The unfortunate truth is that we all experience death, grief, and loss sometime during our lives. I had the privilege of working as a grief counselor early in my career and even now, I find myself sharing the basics of grief and loss so often with my clients. Because of this, I thought it might be helpful to create my own little “Grief 101” class.
Before I begin, I want to emphasize that although I’ll be focusing on grief as it relates to the death of a loved one, it’s important to note that this information also applies to – and the same grief work is sometimes needed for – any kind of difficult loss such as divorce, losing a job, loss of health, etc.
Let’s start with the tasks of grieving. When we experience a loss, the hope is that we can move through these tasks of grieving in order to find healing.
- Recognizing the reality of the loss: this means processing and understanding the loss; what happened, how it happened, when it happened, how this loss affected me, my thoughts and emotions about the loss, etc. It’s so important to have supportive people in our lives with whom we can express our thoughts and feelings in order to process the loss. If you don’t have these supports in your life, or the support you have doesn’t feel adequate, seek out a therapist who can help.
- Adjust to a new environment/new normal: Someone you loved has died and chances are, there’s a certain amount of energy you put into that relationship. Now that they’re gone, what do you do with that energy? For example, if I was a caretaker for my ailing mother and I spent many hours during the day driving to medical appointments, cleaning, cooking, and caring for her, what will I do now that those tasks aren’t a part of my day? This is when I talk to my clients about the importance of using self care and also taking time to connect with their loved one in a way that feels meaningful.
- Reinvest in the new normal: Now that you’ve thought through what you’re going to do with that time and energy (i.e. I’m going to pray, go to the cemetery to visit my mother’s grave, attend a support group, find a therapist, start a new job, finally take that painting class I’ve always wanted to take) this is when you start taking up the tasks of daily living within your new normal and begin to reinvest in life.
It’s unbelievably difficult to move through life without our loved one and everyone moves through these tasks in their own time. Unfortunately, our society in general likes to say “It’s been X number of months, shouldn’t you be over this by now?” To that I say, hell no! Grief is never something you get “over”. A certain level of sadness will always remain and that’s okay because you’ve lost someone that you love. Our sadness is one way we honor our love for that person. We all want to believe that grief looks like a smooth downward sloping line on a graph that just gets easier over time. The truth is, it looks more like jagged series of peaks and valleys because over time, there are sudden and temporary upsurges of grief along the way that remind us of our loved one – like when a birthday or anniversary comes. If you do the grief work and allow yourself the space and self-compassion to work through these triggers and tasks in your own time, you’ll see a very gradual decrease over time in the intensity of your grief.
It’s also important to give yourself permission to feel however you need to feel in the moment. Whether it’s sadness, anger, confusion, worry, frustration, or peace; notice it, acknowledge it, allow yourself to feel it and process it. Too often I talk to people who push away or stuff their grief emotions because “It wasn’t the right time” or “It’s been two years, I shouldn’t be feeling this sad anymore”. If you don’t handle your grief, it will handle you. Grief is one of those things that if ignored, it will wreak havoc on your physical and mental health as well as other areas of your life. So let’s say you’re standing in the middle of the grocery store and something triggers your grief. You want to start crying but aren’t sure what to do. I’d encourage you to leave your shopping cart, go to your car or to the restroom and allow yourself to emote and feel whatever it is in that moment. Right now I’m sure you’re thinking “Okay Katie, so what if I’m in the middle of a meeting at work. Sometimes I can’t just up and leave to go cry?!” I hear you. Grief can come up at the most inconvenient times. And my answer to that question is, there are ways you can manage those difficult emotions in the moment and still be moving through them as opposed to stuffing them. Give me a call or call a counselor who specializes in grief and loss; they can give you the tools to help you do this.
The most important thing to remember is:
time + grief work = healing
Time will ultimately take care of itself and if you do the tough grief work, (A.K.A. all of these things I mentioned above) you’ll find yourself moving towards peace and healing.