Today’s post is inspired by a reader’s question. I had planned to write about grief at some point, and her question reminded me how consuming, paralyzing, painful, and isolating grief can be. She bravely shared the pain and trauma associated with the death of her daughter and the grief she has felt in the years since, imagining what life would be like if her daughter was alive. She acknowledged uncertainty and confusion about how to move on after such a deep and devastating loss.
First, a warm and comforting embrace to the reader who submitted this question and to all of you reading who are bravely facing life amidst heartbreaking grief. You are courageous and strong, and I know you are hurting.
Contrary to popular belief, there are no rules to grief. There are no certain timelines, no paved path, no normal way to grieve. Everyone’s grief looks different; because everyone’s lost relationship is different. In the midst of our pain, it can often feel like we are doing it wrong, like everyone else seems to know something we don’t. Our grief is compounded by friends’ and family members’ assertions that we need to “move on” and get back to “normal.” These phrases “move on” and “normal” sound so simple, yet so foreign the midst of grief. And for good reason; they are next to impossible.
One of my favorite quotes about grief is from Rose Kennedy, a woman who experienced a great deal of deep and public grief. She said, “It has been said that ‘time heals all wounds.’ I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, (protecting its sanity), covers them with scar tissue, and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.” So powerful. I love that description of grief.
In 1969, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross introduced her stages of grief model, outlining how humans move through grief. These stages include: Denial and Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Newer research has shown that we do not move through these stages in a linear, step by step way, as Kubler-Ross initially believed. Instead, these themes are present throughout grief, and we can move between them in various orders and at different times. Many people do not feel that Acceptance is realistic, and I tend to fall in this camp. I think the idea of “true acceptance” is unrealistic, contributing to self-criticism and confusion when grief rears it’s head and we find ourselves once again knocked down.
I encourage people to find support through grief. Not just any support. Look for non-judgmental, empathic, and gentle support. Many people in your life will offer support, but it may not be the type of support you need. For those closest to you, let them know the type of support you need; let them know what is helpful and what is not. Give them a chance to support you in the way that you need, and see if they can offer this. If not, keep looking. Sometimes in grief, this empathic support comes from unexpected people.
I encourage people to talk about their loved one. Death takes the person from our physical existence, and many people find that it also takes the person from our conversations, as people are unsure whether or not it is okay to talk about our loved in front of us. Talk about them when you want to, and let others know that this is important. Tell stories about them, laugh about memories you shared together, comment when you are reminded of them in the present. Tell others that you need this.
Prepare for holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. These days can prompt a tidal wave of grief, harshly striking us with pain, often when we thought we were doing “okay.” Think about what you need and how you want to spend these days. Think about ways you might want to reflect and honor this person and the love you shared. Be intentional about being good to yourself on these days, even if it feels difficult.
Seek out professional support. As noted above, grief is painful, and you do not have to endure this pain alone. Therapy can allow people to have a safe space to experience and process their grief. Therapy also allows us to focus solely on our own grief, without having to worry about and manage the feelings of those around us. Some people seek therapy immediately after a loss, others find it helpful years after the loss. In addition, I have worked with several clients who have found wonderful support through Facebook groups and online forums, often specific to the type of loss they experienced. Connecting with people who are experiencing or who have experienced similar loss can offer a unique type of support.
Because grief is so complex, it is impossible to address in a single post. So I will pause here for now, responding to comments or questions for those that have them. Continued thoughts to those of you in the midst of grief. You are brave, you are cared for. You are not alone.