There used to be this quote on our fridge growing up. It read, “Life is painful; suffering is optional.” I’m pretty sure my mom cut it out of a Vanity Fair in a moment of inspiration, and it succeeded to survive 2 more fridges over 10 years. Now, I thought it meant that a person should be strong; that s/he should not feel pain; that s/he has a choice (or an option) whether or not s/he was to be sad. And some people do believe such is possible.
However, this morning so far, the theme of my clients has been grief–the loss of a mother, a cherished pet, a relationship–and certainly no one with a smidgen of sensitivity would suggest that person is “choosing” to endure the pain he or she is going through. Life is filled with necessary grief (I say necessary, because grief is a necessary response to meaningful loss, and it is inevitable that we will experience meaningful losses in our lifetimes); the expectations, criticism, pressures, and judgments we place on ourselves not to feel it are what cause unnecessary suffering. This post won’t make you an expert in grief, but it will hopefully provide some insight into how you can support yourself or someone else following a loss.
As I mentioned in my last post, Western society is considered “death denying.” We are terrified of death and everything about it. Not just dying, ourselves, but talking about death, thinking about death, and having a conversation with someone who’s recently experienced a death. As a result, it’s important to acknowledge that a) if you are grieving a death, it’s common to feel isolated, frustrated, misunderstood, and alone. It’s common to feel like you “make people uncomfortable” or you’re “a burden” or you “clear a room” or “people don’t know what to say.” This is partially the message that society sends us about “rules” around grief, and partly because, well, a lot of people don’t know what to say. Again, this a reflection of society ignoring the natural part of life that is death, assuming if we don’t bring attention to such a “taboo” subject, it will just go away, and we can keep on pretending that we live forever. You might feel like you “don’t want to be a downer” or “people have put up with your grief for long enough.” Again, these pressures are reflections of the messages we get sent that pathologize unhappiness (again, think of how much money the pharmaceutical companies make off of telling you that if you’re not happy all the time, you should take a pill. Or if your grief lasts for longer than 6 weeks, it’s considered “complicated” or “abnormal.”; and b) if someone close to you is grieving a death, it is normal to feel uncomfortable, anxious, or uncertain what to say. You may feel as though it’s “not your place,” or you “don’t want to bring it up for fear of reminding them of it or crossing boundaries.”
It’s Not just in Response to Death:
As with 2 of the 3 clients I’ve seen this morning, grief does not just occur in response to death (or human death). It occurs with any loss of something valued, and that something doesn’t have to be living. Once again, society places restrictions around who is allowed to grieve what, and when it doesn’t fall within the box of accepted grief experiences, we go through what is called disenfranchised grief. Acknowledge that, although your grief may not be understood, supported, or accepted by others, it is a normal and necessary part of adjusting to your loss.
Primary and Secondary Losses:
When we lose someone or something, it’s not just the person/pet/relationship/ability/etc. that we’ve lost. Sure, that’s the primary loss, but there are many secondary losses associated with it. Secondary losses are the losses that follow the initial loss, such as support system, social status, role, lifestyle, future, etc. Here is a nice summary of primary and secondary losses. It can be helpful to answer each question as it relates to your grief, thereby acknowledging the magnitude of your loss and areas of adjustment.
What You Can Do:
The grief process is unique to the individual, but here is a fantastic overview of common reactions and suggestions for managing the pain. Keep in mind that grief mimics depression, so you will likely feel unmotivated and exhausted, have an inability to concentrate, experience disruptions in your appetite or sleep, and feel at times as though you’re going crazy. Whereas you may have regularly functioned between 70 and 90% prior to the loss, you are now functioning between 5 and 20%. Expecting yourself to perform tasks or be as “productive” as you were before is unrealistic and will set you up for feelings of inadequacy or guilt. Be compassionate to yourself and lower your expectations. Similarly, make behavioural goals, but don’t attach to them a goal of feeling a certain way. It will be some time before you experience the same kind of thrill or happiness you experienced as a result of the activity prior to the loss. Nancy Reeves developed an energy management model that I often show clients experiencing grief. As you can see, initially our energy is consumed by grief and survival. We slowly progress through each circle, until we eventually adjust and return to days focused on life-enhancement and survival:
Here is a list of expectations of going through grief. Of course, there will be many things you’ll experience that aren’t on this list. That doesn’t mean you’re “weird” or “not coping.” I repeat: Everyone experiences grief differently, and all of those experiences are normal. If you are concerned about your coping, feel lost or stuck in your process, or are lacking in supports and are open to seeking professional help, I encourage you to do it. It’s not a necessary part of the grieving process, but it can offer education, tools, and the time and space to actively grieve in the context of a supportive professional. However, if the griever is experiencing “complicated grief,” identified by changes to “all personal relationships, a sense of meaninglessness, a prolonged yearning or searching for the deceased and a sense of rupture in personal beliefs” (Kersting, 2004), then professional help is strongly recommended.
If someone around you is grieving, here is an awesome list of “Dos and Don’ts When Talking to a Griever” as well as “How to Help a Griever” (Thanks, Living Through Loss, also an awesome resource website). Often, the helper believes they are expected to expedite the grieving process. To “pull” the griever along, convinced you know “the way.” This is not helpful. Everyone grieves differently–in different ways and at different rates. Rather than “pull” them, “stand beside” them, honouring their process. The exception to this, of course, is if the person is “managing” their emotions by abusing substances, is not eating or sleeping (or only eating or sleeping), or decides to make a drastic lifestyle change (say, donate all their assets and move as far North as possible). It’s generally encouraged that people don’t make major changes within the first year. Of course, sometimes the space to encourage someone out of their bold idea is not there. In such cases, do what you can to support, educate, and connect to resources and professional help, but know that usually the griever will come out on the other end eventually, and it’s not your responsibility to take charge of the process.
Time Will Heal, Avoidance Will Not:
Some people react to grief by busying themselves to the point of avoidance, or picking up and moving across the country. They (and the people around them) assume they are “over it,” when, in actuality, they’ve barely stepped into it. Then I see them in my office, months (or years) later, and they (and the others around them) can’t understand why they’re having trouble with it now. If you think this might be you, I of course suggest working through it will a professional, but also structuring “Grief Time” into your schedule. This can be any form of grieving–looking at pictures, listening to music, writing, painting, thinking…make it whatever you want it to be. Just make it time that you are consciously thinking about, remembering, honoring, and finding meaning in your loss. It might be for 20 minutes. It might be for 5. Just take the time to check in, listen to where you’re at, ask what you need, and go from there. Just don’t schedule your “Grief Time” right before an exam, or a date, or first thing in the morning. It can be quite exhausting, so plan to practise self-care afterwards or surround yourself with supports.
As I mentioned, Living Through Loss has a library of resources that I think are super helpful. Additionally, a resource I generally give to clients is Angel Catcher: A journal of loss and remembrance by Kathy Eldon. Finally, there is a plethora of self-help books out there, but given that grief generally saps energy and concentration, it can be tough to get much out of them at first.
If you remember nothing else from this article, just remember this: IT IS (mostly) ALL NORMAL. The anger, the guilt, the depression, the spectrum of mental, physical and emotional reactions that make you feel like a crazy person. Normal, normal, and normal (with the exceptions of complicated grief as mentioned above). So practise self-compassion and patience, do what you can to provide space and support for your (or your loved-one’s) grief, and know that your suffering is a reflection of your connection, and your ability to attach and value–as C.S. Lewis said, “[Grief] is a universal and integral part of our experience of love.”