The Truth About Grief

How do we define grief?

Many of us reduce our understanding of grief to something simple: how we feel after the death of a loved one. While this experience is likely one of the most profound and intense experiences of grief that one can have, it isn’t the only kind. Grief can be felt on many levels and in a large variety of circumstances. And no matter what loss or change has occurred, if you are grieving, it deserves to be felt. Grief, to me, can be described as a healthy and normal emotional reaction to a loss or change of any kind, including the end of something familiar or something we have invested in. “Loss,” “change,” and “end” have broad definitions, too. We might feel grief when when we move to a new city or leave a job, if we lose our favorite stuffed animal as a kid, when our parents divorce, after a break up, if a cherished possession is stolen, when we get injured, if we experience a national crisis or tragedy, if we miss an important opportunity in reaching our goals, or if we lose hope. We can even grieve parts of a life we did not get to have, like not having loving, attentive parents or not having good health. I guess my point here is, grief is a universal human experience, and there is no exact way to define it or categorize it. It happens to all of us. And since we are complex beings, there is no correct trajectory for grief.

As Americans, we live in a culture that does not embrace grief. This is a symptom of a greater societal message that painful emotions are inherently bad and we must avoid them. And we definitely do not publicize them or even talk about them too much with our closest friends and family. So, we create a "standard" for it, an expectation for it that we strive to follow. We rush through grief, we keep it inside. We succumb to the spoken and unspoken pressure to keep it within "socially acceptable" limits. We worry about not burdening others with our feelings, or not being perceived as self-pitying. We "suck it up" and "go on with our lives." We neglect our deep, human need to actually feel the real pain, allow it to flow through us, and express ourselves in a safe environment.

Sometimes, we avoid grieving because we believe if we allow ourselves to fully feel it all, we won’t survive it. It will be too much to handle. (This is not true, more on that later.) We also struggle to support others in their grief, we rarely know what to say, and many of us worry that sitting with another in their grief will also be too much for us to take on.

The way we silence and limit our and each others’ grieving process is damaging to our wellbeing and to our ability to connect with each other with compassion. Grief is not linear nor is it predictable, so it is impossible to keep it inside this suffocating box we’ve created for it. When we think we have successfully kept it in that box, we often find that so many of our wounds cannot heal, and they expose themselves through other destructive beliefs and behaviors that keep us from moving forward. A natural human experience turns into a trauma. Grief is complex, unique, personal, and universal. Since we all experience it, what would it be like to treat it like a normal, accepted part of being alive, rather than stifling it with shame and advice-giving?

Why is grief healthy and important?

When we grieve, we heal. While a loss may change our lives, it does not permanently damage us or break us. But we have to grieve in order to heal, even though a scar is left behind. Allowing and inviting grief promotes patience and self-compassion. It cultivates mindfulness as we listen to our bodies. It helps us practice self-trust, knowing that we can feel the intensity and gravity of these emotions and still be okay. Grief helps us honor what has been lost and invites insight and reflection. Out of grief comes new meaning for our lives.

When we bury our feelings, they don’t go away - they get stuck within us. They will start attacking and infecting the wound, even underneath the bandaid, and even if you don’t notice it at first. This inevitably leads to more pain - pain that may last forever if not tended to, pain that may be subtle or even misidentified with another problem. Typically, we each have a unique and familiar experience of grief no matter the loss, and grief shows up throughout our lives. So, unprocessed grief from the past can easily arise in full force during new losses. Not only does this make it more difficult to attend to what is happening in the moment, sometimes this can affect our ability to lead healthy, balanced lives overall. So, when we do allow ourselves to grieve fully, we move towards a state of clarity and acceptance which allows room for making meaning of it and moving forward. And we learn that we can survive our emotional suffering, and in fact, it has a purpose. It can change us for the better. It can ultimately drive us forward in ways we never knew were possible.

What does grief look and feel like? How do we allow ourselves to grieve?

Again, grief is nonlinear. It probably looks more like a squiggly line drawn by a toddler. Since it looks and feels different for everyone, there is no right or wrong way to grieve other than giving it space to have its natural process. This essentially means that grief moves through us most effectively when welcomed and allowed at our own pace, not forced or controlled, and definitely not when subjected to what others tell us to do with it.

Many people refer back to the “5 Stages of Grief” model that was developed in the 1960’s that categorized the common emotional states: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This model was extremely helpful for us to begin understanding grief, however, by now it is a bit too reductionistic. The “stages” do not go in order, they look different for each person depending on the degree to which they are grieving, and some stages are skipped entirely.

After studying grief for some time and sitting with many individuals in their grieving process, a few common factors have come to light for me. First, when grief is fully invited in, we will usually experience some form of shock or disbelief at first, which can also manifest as denial. This part of the reaction is deceivingly productive, as it provides a little bit of time for us to sit with it and let the truth to sink in. It also provides a somewhat “safer” space to return to if emotions become intolerable. Simply recognizing when this is happening is a way of beginning to allow grief in.

Second, at some point, we will likely experience an onset of very intense feelings, whether it is deep sorrow, anger, fear, confusion, or a wild combination of these. Often times, we can fluctuate between the disbelief state and the intense emotion state as a way to stay regulated, and to tolerate our feelings enough to function in our day-to-day lives if we have to. However, the intense emotions need air time in order for them resolve, so it is important to make space for it somehow. We can feel big, intense emotions and still survive. Thoughts and feelings are just thoughts and feelings, they are truly temporary, and they will not harm us if we simply acknowledge and observe them as they move through us. So when they show up, we don’t squash them unless we absolutely have to. We give it space to breathe. If there are tears, we let them flow. We hold our hand to our heart and acknowledge that we are in pain, remind ourselves that these feelings are normal. We ask for what we need in these moments, whether it’s space to cry, time to rest, or someone to talk to. If we still have responsibilities to tend to, we intentionally create space outside of these obligations for allowing ourselves to feel it fully.

And eventually, third, we hopefully arrive at a sense of acceptance, clarity, and meaning-making. While this final state may not be ever-present from that day forward, it is accessible, and we can trust that we will find it again if we stray from it sometimes. It is a sign that we are starting to heal. This “stage,” in many ways, lasts for the rest of our lives, as we are forever changed by grief and loss. While acceptance may happen naturally as we allow grief to move through us, we are undeniably different after a loss, and the ways that we have changed deserve recognition. So, the meaning-making piece takes effort and intention. It requires reflection.

I have a client who lost his mother to cancer last year. They had a complicated relationship, as she was notably neglectful when he was growing up, and they did not cultivate much of a relationship when he became an adult. They stayed in touch, but their connection was superficial, despite having a deeper family bond. My client learned that his mother had been diagnosed with cancer and that she had not told him or his siblings until it became so bad that she needed help from her children. My client traveled to his hometown to take care of her during her last days, and sat with her as she died. He remembers the exact moment when she took her last breath. This moment changed him forever. My client spent the following year experiencing some of the most complicated grief one could experience - full of shock, regret, confusion, anger, sorrow, resentment, invigoration, clarity, and determination. He continues to have moments of disbelief that his mother is gone, he deeply grieves the fact that he did not grow up with a mother who could meet his needs, and he is in pain knowing the opportunity to repair that is now gone. He struggles with resentment and pity for his mother while feeling guilty about this. He grieves that this loss is not simple for him. My client began to grieve the life he missed out on, not just with his mother, but due to the decisions he has made - socially isolating in adolescence, drinking too much, smoking cigarettes, doing the bare minimum in school, barely getting by. He realized this is not the life he wants for himself. He quit smoking and drinking, and began taking care of his body. He started working hard in school and getting A’s. He began to find his voice and embraced his ability to live authentically and comfortably in his own skin. He committed to reflecting on his life goals and purpose. It’s been incredible to see him gain tremendous strength from this experience of loss, drawn from the undeniable grief and healing process he will continue to go through for the rest of his life. Of course, this is a particularly powerful example of meaning-making, and only one way of interpreting it. Meaning-making can come in many forms, like goal-setting, a shift in perspective, connecting with a new part of ourselves, repairing a ruptured relationship, or taking away an important lesson. Whatever it looks like for us, meaning-making is a hugely beneficial piece of the healing process.

What if the grieving is more complicated, like after a national tragedy?

With the 2016 presidential campaign season and election outcome still fresh, it is impossible not to acknowledge this when discussing grief. A public loss or national tragedy/crisis can be just as painful as a personal loss. Many people have been grieving the outcome of this election. People are grieving the loss of what we hoped for the future of our country, the loss of the possibility of taking more steps towards true equality for all, the loss of the highly anticipated proof that women can do and be whatever they want, the loss of comfort that our leaders will take care of its people and the planet, the loss of the potential that went unfulfilled, the loss of our values being legitimized, the loss of all of the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into fighting for social justice.

Beyond these losses, people are grieving other painful things that were reflected throughout the campaign. This election season has seen more spewed hatred, bigotry and misogyny than any political campaign in recent history. When a public figure, especially one who is running for the highest possible position in our government, discusses women’s bodies so carelessly and disrespectfully, treats them as disposable objects, and brags about assaulting women, this brings to life all past grief for women who have been sexually abused, violated by men, or put down by men in any way (which, as far as I can tell, is likely most women in the world). These women are grieving. When this same man permits and encourages violence towards people of color, this brings to life all the grief from the traumatic history of minorities in this country and the fact that they cannot escape the systemic racism that is alive and well in today’s social climate. People of color are grieving. When this same man brings on a vice presidential running mate who avidly believes in conversion therapy and has spoken so cruelly about homosexuality, this brings to life all the grief carried by the LGBTQ community in its struggle against hate crimes and discrimination.

These are just a few examples. I wish I didn’t have to say there are more. People are grieving because they hoped their country was making progress. Women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, Muslims, and immigrants believed they were getting closer to real safety and security. But that was taken away, and their marginalization was instead validated at the highest level of social and political influence. This grief is no different from any other grief. All of the same principles apply.

How do we support those who are grieving?

The most important thing to do when we are grieving ourselves, and/or grieving with others is to allow space for it all - to welcome it with warmth, compassion, and curiosity. One person’s grief is not something to be compared against another’s, we all experience it differently. All grief, at its core, is valid. It is not a contest of who deserves the most empathy or concern, one person’s grief does not take away or deny another’s, so there is no policing required. Grief is not something to be shut down or criticized. It also is not something that needs advice.

So, first we have to embrace our own unique grieving journey, and then we are responsible for allowing others to have theirs. If it feels like too much to handle another’s expression of grief, take care of yourself however you need to. But do not blame them. Do not ask or expect others to “get over it,” “move on,” or “look on the bright side.” These sentiments are destructive to those who need space to move through their grief - that pressure is unfair. Even in the event of a death, stating that their loved one is “in a better place,” or “wouldn’t want you to be sad right now,” is not only unhelpful, it’s hurtful. Remember that grief is an honoring of the loss, it is a yardstick for the depth of its significance to this person. If you have the emotional space, listen. Ask questions. Sit quietly with it. Make it clear that all of the feelings are welcome here, that it does not scare you. When we can hold another’s sorrow, we can learn to hold our own, too, and we begin to trust each other with our grief. We connect and support each other, rather than turn away from each other.

These ideas include how we take care of ourselves when we are grieving with others and grieving a national tragedy. Some people may need to feel the pain for a while before acceptance comes. Some people want to reflect on it alone. Others want to talk it over with friends or family, or write about it on social media. Many feel called to action as a way to cope. However, many may also feel overwhelmed and powerless, but fixated on finding solutions. This can be tempting - using the “fight back” mentality to numb and check out from the grief. But I encourage owning the feelings behind it. If we are angry, it is ultimately because we are hurting. We must attend to the hurt, too. It needs healing so that we can show up fully to stand up for the values we believe in, so that energy can be productive and fruitful.