine system, or Metal element.

Organ systems are particularly vulnerable during their respective seasons. The Liver and Gallbladder are for instance most vulnerable during the Wood season of Spring, while the Lungs and Large Intestine are most susceptible to harm during the Metal season of Autumn. Consequently, you're more likely to feel the imbalanced emotion of each element during its respective season. In other words, it's common to feel angry or irritable during springtime while sadness is a common emotion during the Fall season.

Sadness and grief are the emotions associated with an imbalance in the Lung and Large Intestine system, and thus the Metal element.

Because of our social bias toward "good" emotions and away from the difficult ones, like grief, there's a tendency to suppress rather than fully express these feelings. However, when we learn to properly transform grief, not only can it help us develop a greater capacity emotionally, but it can also help us deepen our self-awareness and self-cultivation.

 

Grief and the Lungs

Grief is the unbalanced emotion related to the Metal element, which encompasses the Lungs and Large Intestine, as well as the skin.

Grief directly impacts the Lungs and overwhelms our ability to let go, which is the virtue of the Lungs in their balanced state.

Your lungs are part of the respiratory system, and they provide a connection between your external and internal worlds through the breath. Inhalation draws in fresh oxygen and Qi, or energy, while exhalation helps you let go of toxins. 

The Lungs' natural movement is to disperse and descend Qi.

The Lungs disperse, or spread, the body fluids as well as the Wei Qi, the defensive Qi that runs on the surface of the skin to protect you during the day and travels into the body to help you sleep at night. This ensures that Wei Qi is equally distributed under the skin and to the muscles to warm and moisten the skin, allowing for a normal amount of sweating, and to protect the body from external pathogens that can cause colds, flus and skin problems (see more about this in a previous article).

As the uppermost organ, the Lungs also descend Qi to communicate with the Kidneys, which are said to 'grasp' the Qi of the Lungs. This allows for deep breathing. The Lungs also direct body fluids downward to Kidneys and Bladder. Dysfunction in the communication between the Lungs and Kidneys can result in wheezing and asthma or accumulation of fluids either from the failure of the Lungs to descend the Qi or weakness in the Kidneys that prevent the grasping of the Lung Qi.

Dealing with grief weakens your Qi, which then demands that you slow down and turn inward to process the depths of your emotional state.

Dealing with grief weakens your Qi, which then demands that you slow down and turn inward to process the depths of your emotional state.

The Virtue of Grief

Grief weakens the Lung Qi and inhibits the natural ability of the Lungs to disperse Qi, thereby preventing the Lungs from letting go and extending your energy out into the world.

Grief also impairs the Lungs' ability to descend Qi into the Kidneys, which can further weaken the Kidneys. As a result, when faced with tragedy such as death or other loss, you may feel isolated and vulnerable.

Since grief directly impacts the Lungs, it's common to have Lung problems develop after a loss, including asthma, cough, and even pneumonia.

Dealing with grief can be draining and weakens your Qi, which then demands that you slow down and turn inward to process the depths of your emotional state.

Turning inward allows you to consolidate your Kidney Qi, which supports the Lung Qi, governs Willpower and holds the Life Gate Fire known as the Ming Men that stokes all of the body's energy.

Turning inward and slowing down is thus essential for the Lungs to regain the strength necessary to help you let go and express yourself in the world once again.

It's therefore necessary to have a hibernation period to build back your energy and process your grief.

The best time to do this is during the slow, Yin seasons of Fall and Winter, which are the seasons of the Lungs and Kidneys, respectively.

Grief can be particularly challenging to process because it stirs up the regrets, insecurities and unresolved issues of your past.

Grief is the path to heal past wounds.

Left alone, the wounds of your past become more and more painful and inhibit you from living a fulfilled life.

These unhealed wounds can be likened to what author Michael Singer calls "inner thorns" in his book, The Untethered Soul. Singer explains that these "thorns" are sensitivities that lie in the human heart. When something touches these thorns, we feel pain deep inside.

Singer says that you have two choices to deal with these inner thorns. You can either compensate for being disturbed by avoiding feeling the thorn, or you can remove the thorn and not have the focus of your life revolve around it. To remove the thorn, he says that you must "look deep within yourself, to the core of your being, and decide that you don't want the weakest part of you running your life" (Singer 81).

When you avoid or compensate for your emotions, they become the inner thorns that manifest into your greatest blocks.

When you instead take time to process your grief, it'll guide you to insights that help you heal your inner thorns; your deepest wounds from the past.

Through this healing, you’ll cultivate a more grounded connection to yourself.

 

Conclusion

If you don't process grief, it ferments in your body-mind and later manifests as more severe, chronic emotions such as depression and even rage.

Like every emotion, the full expression of grief is the process by which it's brought to the surface to heal.

When you catch a cold, your body attempts to clear it through your orifices with symptoms such as a runny nose, sneezing and coughing. Similarly, the body needs to process an overwhelming loss through the expression of emotions, including grief, which must be felt and experienced fully to transform and clear from the body.

Loss is a natural part of life, and we're all grieving something most of the time, whether it's the loss of a loved one, a career change, a move, a breakup, or the simple inner transformations that can occur daily.

Every change in your life, whether positive or negative, can stir up grief about what you're leaving behind. Every change therefore has the potential to offer new wisdom and insights through the virtue of grief. When you allow this grief to transport you to the depths of your heart, you can hear the lessons of your past, let go, and regain the strength and clarity to more fully experience your authentic self.


Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac. is Co-Owner and Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California, a health and wellness clinic that specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine and Traditional Japanese Acupuncture. Dr. Moafi offers clinical services and transformational workshops that blend the ancient practices of Classical Chinese Medicine and Yoga. More information at www.setarehmoafi.com and www.acenterfornaturalhealing.com