Finding Your Way Through Grief: 7 Things You Need to Know
Grief is one of those experiences in life that unless you’ve been through it, it’s difficult to understand. Simply put, anytime we lose someone in our life we experience grief; and the more profound and deep the loss, the more profound and deep the grief. It’s important to know that grief is not an emotion- it is a whole-person experience that can affect us physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually. The pain can be excruciating at times, and while our natural tendency is to try to get away from the pain, the path to healing from the pain of grief does not come from finding a way around it, it comes from finding a way through it.
Our grief often starts when we first learn that someone we love is going to die and it’s common to experience fear of what will happen and when it will happen, the sadness that our time with our loved one is short, and even anger or resentment that this is happening in the first place. But sometimes we have no advance warning that someone we love is going to die and the death comes as a complete surprise to us, leaving us in a state of shock- an experience that can be even more compounded if our loved one died in a way that was traumatic.
Even if you’ve experienced grief before, the path through the pain can be long and difficult, and sometimes the way we try to help ourselves and others in our time of need can unintentionally make the experience even more difficult. There will be no shortage of people sharing their own advice and suggestions on what you should do, some of which may or may not be helpful, but in my years of working with people who are grieving I have found several things to be essential in working through the pain.
1. Understand Your Unique Experience. The death of someone close to us is one of the hardest challenges we ever have to face in life and as the saying goes, the deeper we love, the deeper we grieve. Contrary to popular belief, there are no “stages” that people progress through when grieving. The experience of grief, and the way we work through it, can look different for each person. Try not to compare your grief to anyone else, and get rid of your “should” thinking (eg: “I should feel such-and-such,” “I shouldn’t be crying so much,” “I should be happy they’re not suffering anymore,” “I shouldn’t be feeling so bad.”). Grief often comes in waves, and generally speaking, as you work through your grief over time the waves are fewer and fewer, the intensity is less, and your confidence in your ability to handle them improves.
2. Take One Day at a Time. Although this phrase is cliché, it’s also true. Don’t spend time today worrying about the pain tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year. Just focus on today. If we worry about how long we will have to endure this pain we can easily overwhelm ourselves and plunge into a state of despair and depression. If your loved one is still alive, make each day count! Spend today as if it is the last day they are alive. Now is the time to do or say those things you need to do or say. Regret is one of the most potent but preventable demons we struggle with in grief, so say “I love you,” and find ways to show it. If you need to ask for forgiveness, ask for it. If you need to offer forgiveness, offer it. Make amends, make peace, find closure, and find a way to say goodbye.
3. Let Yourself Feel the Pain. To heal the pain of grief we have to experience it and work through it. There are no short cuts. As we face our pain and work through it over time, the pain eases. We might worry that if we let ourselves feel the pain that we’ll just get stuck in it, but in fact, it’s quite the opposite! Ignoring, avoiding, or suppressing the pain may be an effective short-term strategy, but by not feeling the pain and not working through it will only leave it right where it is: inside. Blocking out the pain often blocks out our ability to experience pleasant feelings, too. By not allowing yourself to work through the pain you also risk developing complicated grief; a more serious condition that often requires professional assistance to help resolve.
4. Don’t Stay Too Busy. It’s important that we still feel connected to life and maintain a sense of purpose because death can rob us of this. However, sometimes we try to stay busy as a way of avoiding the pain. Staying too busy can keep us from doing the work of grief and can drain us of what little emotional energy we have, so find a way to balance having things to do that give you a sense of meaning and purpose, but also allow yourself the time you need to work through the pain.
5. Find a Way to Stay Connected. Our loved one may die but our love doesn’t die with them, and so we must find a way to maintain a healthy connection with their memory. An easy way to do this is to talk about them and share memories (even if they make you cry). Don’t be afraid to speak their name. Find meaningful ways for you to honor and remember the relationship, and the use of personal rituals can be comforting. Many people also find the use of spiritual or religious practices to be helpful.
6. Lean on Your Support. Don’t try to handle this all on your own! Turn to your friends and family for support. Share your thoughts and feelings, and if you need help in some particular way, ask for it, especially if you have had offers of assistance. Sometimes just having a compassionate listener may be exactly what you need at that moment. It’s not a sign of weakness to acknowledge that you are hurting, and it’s not a sign of weakness to reach out for help.
7. Know When to Seek Professional Help. “Am I going crazy?” “Will I ever feel happy again?” “Who am I now that you are gone?” “How do I support my family when I feel so broken?” “What if the grief doesn’t go away?”
These are some of the questions many of us ask before and after the death of someone we love. Grief can be a powerful and overwhelming experience, and despite our best efforts to cope with it on our own, sometimes our own efforts might not be enough. Working with a grief specialist can assist you in better understanding your own experience and working through the pain. A specialist can help you understand what things you might be doing to worsen or prolong your pain and help you find new ways of healing it. A specialist can also help you if your grief has developed into complicated grief (a more serious grief condition which is characterized by ongoing yearning and intense pain, avoidance, and failure to adapt to the loss), or if your grief has turned into depression.
If you reach out to a counselor who claims to have expertise in working with grief, ask about their training and experience in working with grief. Many counselors will claim to work with grief or have interest in working with grief but often have little training and understanding in full breadth and depth of the experience and how best to help their clients work through it.
Grief can be a powerful and overwhelming experience, but healing the pain is possible as you work through it over time, and it’s certainly not an experience that you have go through alone. If you feel you or your family need help in finding the way through grief, please reach out. While there is nothing that can be done to completely take away the pain of the loss, it is possible to ease the pain and find a way to live in the “new normal” that is now your reality.