I’ve hesitated to write about grieving. It’s an intensely personal process, and one that has the ability to completely deconstruct your entire world. I know, because I’ve gone through it myself, and there was a time when I didn’t think I would ever emerge.
If you’ve never had to truly grieve, then it can be difficult to be empathetic to someone who is in the grieving process. It can be so all-encompassing that nothing else really matters.
The Purpose of Grief
Grief allows you to fully say good-bye and appreciate whoever you’ve lost in your life. It also provides closure. When grieving, if you think about the person you’ve lost, all you can do is feel an intense sadness (or sometimes anger, disappointment, etc.). After the grieving process is over though, you can then recall that person with feelings of joy, or at least without sadness.
What is Grief?
Feeling sad, sometimes referred to the absence of happiness, is that low feeling we all sometimes get. It’s easy to feel sad – just think of the ending of a good book or movie that made you cry. I can still feel sad thinking about a book I read in junior high called “PS: I love you” when the young lover dies of cancer.
But it’s also just as easy to snap out of sadness and into joy. Think of a different book or movie that you love. For me, it’s Star Wars when Luke and Han get their medals, but R2D2 feels left out and wobbles back and forth.
Grief is a whole other animal. Grieving is an intense and prolonged sadness. It has a certain weight to it, one that could consume your entire body.
Thankfully, grief is a very specific emotion, and doesn’t just jump out at you. Grief happens when you have suffered the (sometimes permanent) loss of someone very important to you. For example:
- lost family members or friends, either physically (through death or long distance) or emotionally (being estranged)
- divorce or long-term relationship break-up
- death of a beloved pet
- laid off from a loved job or company
- the end of a process or long-term event, like college, a long-running play, etc.
Not all of these events will trigger a deep, long-term grieving process. However it is necessary to recognize the need to grieve over the loss of anything that was important to you. While you will still go through at least some of the stages mentioned below, it passes quicker and isn’t as devastating.
Lean into the pain
Grieving is painful. It feels like your heart is broken open, and might never be whole again. People are sometimes scared of this intense pain. They feel that, if they let themselves completely give in to the pain and start crying, they may never stop. However, by not giving in to the pain and fully expressing it with a really good cry, that emotion stays bottled up in you, and you become stuck.
According to the amazing Dr. David Hawkins, there is good news for anyone in grief. When you do break down and cry so much your neighbourhood is in danger of flooding, this episode lasts for ONLY 10 minutes. That’s it! There may be some post-cry mop up, but the actual act of a good, hard cry will be 10 minutes. Or less. The more often you release through crying, the shorter these episodes will last, increasing your speed of going through your grief.
A lot of women know this to be true, and will often say they feel better after a good cry. Men need to embrace this form of essential human emotional release, knowing it won’t last very long, and you really will feel better afterwards.
The Stages of Grief
Grieving is also complicated. There seven (seven!) stages to it. Medical doctor Elisabeth Kubler-Ross first identified and wrote about five stages in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying” to help people cope with terminal illness. Since then, her steps have been expanded to this seven:
- Shock & Denial – You react to learning of the loss with numbed disbelief. You may deny the reality of the loss at some level, in order to avoid the pain. Shock provides emotional protection from being overwhelmed all at once. This may last for weeks.
- Pain & Guilt – As the shock wears off, it is replaced with the suffering of unbelievable pain. Although excruciating and almost unbearable, it is important that you experience the pain fully, and not hide it, avoid it or escape from it with alcohol or drugs. You may have guilty feelings or remorse over things you did or didn’t do with your loved one. Life feels chaotic and scary during this phase.
- Anger & Bargaining – Frustration gives way to anger, and you may lash out and lay unwarranted blame for the death on someone else. Please try to control this, as permanent damage to your relationships may result. This is a time for the release of bottled up emotion.
- Depression, Reflection & Loneliness – Just when your friends may think you should be getting on with your life, a long period of sad reflection may overtake you. This is a normal stage of grief, so do not be “talked out of it” by well-meaning outsiders. Encouragement from others is not helpful to you right now, as you finally realize the true magnitude of your loss, and it depresses you. You may isolate yourself on purpose, reflect on things you did with your lost one, and focus on memories of the past. You may sense feelings of emptiness or despair.
- The Upward Turn – As you start to adjust to life without your dear one, your life becomes a little calmer and more organized. Your physical symptoms lessen, and your depression begins to lift slightly.
- Reconstruction & Working Through – As you become more functional, your mind starts working again, and you find yourself seeking realistic solutions to problems posed by life without your loved one. You start to work on practical and financial problems and reconstructing yourself and your life without him or her.
- Acceptance & Hope – You learn to accept and deal with the reality of your situation. Acceptance does not necessarily mean instant happiness. Given the pain and turmoil you have experienced, you can never return to the carefree, untroubled YOU that existed before this tragedy. But you find a way forward. You start to look forward and actually plan things for the future. Eventually, you are able to think about your lost loved one without the wrenching pain. You once again anticipate some good times to come, and yes, even find joy again in the experience of living.
Knowledge is power here. Know where you are in the process, so you can see if you need help to move on, because grief is NOT meant to last forever. There are specialized grief counsellors, or you can use active visualization techniques in a healing session to connect with your loved one. Here, you can say or do anything you need in order to let the past rest.
Recognize grief for what it is, an essential human emotion that we will all experience, if we are lucky. To truly grieve, it means that you have truly loved.