Loss and grief
The following are some notes I wrote for a workshop I take on loss and grief. This is such a huge topic - and working through grief is such an individualistic process - that these notes can't hope to cover everything. Hopefully though, it will help give some direction and understanding in times of struggle.
"Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, spiritual and physical necessity; the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve."
Grieving is an act of love, and is natural and important for our mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health.
Grief is the result of a Loss. Any time something is lost or something changes, there is a grief process. It is not always about a huge trauma or loss; and one person may experience something vastly different than another. Just as each person has a unique thumbprint, our individual experiences of grief are wide and varied.
It's important to note that within one event, there can be different types of loss. Recognising and processing these different losses can help decrease confusion and shorten the grief process. Loss can be:
Communal loss within a culture, society or family – where loss becomes part of the group identity. For example, after WWII, New Zealand went into 'survival mode.' An individual couldn't lose themselves in grief or they would simply starve. Terms like: "soldier on" or "have a stiff upper lip" or "grin and bear it" became mantra's that helped people survive; but buried their grief. These same themes are still common in our Kiwi culture today. We don't generally like showing our emotions - it's seen as a weakness or vulnerability.
Loss of relationship / connection / death / separation / status. We are designed for relationship. When this is lost or changes it can hit us particularly hard.
Even when a good thing happens, there can be a sense of loss and grief. A child leaving for school or getting married is a positive step they need to take but it is also the end of something precious. Moving overseas on a big adventure is exciting but means leaving loved ones and everything that is familiar at home.
Physical / material / relational – something I tangibly had in my life is now gone.
Intangible losses can be harder to identify and articulate: Loss of safety / trust / security / joy / dreams / visions / purpose / identity / expectations / dignity / social status.
This is the loss of “what should or could have been.” A tangible loss is something that is gone; whereas non-finite loss potentially continues throughout your life. Serious health issues, a special needs child, a broken relationship, childlessness, singleness. These losses can be recurrently painful – a tension between hope and despair.
Acknowledging Loss defines what has happened. Grief articulates the pain.
Understanding the loss can be a helpful part of moving through grief. It moves pain from the intangible and overwhelming to the understandable and normal. (Of course this doesn’t make the pain any less – but it makes it 'ok.' It gives it permission).
What exactly have I lost? Be very descriptive here. Remember: there may be many losses for the same event.
What are the areas in my life that this is affecting? (Emotional, Physical, Behavioral).
What do I feel around each loss? (Expression of Grief might be at different stages in different areas.)
Grief is Loss Adjustment
Grieving is non-linear. Sometimes it’s predictable and understandable – other time’s it’s all over the place! What is important is the act of pausing to recognise how you are in this moment.
What am I feeling? How is my body feeling? What do I need in this moment?
The "Stages of Grief" image to the right is an example of Loss Adjustment. It's a helpful indication of the likely things we will encounter through the grief process. The line starting on the left of the diagram is called the "Line of Disorganization." We are travelling through life as normal and then 'something' happens and it feels like we fall in a hole. The first stages are shock and disbelief. Often at this stage we will feel numb or have 'no words.' If someone asks you how you feel or what you need, you simply may not be able to answer them. As we progress further down the line, we reach stronger emotions. Fear, Anger, Blame. Emotional outbursts, confusion and mood swings are all part of this stage. As we go deeper into 'disorganization' this is where the panic and guilt can set in; alongside loneliness and low mood. Survivors guilt is common - 'it should have been me.' There may be bargaining or "if-only's: "If only I had done this differently..." A deep sadness and sense of loneliness is common.
At the bottom of the curve is the hardest place to be - but it is also the place where the light can come in. If we gently and kindly face our pain and allow ourselves to grieve, we get to move on up the other side. We find new and positive ways to adjust to our loss. We form new relationships and gain new strengths.
We get to remember with love instead of pain.
In fact, what can happen is that we actually don't just go back to the 'status quo' for our lives like it was before. Because we have gone through the hard times, we come out better people. More empathetic and less likely to judge. We have the ability to walk with others authentically through their loss and grief - because we know what it costs and how it feels.
There is no set time limit or order to these stages. Someone may stay in one stage for a long period of time. Someone else might jump around from shock to anger to sadness in the space of an hour! It is ALL OK! The most important thing in this process is recognizing where you are in the moment, normalizing it and giving yourself the permission to process and move through it.
Build a Bridge.....
At any one of the above stages, we can "build a bridge" to get over it. Basically, what this means is that we find ways of 'putting a lid' on our grief. As mentioned before, we don't often like feeling bad or sad or upset. Often we have family or religious rules that say things like "anger is bad" or "put on a happy face" or "don't let your grief affect others." If I can distract myself from my pain - I don't have to face it right now. If I can cover my pain with keeping busy, or getting angry and blaming others, or drugs and alcohol, or achieving, or controlling, then I'll feel better. Sadly, these are short-term solutions. The more we avoid our pain, the larger the 'covering up' strategies have to get for us to cope. Just like a physical wound that isn't tended well, our emotional pain will get infected and worsen.
Yes, sometimes we do just have to get on with life - sometimes we can't be falling apart all over the place. BUT are we giving ourselves the time to process when we do have the chance??
Barriers to grief
The below are some things that can get in the way of us grieving well.
Cultural Rules or Norms
Each family and culture has its own rules and practices around grief. Is it ok to express grief? Will my tears make someone else uncomfortable? Will I be showing weakness?
What are the ‘rules of grief’ that exist in my family and culture?
What do I tell myself when I feel the pain or tears or pain rising to the surface?
The Myth of Entitlement
It’s subtle but it’s there in most of us: “I’m entitled to 80 years on this planet. I’m entitled to health, wealth and a happy family. I’m entitled to have my needs met when I want them met.” The below was written by Patti Digh as she struggled with processing her diagnosis of terminal cancer:
“Painfully, I came to realize that I felt entitled. I’m still struggling with this. I felt entitled to live 80 years. I felt entitled to have a long and happy marriage. I felt entitled to see my son grow up and have a family of his own. But I am not entitled, and I never was.
So, learning and examining how to transform this energy of entitlement has been a huge challenge. But what I discovered is that I can transform it if I shift it into the energy of hope. I hope for a long and abundant life. I hope to witness everything that brings joy. I hope to be there for my husband when he has a crisis someday. I hope to experience love and connection as long as possible.
I never would have chosen cancer. Cancer chose me. I am no longer enjoying the illusion of entitlement, but cancer is not entitled to my sense of hope.”
Moving from a sense of entitlement to hope has helped Patti to experience each moment with gratefulness and focus. Moments that would have been lost if she’d let her entitlement take her to bitterness and despair.
The “Why” Question
Asking “why” or screaming “It’s not fair” in times of suffering is a normal human response that can sadly make our pain far worse, not better. We will quite possibly never know why in this life. You’re right, it isn’t fair! When we ask why we place ourselves in the victim position. Helpless, hopeless, powerless. Being in the victim position means we assume someone is persecuting us. When we say “It’s not fair” we assume someone is being unfair to us. Often we get angry and aggressive – or depressed and withdrawn.
Maybe a more helpful statement could be “I don’t know why this has happened and it’s certainly not fair. But I do know that continuing to ask this question is only bring myself and those around me pain. Instead, I can ask “Where to from here? How can I move through this?”
In the midst of grief, our problem is not in the head but the heart. Instead of trying to have a logical or theological argument – acknowledge the pain. Speak from and to your heart.
Ignore it and hope it goes away….?
Denying grief, pushing it away, covering it up or ‘just soldiering on’ are completely unhelpful responses when it comes to grief (or anything really!)
In our Post-Modern Kiwi culture we don’t like pain very much – whether it’s emotional or physical. If I’ve got a headache, I’ll take a Panadol. I won’t stop to ask myself why I might have this headache; I’ll take the instant fix. We are a generation of instant gratification. If I want something, I can usually get it pretty quickly. If it’s hard or ‘not easy’ I’ll get rid of it (whether it’s an old laptop or a relationship). This really doesn’t work with grief. There are no instant fixes and I can’t just cover it up with a pill or booze. In fact, the more I self-medicate my grief, the worse it gets – like shaking a can of coke. Eventually it’ll explode and make a mess.
Our unresolved grief accumulates. The next time something happens everything will come surging up again and the present loss will become bigger and more overwhelming because of the past loss that hasn’t been worked through.
“Being human isn’t about trying to run away from the difficult things in our lives; but finding a way to bear them – being able to rob them of their sting. The more we try to run from those painful parts of ourselves, the more haunted we are by them. The more we cover them up with things like alcohol on Saturday or going to church on Sunday; the more they come back at night, poke at us and prod us and come out in fits of rage or depression. Actually what we have to do, and what life asks us to do is not run from our ‘ghosts’ but rather face them. And in that way they become holy ghosts. There is something beautiful on the other side of this.” Peter Rollins
Just as we have the gift of physical pain to let us know that something is wrong; (and we need to take special care of ourselves and heal) – we also have the gift of grief.
To allow yourself to grieve, to feel the full range of human emotion; to embrace it rather than deny it - is to be fully alive. Without pain we can never truly know joy.
It is in this process of being honest and authentic in our emotions and moving through loss and grief to the other side, we can truly have the strength to walk in empathy with another. We know what it feels like. We know what it costs. We know there is hope on the other side. We don’t throw out empty clichés (that are designed really to make ourselves feel better because the other person’s pain is making us uncomfortable).
Below are some simple strategies for grieving well. Hopefully it’ll give you some ideas; but it’s important that you find what works for you – then do it.
Take Care of Yourself!
Grief is draining. Emotionally, spiritually, physically. Especially in the initial stages. Self-care is So Important! Make simple choices. Ask yourself “Is what I’m about to do energizing or draining?” If it is draining, apologize and say no. Make time for things that energize you in your day. Plan them. The lower your mood is, the more you need things and people that will lift your mood you in your life.
Do things that give you a sense of achievement – even if it’s just washing the dishes! Do the thing you’ve been avoiding.
Taking care of your physical body is very important here. Eat well, sleep well, exercise. Take a shower. Check your HALTS. (If you can identify with three or more of the following you are emotionally and physically vulnerable: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, Sad, Sick or Stressed). Do some self-care!
Say What Needs to Be Said
Find a way of expressing everything that is trapped on your inside. Journal it, paint it, shout it into the waves. These thoughts might not be rational or positive. They may lead on to expressing other things you have trapped inside. That’s ok. Put yourself somewhere safe and let it all out, bit by bit. (It’s going to come out anyway – one way or another!) Make sure you have self-care strategies ready for when you are done. It’s great to have a ‘safe’ person to help you through this process.
Check in with yourself. “What is it I’m feeling in this moment?” Look at where you are on the Loss Adjustment diagram. "It’s ok." "I’m ok." "This is normal." “What do I need to do for myself in this moment?” “How can I be kind and loving to myself in this moment?” “How can I acknowledge the loss and find new positive ways to meet the needs that are currently not being met?”
Build Yourself a Network of Support
Find people that know how to grieve well, and ask them to be your cheerleaders. They will understand that some days you need to be alone and some days you will need people around. They won’t judge you when you’re irrational – they’ll love you through it. They will ask you what you need instead of telling you. Allow yourself to swallow your pride and be the dependent one for a while. Follow them when they begin to show you the way out of your pain. Let yourself be loved.
Give yourself the Gift of Tears
Tears are not a sign of weakness – but of strength. It takes strength to acknowledge the pain and release emotion. From a physiological viewpoint, our tears are an important way our body can release tension and re-set to equilibrium. When we cry we release the built up adrenaline from our systems. Find a safe place and let the tears flow when they need to. Drink plenty of water! Make sure you have something kind to do for yourself when the tears have stopped. Have a safety person if needed.
Stay in the role you need to be in
It’s important you simplify your role as much as possible when you are grieving – especially in the initial stages. For example, if you have lost a father, allow yourself to just be a son or daughter. As much as possible, don’t try and be an organizer or a counselor or a family figurehead. Just be a son / daughter and allow yourself to grieve the loss of your Dad.
Transform the Loss
Just like Patti Digh was able to transform her entitlement into hope, we are also able to transform our loss into something meaningful. If you have lost someone or something; or if you have experienced a trauma, this doesn’t mean that a tragic event becomes any less tragic or unfair. However, it does mean that you have the capacity to learn and change and grow from this incident. You do have the power to choose whether or not this traumatic incident is going to be constant source of pain and unrest for you. You can choose to move through it, learn, grow and forgive; to strengthen and deepen your relationship with yourself, the world and others.
In the end, our experience of loss and grief comes down to our willingness to acknowledge and move through it. There is a famous quote that says “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” We will face pain and trials in our lives. This is not an option. What is an option is our mental and emotional responses to pain. Lovingly acknowledging and moving through the pain leads us on a much faster pathway back to peace.