When you love someone or something, experiencing the loss of that thing or person can be nearly unbearable. Grieving is how we work through the various emotions we experience in the wake of that loss. Grief can be challenging and uncomfortable, especially as it brings up feelings we’d rather not experience. If we understand the grieving process, we can prepare ourselves somewhat to go through it and emerge on the other side.
When we experience loss, that means that our lives will not be the same again – the role that person played in our lives, and the memories attached to them can’t be replicated. We need to come to terms with this new situation and continue living life in a way that honors our loved ones and that is healthy for us. Grieving can take us from the initial shock of that loss to the next stages of our lives.
The grieving process is not a form of forgetting, but it is a way to cope with a difficult new reality and gain the ability to keep on going. Grieving allows us to move beyond the past and look to our present and the future so that we can reinvest ourselves and our energy – emotional, mental, and physical – in other relationships. if we are unable to do this, our lives are diminished, and we can settle into some unhealthy patterns of behavior.
Grieving is a process
Grieving isn’t a thing of a moment, and it is right to refer to the “grieving process.” It takes time. As a social worker and counselor Corrie Sirota once wrote, grief is a process, not an event – and it does not keep a schedule. It can take a while for the sting of loss to really sink in, and this realization is not simply an event that occurs at a single point, but a lifelong process of awareness and adapting to that loss.
When we lose a loved one, it can make us question our life, sense of purpose, and previous goals, but that isn’t always a bad thing. We can recognize that perhaps we were spending too much time at work and not enough with loved ones, which can also create regrets even as we try to change our lives.
The grieving process takes time to work through, and it can leave us changed forever. After the death of his wife, C. S. Lewis once wrote that grief felt like a part of you had been amputated. He wrote in A Grief Observed,
“Getting over it so soon? But the words are ambiguous. To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he’s had his leg off is quite another. After that operation either the wounded stump heals or the man dies. If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop.
“Presently he’ll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has ‘got over it.’ But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and perhaps pretty bad ones; and he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down, and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different.
His whole way of life will be changed. All sorts of pleasures and activities that he once took for granted will have to be simply written off. Duties too. At present, I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.”
We never quite “get over” our loss, but we need to grieve in order to learn how to live in our new situation.
Working at your own pace
It’s possible that you may have heard of the five (or seven) stages of grief, first proposed by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist, and a pioneer in near-death studies. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are the five stages that a person goes through when they are grieving the loss of a loved one.
Dr. Kübler-Ross was clear that these stages aren’t clear-cut, nor are they linear progressive steps. But the widespread understanding that most people have about how grief works leads them to believe that a person moves through the stages in a relatively neat fashion. However, that reality only leads to disappointment.
According to the American Psychological Association, “everyone reacts differently to death and employs personal coping mechanisms for grief. Research shows that most people can recover from loss on their own through the passage of time if they have social support and healthy habits.
It may take months or a year to come to terms with a loss. There is no ‘normal’ time period for someone to grieve. Don’t expect to pass through phases of grief either, as research suggests that most people do not go through stages as progressive steps.”
Grief can be messy, and your own experience of loss may confirm that. Because grief doesn’t take a fixed time, nor does it show up in the same way for everyone, each of us grieving in our own way can create strain and confusion between family members and friends. The swirl of emotions, from anger to despair, to serene acceptance of what has happened, can make family members and friends frustrated with each other.
It’s easy to think the other person either doesn’t care enough or that they are being “overly dramatic” in how they are experiencing and processing grief. But it is important to remember that we grieve differently, and we need to extend empathy toward others who are grieving in their own way.
The important thing is to allow yourself room to grieve, and not to deny what you are feeling and the loss you’ve experienced. This is important whether the relationship was close and affectionate, or complicated and riddled with issues.
Healthy ways to work through your grief
It is true that we all grieve in our own way, but there are some ways of grieving that are healthy and that promote emotional and mental wellness, and others that undermine it. Below are a few ways to work through the grieving process in healthy ways.
Acknowledge what you’re feeling.
Grief can make a jumble of your thoughts and emotions, from sadness, anger, exhaustion, regret, and feelings of guilt. You may even feel selfish and entitled for allowing yourself to grieve. You may not always get closure with your loved one, but all of these feelings are normal.
Face the loss head-on.
Avoiding what has happened can lead to feelings of isolation and will likely disrupt the healing process. Speak about the death of your loved one, whether with friends, colleagues, or other family members. This can help you come to terms with what has happened, and it helps you to both understand what happened and remember your loved one.
We can also attempt to avoid what has happened by avoiding anniversaries or other reminders of our loved ones. Instead, you can create space to remember and celebrate the life of your loved one, perhaps by donating to their favorite charity, naming a child after them, creating a plaque for a garden bench in their honor, or planting a garden in their memory. You can also swap stories about your loved one, listen to their favorite music, or watch their favorite movie.
Take care of yourself and your loved ones.
Check in with one another to ensure that you are taking care of yourselves and each other. Good nutrition is a must, as grieving can take a heavy toll on one’s body. Make sure you get some exercise, that you sleep well, and that you eat healthy foods.
Reach out to others.
Make sure to reach out and help others in your circles of influence who are also dealing with the loss. There is nothing that can substitute the power of presence, and being with other loved ones that are experiencing the loss can help you all to cope.
Be aware of how you are each dealing with the loss. Each person will be dealing with things in their own way, and it requires compassion and empathy to respect the process the other is going through even when it differs from your own.
If you feel stuck or overwhelmed by your thoughts and emotions, it may be helpful to talk with a licensed therapist or another mental health professional who can help you cope and build your resilience while developing strategies to help you work through your loss.
Therapists are trained to help people better understand their own emotions as well as handle the fear, regret, guilt, or anxiety that can come in the wake of the death of a loved one. If you need help to deal with your grief, speak with a therapist or other licensed mental health professional to get the help you need.
“Remembering the Past”, Courtesy of Jonatan Becerra, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Park Bench”, Courtesy of Ann, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Candle”, Corutesy of Sixteen Miles Out, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Open Bible”, Courtesy of Aaron Burden, Unsplash.com, CC0 License