“If, as a culture, we don’t bear witness to grief, the burden of loss is placed entirely upon the bereaved, while the rest of us avert our eyes and wait for those in mourning to stop being sad, to let go, to move on, to cheer up. And if they don’t — if they have loved too deeply, if they do wake each morning thinking, I cannot continue to live — well, then we pathologize their pain; we call their suffering a disease. We do not help them: we tell them that they need to get help.”
Cheryl Strayed, Brave Enough
Grief is a universal experience. We all go through it at some point and we all go through it differently. Being alive in this world means that suffering is inevitable. This is hard to know—we’d like to think that somehow we can escape it—but at the same time it is a comforting thought. Grief can feel like such a lonely experience, so to know that others either have or will go through it as well, can take away the sting of loneliness. It reminds us that the experiences of life, suffering, and death are shared.
When grief finds us, knowing we aren’t alone can bring a lot of comfort. But in the aftermath of loss the idea of a shared experience often doesn’t feel like reality. In the middle of grief it can seem like we are the only one who is suffering.
So how do we make it through those initial months, when simply getting through the day is a challenge and we don’t know if we will ever be happy again? Everyone grieves differently, but psychologists and researchers agree that the following ways to move forward are helpful for many people:
1.Take the time you need
As my opening quote affirms, Western culture doesn’t do well with grief. The fact that bereavement leave from work averages a mere 3-5 days, depending on the nature of the relationship and the employer’s policy, demonstrates a severe lack of cultural awareness around the needs of the grieving individual. The fault doesn’t lie with the employer, or any one person really. We have turned ourselves into a nation of high-paced productivity, and somewhere along the way we forgot to factor in our emotions and needs.
Despite our culture’s insistence that we need to move on as soon as possible, everything we know about grief says it’s important to take your time. Trying to rush through it, deny it, or put on a strong front, only leads to stress and depression, which will eventually make itself known in the body. The feelings of grief are so hard, but they need to be felt before you can fully move on.
If you are unable to take time for yourself away from work and other life demands, try to fit grieving time in to your schedule. It may sound crazy to have to plan time to grieve, but knowing that you will dedicate an hour at some point in the day to be alone with your emotions can help you cope with a demanding work environment. Think of it like fitting in a workout—your emotions need the healing time just as much as your body needs the time to move.
2. Feel your emotions
Many of us weren’t raised to give consideration to our feelings. Thoughts, yes, but feelings are often dismissed as unhelpful, or even a sign of weakness. What has made us so afraid to feel? Certainly we are a society conditioned to see emotions as weakness, but the tragedy of that is a life cut off from joy and vulnerability. If we suppress one type of emotion we have difficulty feeling any type of emotion. The result is disconnection and numbness.
If you are someone who has difficulty accessing your emotions it can be helpful to see emotions simply as a form of energy that needs to pass through your body. If it gets stuck, it will express itself in some other form—as illness, stress, or depression.
So allow yourself to feel. Don’t avoid or shut down. This can be our first impulse, and may lead to avoidant behaviours such as overworking, drinking, comfort eating, overdosing on Netflix, or any other pass time you turn to when you don’t want to feel difficult emotions.
Have you ever heard it said that you must go “through” the mountain and not “around” it? There is so much truth in this metaphor. Suppressed or denied grief will always find its way back to you.
3. Accept help
In the midst of deep sadness it can be hard to reach out. What stops us is not wanting to “depress” other people or appear helpless. But those who truly care for you will want you to lean on them. They may not know what to say, but this is your opportunity to deepen that relationship and tell them what you need. Often in the midst of grief it’s not words we need (which can often be misplaced or unhelpful) but rather someone to sit with us, hold us, and help us deal with day-to-day tasks that may feel unmanageable.
4. Know the stages of grief
In the depths of deep grief it can feel like you are going crazy. One minute you may feel sad, the next enraged. Such mood fluctuations can be frightening and add to the pain. It’s important to therefore know what to expect in the midst of grieving and that what you are going through are all part of the normal stages of grief. Here’s a brief rundown of those stages:
- DENIAL. In this first stage of grief the brain cannot conceive of the loss. This stage is often accompanied by shock, which leads many people to say they feel numb.
- ANGER. This is the stage in which you rage at God, the Universe, the person or thing you have lost, or whomever you feel is to blame for your loss. The anger may even be directed at yourself if you believe you could have done something to prevent the loss.
- BARGAINING. When you bargain you are trying to change the circumstances. You dream of a change in circumstances that will end your suffering and bring your loved one back. You may vow to change something in yourself if only the situation could be reversed.
- DEPRESSION. Depression can occur when your sadness doesn’t resolve and you begin to feel hopeless. This is a normal stage and does not mean you are dealing with a chemical imbalance or clinical depression. Knowing that depression is a normal part of grief and does eventually lift can be very helpful.
- ACCEPTANCE. In this final stage of grief you have accepted that the loss has happened and you can’t go back. Although you may still feel a deep sadness, you are ready to go on with your life. Acceptance doesn’t mean that you are now “fine,” but rather that you are able to hold joy and pain in your heart and live a full life again.
Apart from the first and last, these stages are not linear. You may cycle through anger, depression and bargaining many times before you eventually come to a place of acceptance. Gradually though, each time you return to a stage, it will feel less intense and overwhelming. For more on the stages of grief click here.
5. Remove expectations
In my counselling practice one of the most common phrases I hear is “I should,” and my usual response is, “Why should you?” So many of our thoughts and behaviours are dictated by what we think we should do, either because it is the cultural expectation, or an expectation that we learned from our parents in childhood. When I hear a “should” it tells me that something is in opposition. So a person feels or wants one thing, but believes they “should” do another. Living according to shoulds can lead to anxiety and increased suffering. Of course, there are exceptions when a “should” is really our consciousness trying to talk to us, for example, “I should really stop and help that person who stalled their car.”
So if any of these “should” statements sound familiar, STOP. It isn’t helpful and will only exacerbate your suffering.
- “I should be over it by now.”
- “I should have been there.”
- “I shouldn’t have behaved in XX way”
- “I shouldn’t feel angry” (or any other emotion)
- “I shouldn’t bother other people with my grief.”
Do you tell yourself any other should statements? Make your own list…
6. Talk about your loss
I learned something really important about grief from a friend who lost her child: people want to talk about the person they have lost. Sometimes this depends on the circumstances (a woman may not want to talk too much about her ex-husband for example), but for many whose loved ones have died, talking about them keeps their memory alive. This can be hard for family and friends who may want to avoid talking about the loss altogether because it feels awkward or they don’t want to upset their friend or family member, but if talking about your loved one helps you then don’t worry if others feel awkward. They’ll adapt.
7. Remember, it takes a long as it takes
In the midst of grief people often ask, how long will it take before I feel okay again? The answer is that there is no answer; it takes as long as it takes. I have read the book “Tears to Triumph” by Marianne Williamson several times and one thing I always remember her saying is if you have a thousand tears to cry then you must cry a thousand tears, and no fewer. And if you have ten thousand tears to cry then you must cry ten thousand tears and no fewer. It takes as long as it takes—grief can’t be rushed.
I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye: Surviving, Coping and Healing After the Sudden Death of a Loved One
by Brook Noel & Pamela Blair
“I’m Grieving as Fast as I Can” By Linda Feinberg
“Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy” by Sheryl Sandberg
“Broken Open” by Elizabeth Lesser
“The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion