Grief is never something you get over. You don’t wake up one morning and say, “I’ve conquered that; now I’m moving on.” It’s something that walks beside you every day. And if you can learn how to manage it and honour the person that you miss, you can take something that is incredibly sad and have some form of positivity. – Terri Irwin, widowed wife of Steve Irwin
Grief comes at us hard. Whether we had time to prepare for its onset or not, no one is ever really ready for the experience of loss. It is painful, messy, confusing, and constantly in flux. Grief is the soul’s adjustment process and growing pains to a new life situation. Further, it is often shrouded in mystery in terms of what is “acceptable grief.”
Since everyone experiences the grief process differently, we often shy away from sharing our experience or listening to how our loved ones experience it.
C.S. Lewis had this to say about it: “Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say ‘My tooth is aching’ than to say ‘My heart is broken.’”
When our tooth aches, we go to the dentist. When our arm is broken, we go to the doctor. Physical pains have visible causes and clear solutions. The emotional pain caused by grief is so much more confusing. Should we talk to our friends? See a counselor? Deal with it silently by myself? Grief causes us to be confused and the lack of a clear solution can aggravate the pain.
Ultimately, the grief process is complex and difficult. I am hoping here that I will be able to help you navigate what grief feels like and to help you to know what you can do about it. When navigating grief, it can be helpful to know where you are headed, but know that the journey is not linear. There will be some wandering, some ups and downs, and turns and missteps, but ultimately it is a process that can trend towards a healing.
Different Types of Grief
In general, you can think of grief as being on a grid of four types. You can have grief that is prepared for or not, and grief that is ambiguous or concrete. In the first domain, grieving the loss of a loved one after their passing may be something you knew was coming, such as after a long battle with cancer. The other side of this is when someone dies suddenly.
In the former, it is likely that some affairs were put in order and you had time to emotionally prepare, but in the latter, it is something that catches you off guard. In this instance, you must not only mourn the loss but navigate a new reality that you didn’t see coming.
The second domain is concrete versus ambiguous grief. Concrete grief is experienced when something that you used to have or someone you used to know is gone and you know that they are gone. The passing of a loved one is a concrete experience. However, some things cause us to grieve that are much more abstract, such as the loss of something we never had or the loss of something we slowly realize will not come back.
Examples of this would include when a woman reaches menopause without ever having the children she intended to have. While technically no one was lost, this potential is gone and is something to be grieved. Another potential example of ambiguous grief would be a friend that moves away and you slowly grow out of touch. While they are not permanently gone, the relationship can slowly fade and this might be something to grieve as well.
Even further, grief can be further understood in different dimensions, such as the proximity of the relationship to you (best friend vs. a co-worker for example). All these factors multiply and play off of each other to further make the grieving process more and more complicated.
There is No Wrong Way to Feel
No matter who or what you are grieving, there is no wrong way to feel. Let me repeat that there is no wrong way to feel. The relief that you might feel? That is ok. That pain in your chest like a boulder? That is ok too. Everyone experiences loss differently and different circumstances cause us to see things in different lights, so every response is ok.
Note that thus far I haven’t addressed the “stages” of grief, and that is largely intentional. While some people experience the stages as made famous in popular culture (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), rarely do people go through those in a linear order. Further, other emotions often come in, such as anxiety, relief, or even happiness.
You might be relieved that a loved one who has been suffering is no longer feeling pain, and even further you might feel some happiness that it is no longer a daily issue for you as well. Often, people will begin to feel guilty that they feel happy, but I want you to know this is a normal response to a long battle with suffering. There is no wrong way to feel.
For many, understanding emotions is so abstract it is difficult to do, so let me give you some word pictures to work with and see if these help you to describe how you are feeling.
Imagine you are a puzzle. People and objects in your life fit together like puzzles pieces. As much as we like to think of ourselves as independent, we are social beings and our identity is partially formed by the relationships and roles we have.
Grief occurs when one of those puzzle pieces goes away. The loss of a loved one leads us to suddenly feel incomplete where we were once whole. The puzzle piece was removed and no other piece can fill its place. Finding wholeness again may involve a painful process of finding new pieces that might fit.
You might feel like the pieces around it need to be molded and cut to fit a new piece in. You might get frustrated trying to find a new piece in this process. Ultimately you may or may not find ways to replace this piece. If you do, you experience wholeness again.
If not, you may come to a point of acceptance that there will never be another piece that fills that hole and you can give up the search, finding peace in the lack of anxiety around it. Neither path is right or wrong. Further, these pieces are not just people. Sometimes they are jobs, hobbies, or interests.
Some things you fill the gap with may be beneficial and healthy, others abrasive and corrosive. You might soon find a new piece that works or you may take years to come to find a new piece or acceptance. No matter what happens, though, your journey is valid.
Another way to think about grief is like a heavy boulder placed upon your chest. It may feel difficult to move, to get any momentum towards where you want to go. This boulder might contain memories, images, thoughts, or feelings. It seems so heavy that you can’t move it from yourself. You might see where you want to go, but this boulder of grief is in the way.
In this case, you are going to need support and help. Perhaps friends can help you to push this boulder off of you. Maybe going to counseling can help, or even a support group. Perhaps it is the combined effort of all these factors that will help you to push the boulder away and let you move forward in your life. But know this, there is no shame in reaching out for help. Dealing with it on your own often is incredibly exhausting and ultimately futile, so reaching out sooner rather than later will always be a better option.
One final image to think about is the process of grieving is like being lost at sea. You move in one direction, not sure if that is the way to go, constantly doubting yourself. Perhaps who or what you lost was your direction or the wind in your sails. Without them, you have lost the ability to move forward and towards what will be a place of healing.
Ultimately, it is a lonely experience. When we isolate and try to handle it on our own we try to blow wind into our sails, but it fails to get us going in the right direction. This feels like an impossible task, causing us to get down on ourselves and hopeless about the future. However, it does not have to be this way. Reaching out to those around is a great way to start. Invite others in and maybe you will be able to find some new direction or new motivation, moving you towards the goals in your life that you still have.
These are just some ways to think about how grief affects us, but I encourage you to find your own metaphor. When grief is so hard to understand, giving it an image helps to find solutions and ways to process it.
How to Move On
Grief is hard and it hurts. The healing process looks different for everyone and will take different amounts of time. Let me now give you some things to try to help process the loss you are experiencing. First of all, especially in cases of ambiguous or sudden loss, writing a letter to the person you have lost can be an incredibly powerful experience.
Write down everything you wish you could have said but didn’t get the chance to. Be open to your emotions and honest with them. Give a voice to the thoughts and feelings swirling in your head and get them concrete and on paper.
Read over the letter and then “deliver” it to whoever needs to receive it. Perhaps you place it on a grave or send it out into the ocean. This will allow you to process the emotions and give you a sense of closure when the loss has been so ambiguous.
Another common process that helps with loss is a ceremony. We have funerals in all cultures for a reason since the loss is something that is experienced as a group. But even in cases where we grieve something instead of someone, having a sort of ceremony can help to bring peace to the anxiety caused by loss. It could be for the pet that you have lost, or moving away from a town you grew up in. Big changes can be experienced as a grieving process, grieving the life that you used to have, and a ceremony can help you through this transition.
The final elements are related, and that is individual and group counseling. Group counseling for bereavement can be incredibly powerful and so much more than just a “cry fest.” Hearing the stories of others going through similar experiences can help validate your own experience and help you to feel normal in your process.
Further, by helping others you might be able to help yourself a little bit too. Individual counseling, on the other hand, will give you a space to be heard and sit with your experience just a little more deeply. Therapists are trained to help you understand exactly how you are feeling and help you give voice to all the strange emotions swirling in your head and body.
Though counseling or therapy (words that are interchangeable really) can be a scary and new experience for those who have never been in it, know that it is a place where you can be fully yourself and you should feel free of judgment. The sooner you reach out the sooner a therapist like me can help you to walk through this journey of grief. The grieving process is hard, but you can get through it and come out the other side strong.
“Grief”, Courtesy of Kat Jayne, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Becalmed”, Courtesy of Nuno Obey, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “The Missing Piece”, Courtesy of Pixabay, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Handwritten”, Courtesy of John-Mark Smith, Pexels.com, CC0 License