Grief is an experience we encounter at many times in our life. Grief is our response to loss. We can encounter grief when faced with any loss, such as death, a breakup, the ending of a job, or moving. Grief can be a complicated and overwhelming experience and is often tricky to navigate on our own.
Here’s what this blog is not: this is not a one size fits all approach to grieving or an all encompassing ten step list of what to do when you face loss. Grief is not a math equation; it is a canvas to be painted with many colors. It will look different for each artist. We must only have the courage to paint.
When talking about grief, I often quote one of my graduate school professors who told us, “Grief is every emotion.” We commonly think of the five stages of grief from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s work. This framework is helpful, but we also know that grief is more broad and complex than these stages. Grief is a mix of emotion that can be hard to define, quantify, and put on a timeline. The truth is that there is no timeline for grief. There is great freedom in giving ourselves the permission to grieve as long or as little as we need.
As I mentioned, this is not a checklist for grief, but here’s what I’ve learned to be helpful on the journey of grieving:
Give yourself permission to feel
Feel your feelings. It may sound like a simple concept, but it’s one of the most difficult tasks. It takes effort and intentionality to identify what we are feeling and give ourselves the permission to feel and express these feelings. Expressing our feelings, especially negative feelings, can be uncomfortable, vulnerable, and scary. We may not be used to the experience of expressing emotion and we may not have always had the freedom to feel and express emotion. After losing a loved one, we may find ourselves restraining our feelings of sadness, holding ourselves back from shedding tears, or repressing anger about the loss. Pushing down or hiding feelings only turns them into other feelings or sensations. Though feelings may be overwhelming, they are always finite. They will not last forever. Our feelings are meant to flow past us like a river. It’s when we dam up the feelings and try to stop them from coming that we run into issues. Find a way to express your feelings in a way that makes sense for you. Cry at the funeral. Yell in your car. Share your feelings with the people you trust. Talk about your sadness and how much you’ll miss this person. Your feelings are not too much. Your feelings deserve to be felt.
Embrace the goodbye
Our mind makes sense of the world through stories. Death is a difficult concept to process, and in the time after a loss, we may find our mind trying over and over to fathom the idea that this person is no longer on earth with us. Saying goodbye to our loved ones is a great gift and can truly help our minds to process the ending of this person’s life. If we’re not afforded the chance to say goodbye before our loved one passes, attending the funeral and saying our goodbyes there can be a very healing experience. We can also say these goodbyes through writing a letter to the deceased or creating our own moment of connection in whatever way feels right. Avoiding the emotions that come with saying goodbye can be very tempting and cause us to simply avoid the goodbye altogether. We do this sometimes not only with death, but with leaving events or even ending counseling. It’s much easier to slip out the door without anyone noticing or email your counselor saying you don’t need another session instead of saying a face to face goodbye. But our mind needs the closure. We need the goodbye. Embracing all the emotions that come with a face to face encounter helps our mind to process and release all the feelings present.
Maintain an enduring connection
After losing someone we love, we can stay connected to this person through memories, physical reminders, and the way we live our life. Taking time to reflect on memories we shared with this person through looking at pictures, watching videos, and talking to other loved ones can be incredibly meaningful. Finding a picture to keep close to us or a memento that reminds us of this person can bring great comfort. After a loss, we also get to choose how we want to honor this person with our life. Death can inspire us to set new intentions for ourselves or to live differently. What I remember most about my Pa is his smile and his laugh. He was the kind of person that always made me feel welcomed and loved. After losing him, this is one of the new intentions that I carry, to hold his loving spirit with me and offer the same warmth and kindness to all those I meet. In this way, I maintain connection with him in my everyday life.
Engage in rituals
Rituals provide meaning and order to our minds. A ritual is a series of actions performed to a prescribed order. Funerals, visitations, praying the Rosary, and gathering for a meal are all rituals we typically engage in after someone dies. These rituals provide a sense of peace and grounding in very fragile, chaotic times. Even though we can say our goodbyes and pay our respects from any place, it is a powerful and integrative experience to gather together with others to engage in these tangible rituals. It gives our minds more opportunity to comprehend loss and death and express emotion. We can also create new rituals to honor those we lost that can serve the same healing purpose for us. We may set a place at the table at holiday gatherings for our loved ones, make their favorite dish, or do something they enjoyed on their birthday or death anniversary. Taking the time for these simple activities helps us to actively grieve.
Unfortunately with the COVID pandemic, engaging in many of these rituals has become very difficult, if not impossible. There is an entire hurting population that has not had the opportunity to say a proper goodbye to people they dearly loved and lost. This has reminded us of the importance of rituals and also challenges us to create new rituals in our own way, through means like virtual memorials and gatherings and personal acts of remembrance and goodbyes.
Grief is messy, difficult, and a little different for everyone. Freedom and healing come when we give ourselves permission to write our own story of grief and not have to match it to anyone else’s. It doesn’t have to make sense. It doesn’t have to be pretty or socially acceptable. Give yourself permission to grieve without judgment, without expectation, and without shame. Grief is how we heal.