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Grief: A Most Common Experience of Being Human

September 18, 2018

By Andrew Penn, RN, MS, NP, CNS, APRN-BC
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The opinions expressed by Psychiatry & Behavioral Health Learning Network bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone and are not meant to reflect the opinions of the publication.

It’s been 6 months since our friend and colleague Eric C. Arauz, MLER, passed away. His death was a blunt reminder to me that if we are going to care about and be attached to others, we will have to experience the grief of losing them. We will be honoring Eric’s life following the Psych Congress preconference in Orlando, Florida, with a memorial lecture from Dr. Stephen Porges, the originator of the polyvagal theory and an intellectual mentor for Eric. Honored to be asked to host this session, I look forward to seeing the Psych Congress community celebrate Eric’s life with what he loved most—helping clinicians learn how to do their work with the utmost compassion and sensitivity towards their patients.

Additionally, I will be presenting an educational session on navigating grief on the Friday afternoon of Psych Congress. This session was planned months before Eric’s death, but the timing now feels fortuitous and necessary.

As psychiatric clinicians, we are often witnesses to the grief our patients carry into our offices. As human beings, we each carry our own grief, as it is the inevitable price we pay for our ability to love. If we are to love and attach to other people, we will have to face losing them. There is no way around this fact, and the only way is through. Despite the ubiquity of grief, our training programs often fell short in teaching us how to navigate this most common experience of being human. My presentation will draw deeply from Francis Weller’s seminal book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, in which he describes a topography of grief that begins with the most obvious source of grief: all that we love, we will lose. But what makes Weller’s work important and original is his ability to thoughtfully and tenderly describe the other wellsprings of grief that we experience in addition to the most proximal loss:

• We grieve the parts of us that have not known love;

• We grieve the sorrows of the world;

• We grieve that which we expected and did not receive;

• We carry ancestral grief.

Grief is interconnected. When we feel grief for one of these losses, other unmetabolized grief sympathetically resonates with the current loss. However, as we honor one area of our grief with our attention, care, and connection with others, the opportunity exists for these attendant areas of grief to also be seen and healed.

Weller’s work has taught me that the healing of grief is not a task of the intellect, but rather, one of the imaginative soul. As such, I imagined this presentation as a dinner party between artists and thinkers across the ages, each person around the table contributing wisdom to the conversation. Music is the poetry of our age, and poetry is often the fastest way of accessing our souls. As such, I’m taking some chances with my presentation and bringing in not only the work of leading grief researchers in psychiatry, but also words and songs of the bards of our time. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and Holly Priegerson’s work will share the stage with Leonard Cohen and Alice Walker.

The talk will be pragmatic, reminding us how we can help our patients learn to sit with their grief though mindfulness, to regain perspective, and to reconnect with the natural and human worlds around them. While grief is often phobically avoided in our culture, I hope to offer a way of honoring our experience of loss that leads to a robust affirmation of life and a deep love for all that matters to us.  I hope it also provides a modicum of solace as we navigate our own feelings around the loss of our friend and colleague, Eric. I hope you’ll join me.


Weller F. The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books; 2015.

Andrew Penn was trained as an adult nurse practitioner and psychiatric clinical nurse specialist at the University of California, San Francisco. He is board certified as an adult nurse practitioner and psychiatric nurse practitioner by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. Currently, he serves as an Associate Clinical Professor at the University of California-San Francisco School of Nursing. Mr. Penn is a psychiatric nurse practitioner with Kaiser Permanente in Redwood City, California, where he provides psychopharmacological treatment for adult patients and specializes in the treatment of affective disorders and PTSD. He is a former board member of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, California Chapter, and has presented nationally on improving medication adherence, emerging drugs of abuse, treatment-resistant depression, diagnosis and treatment of bipolar disorder, and the art and science of psychopharmacologic practice. 

The views expressed on this blog are solely those of the blog post author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Psych Congress Network or other Psych Congress Network authors. Blog entries are not medical advice.

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