Grieving the loss of someone is one of the most difficult—yet vitally important—we experience in life. Grieving is full of pain and emotional turbulence, yet also learning how to properly grieve is one crucial way to learn how to open up more fully to all of our feelings, and therefore, to all the good experiences that life has to offer us too; the ways in which we cope with loss in turn influence other important elements of our lives.
Much of grieving is opening ourselves up to our own pain and suffering, which is easier said than done. Letting yourself feel the painful or threatening feelings of grieving is difficult enough, even when you think you know how to handle them. And most of us just don’t get many opportunities to practice using it. In fact, we get just the opposite—lots of pressure to “get over” quickly what hurts us without letting our feelings cause trouble for us or anyone else. This can be a big mistake; suppressing or blocking grief merely does that; in no way is this healing.
The two tasks
There are two tasks you are called on to undertake after experiencing loss:
- mourning the loss and
- living your life.
The problem is that one task can cancel out the other; at some point in your grieving you can find yourself enjoying yourself and you can become very self-conscious and ridden with guilt, you can think “how dare I feel good, does this not do a disservice to the one I have lost?” similarly you can feel numbed to all forms of pleasure in your life.
The overall task is to both grieve and live your life, but it’s a delicate balance that often shifts off kilter. It’s here where engaging with a skilled professional such as a counsellor can be useful, giving you “permission” to both grieve and live your life; both are equal parts on the healing journey.
The 5 stages of grieving
In her 1969 book On Death and Dying Elizabeth Kubler Ross outlined the following 5 stages of grief. It later became known as the “loss cycle” and whilst there have been challenges to it, the loss cycle still provides us with a useful map to help navigate and find meaning in the territory of grief:
1. Denial or numbness. This can take many forms, ranging from actual disbelief to an emotional closure, which makes it seem as if you’re not touched by the loss. Both are examples of our basic self-protection system to help you not experience the full intensity of the loss all at once-this being too overwhelming at this point. It is akin to clinging to a preferable reality.
2. Anger. Everyone who experiences a loss is likely to get angry about it, even (especially even) if it doesn’t “make sense.” Or “it’s not fair”. People who experience the loss of a loved one might get angry at that person for abandoning them or causing them this pain and suffering. “Why me?” the person can feel like shouting at the world-or at God.
3. Bargaining: this can take many forms, including preoccupation with thoughts about what could have been done to prevent the loss from happening in the first place. A religious person might find themselves asking God to strike a deal and bring their loved one back.
4. Depression: As the reality of the loss and its implications sets in, people may experience all the symptoms of depression, such as being unable to meet their normal day-to-day responsibilities and withdrawing from their usual social connections. Some people can get very low indeed at this point.
5. Acceptance:The idea here is that the person will be able to integrate what has happened, and all the feelings and reactions attached to it, into an overall “life-story,” allowing it to take its place alongside other life changing experiences. This can be a soul making experience, bring a sense of true gravity to a person who finds grace within all the grit of grief. But often acceptance is hard; adjustment or adjusting to the situation can come just before this as a kind of stepping stone to acceptance. Acceptance does not mean that your grief is complete, but it might mean that the rawness that the grief generates is beginning to ebb.
There is no “right” or “wrong” way to go through this process and there is no set order in which these stages will be experienced; you might need to cycle through and “re-cycle” through them many times
Helping Yourself through the Grieving Process
We often get stuck at a certain stage on the loss cycle. For example, it can be very hard to stop feeling angry-at the world, at hospitals who you might feel did not do their job as well as they could, and even at your loved one for leaving you. These are normal reactions to a loss, but nobody wants to be stuck here, forever angry.
Depression can be a place where the bereaved can feel stuck, the low mood and melancholy feelings tipping into clinical depression.
Often, we fight these feelings or fall into self-criticism for even feeling and thinking this way. This only serves to make these thoughts and feelings stronger; ironically, perhaps, it’s in turning towards our grief with kindness and self-compassion, soothing ourselves through this very human, soulful time that helps and heals the most.
Helping grief find its way through:
- Feel what you feel and try not to deny the feelings, no matter how contradictory or confusing.
- Go at your own pace; don’t feel as you have to rush your way through to “turn a corner” here. Many people will want you, or even expect you to “get better soon”, this is often their way of handling a sense of not knowing what to say to you. Grief can be a lifelong process, and right at the heart of grief we have to understand that nothing is really going wrong, it’s a very human response to losing somebody who was very significant in your life: if you didn’t feel this way, that might be “something going wrong”
- Express yourself physically. Cry, shout or scream if you need to. Our emotions are designed not just to make us feel and express something but to find a meaning in all this, go with the feelings, pound a chair (as along as you are not pounding a person) and let your fight in your flight and fight complete itself
- Speak to somebody who will not close you down or seek to move you on, somebody who can sit with your pain and suffering time and again. A counsellor might be a good idea at this point. The person you have lost you might have known for 30 years, it’s going to take more, much more than 30 days to grieve, and that’s okay.
Your grief and morning are not a sign that anything is going wrong, the pain is the pain of love and the journey into change and healing.