Grief is not a feeling that we are all craving, as opposed to our constant pursuit of happiness. Even so, we all experience grief and loss in our life. Grief is painful and is a natural and unavoidable emotion that is part of our human experience. Here are some ideas for navigating the experience of grief.
It is helpful if we can understand that our western culture doesn’t allow grief unless it is within the “acceptably appropriate” time-frames, such as, at the funeral or at the time of a life-limiting diagnosis. This period of time that is deemed acceptable is usually not very long, in fact, most bereavement leave is around 2-3 days in length. In addition to the short bereavement time, there are also restrictions around who we are ‘allowed’ to take bereavement leave for. The risk is that other deep relationships are not acknowledged in this process. This is often why people grieve in isolation.
Insight: Just know that our western society doesn’t usually support grief well. Take responsibility for your own grief and meet your needs.
The risk of being judged silences us. We stop talking about our loss. People tell us we ‘should’ be moving on or other equally useless words. When in fact what we need is a space to keep speaking what is the truth for us. If you want to keep your husband’s clothes in the wardrobe for 20 years or keep your dog’s bowl and collar and not use it for any other animal, you should be able to do that and speak about it without being told “don’t you think it’s time you cleared that out” or “we can use [dog’s name] bowl and collar for [new dog’s name]”. In the west, we are what I call closet grievers! We keep up appearances, when in fact we are still numb and empty inside.
Insight: Honour and embrace your own grieving process. Understand the words of encouragement to move on with your life after a loss is usually for the benefit of the person speaking them…it helps them feel better. You don’t have to take it on!
The cost of not grieving
When we suppress our grief and take on the so-called grieving rules of our society, our mental, emotional and physical wellbeing are impacted. The next loss is felt more deeply due to our unattended grief from previous losses. Resisting grief only prolongs the pain and causes us to shut down a part of ourselves and isolate.
Insight: It is important for us to honour our feelings and take care of them.
Grief is a personal journey and there is no right or wrong way to process your own grief. How your family dealt with grief when you were young will have an impact on how you deal with grief in your adult life. The words around grief in my family were to ‘not cry’ and ‘be strong’! What were the words in your family? What do you hear yourself say when your children are sad?
I would often wish I was part of those cultures where wailing and crying in public was supported, instead of our western way of smothering grief because others often don’t know how to be with it.
I have found it helpful to name how I am feeling. I’ve learned that when I name something, it loses its power over me. My invitation is to name where you are with your grief. If it’s too hard to look at that’s fine - bring that into your conscious field and say so.
Insight: Notice your words around grief for yourself and the words you use for others in grief. Are these words still relevant to your experience? Acknowledge your feelings and know your grief won’t last forever.
We are all allowed to grieve however we need to, and for as long as we need. Give yourself permission to do your grieving in your own way. Allow life to move past you while you are stopped by your grief. Allow your grief to come in the waves it needs to. Allow yourself to not grieve while you are busy surviving the moment. This is not about avoiding grief, this is about bringing the truth into your consciousness and making a choice to not grieve right now.
Insight: Grief does not need to be an isolating agony. Give yourself permission to grieve however you need to.
I often feel that in groups or writings that I read, the truth is often skipped over. I’ve noticed in some support groups, someone will say they are having a terrible day and then follows the avalanche of comments such as – “keep fighting”, “you are brave”, “you can beat this” – you get what I mean! This then becomes yet another place where there is no space for feeling the true feeling.
We are always sensing if it’s ok or not to speak about it. You might notice some people starting to avoid you. You may even find it is difficult now to be with some of those meaningless conversations people have. More and more we internalise our grief and isolate. We try to deal with our grief on our own or suppress our grief because it’s too hard to find a space for it to be allowed without feeling like we are burdening others.
But we are not meant to be on our own - we are hard-wired for community and we have a need to fit into that community. It’s a basic survival mechanism. Seek out support, whether that be a professional or a friend.
If you seek out a friend, it might be helpful to ask if they are willing to hold space for you and your grief. Let them know what your need is, and see if they are happy to support or not. It may not be something they feel able to do, and it is important that we honour their capacity as well as our own need.
Insight: Remember that support groups are great, but they are usually full of other people who are suffering. Certainly, you may find a level of support in them. Often people keep triggering each other’s grief. Also there is the common action of comparing each other’s story which can lead to you minimizing your own experience because some else has a worse story. You have the wisdom to make the decision for yourself. If you find that the friends and support groups are not giving you what you need, try something else. Keep looking for what you need.
Grief is not pretty and it doesn’t feel great. Maybe people just need to be met and held in that horrible, painful place instead of being forced out of it and into silence.
One of the biggest gifts you can give anyone who is grieving is to just be with them. Nothing to fix, nothing to change. Just needing to be held and witnessed in that place of deep pain. When I say held, that doesn’t necessarily mean physically being held. It’s more about holding space for someone to be exactly where they need to be.
Risk stepping into that vulnerable place of pain, the place of not knowing what to say, being scared of saying the wrong thing, or having someone else’s grief touch your own. This is where the healing happens and people feel met in their vulnerability.