After a loss, it’s natural to feel sad. When it’s a significant loss, sadness can become grief.
What makes them different? Sadness is brief, lasting minutes, a few hours, or maybe a few days and though it’s unpleasant, it typically doesn’t interfere with your regular functioning. Grief is a much more intense and potentially debilitating experience. It too is a normal emotional reaction after a major loss, such as the death of a loved one, the breakup of a relationship, loss of health or employment. Have you heard the expression what is traumatic is “in the eye of the beholder”? I believe that experiencing a loss is much the same.
So far in my own life I have experienced multiple losses including the deaths of family members, friends and pets, relationships and career paths ending, and having to give up sports I once loved doing because of osteoarthritis in my spine. No one is exempt from experiencing loss.
For the person grieving, grief can be extremely painful. It can have a major disruptive effect in their life and can include prolonged periods of sadness, loneliness, and mourning, which can last anywhere from a few weeks, months to several years. Mourning is the outward expression of grief. On occasion, grief can produce conflicting feelings caused by the end of (or change) in a familiar pattern of behavior. My mother was a person with Schizophrenia. In her 70’s she was also diagnosed with Dementia. She lived until she was 88 with the illnesses. When she died, I experienced grief over her loss but I was also relieved her suffering was finally over and that my responsibility to care for her had finally ended as well. I believe that grief repressed can lead to chronic emotional, physical and even spiritual problems. Giving ourselves time to heal also means giving ourselves permission to mourn.
I don’t believe there is any one universally correct way to mourn a loss. Each person is different, and though we may share a common type of loss, how it’s experienced is unique for each person. I think it’s important to move through a loss in a healthy and safe manner so you can return to living what’s left of your life. Dr. Alan Wolfelt talks about the six needs of mourning in his inspirational healing series of books. Whenever I experience a loss now (whether it be simple or complex) I remind myself of the six needs of mourning. I refer to them as a road map for healing. They are presented here in no particular order of importance or in what order they should occur. I think of them as fluid and flexible and I don’t put a time frame on how long any of them should last.
Need #1: Acknowledge the reality of a loss. Be gentle with yourself but confront the difficult reality that something has now ended. The full reality of the loss may occur over weeks and months. Acknowledge the reality of the loss with your head. You may want to push away the reality and defer dealing with it. This is normal. It’s okay to go slow. Take your time if you want. There are no rewards for speed. Tell someone about your loss. Talking about it will help you work on this important need. In 2015 I decided to voluntarily leave my job as a Case Manager. I was psychologically and physically burned-out yet still performing optimally in the job. It was a very scary time for me not knowing what was ahead for me and not having a plan. I did however accept that doing that type of work was over for me. Acknowledging that sooner than later helped propel me forward to exploring what next I wanted to do.
Need #2: Embrace the pain that goes with loss. You have the right to experience your own unique grief and the right to feel a complexity of emotions. It’s easier to avoid, repress or push away the pain of grief than to confront it. You may try to numb the pain by using substances. In the long run this is not a sensible strategy because it can open the door to other problems like becoming dependent on the substance. Additionally, it just delays the inevitable of having to process the loss and come to terms with it. Through embracing your grief, you can learn to reconcile yourself to it. Try slowly embracing the pain by dedicating time to mindfully thinking about and feeling the loss. When pain is resisted, it intensifies. In Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, people with chronic pain are taught not to tighten around the pain but to relax and allow the pain to be present.
Need #3: Remember who/what has been lost. You have the right to treasure your memories. When someone loved dies, they live on in us through memory. To heal, you need to actively remember who/what was lost and celebrate the positives you experienced while you were connected. It has been helpful for me to continue displaying photos of my parents and my older sister who died. They continue to live with me in my memories of them. Try brainstorming a list of positive characteristics or memories about someone/something you have lost.
Need #4: Develop a new self-identity. An important path to take towards healing is re-anchoring yourself and reconstructing your self-identity without who/what has been lost. Perhaps you will ultimately discover some positive changes in your own self-identity. When my mother died, I started journaling to help me process my thoughts and feelings. I have found a benefit of journaling is it allows me to revisit and reflect upon what it was that I lost. One journal entry I wrote shortly after my mother’s death still carries a lot of learning for me.
“I used to be a son. Now that both my parents and a sister have died, I am more aware of how important my remaining family is to me. This makes me feel more connected to my two surviving sisters and niece and motivates me towards becoming a more caring and less judgmental person”.
About a year after my mother’s death, I started down the career path I am now fully immersed in as a Mental Health Instructor. I embraced the challenge of learning to become more non-judgmental and accepting of myself, others and whatever is unfolding in my life at any given time. It hasn’t been easy but I’m still 100% engaged in developing these skills in myself.
Need #5: Search for meaning. I think it’s natural to question the meaning and purpose of a loss like:
- “How could this have happened?”
- “Why did this happen?”
- “Why me?”
- “How can I go on?”
Try writing down a list of your own “why” questions that have surfaced for you since your loss. Then try reaching out to people who can provide a safe, supportive and non-judgmental atmosphere for you to begin exploring your questions.
Need #6: Receive ongoing support from others. When we are grieving, we need the love and understanding of others if we are to heal. One of the foundations of grief is that each and every one of us as humans are connected by loss. Remain connected with people and places that provide you with feelings of safety and acceptance. For me, this also means giving myself permission to avoid certain places or people while I am healing. I just try to follow my instincts. You have the right to talk about your grief. Identify three people you can turn to anytime you need a friend. Tell them you mainly need to spend time with them and to be able to talk to them freely. A vital part of healing in grief is often telling your story over and over again.
Additionally, good Self-Care is nurturing and necessary for anyone who has experienced a loss. Taking good care of yourself is not selfish or self-indulgent. To be self-nurturing is having the courage to pay attention to your needs. When we recognize that Self-Care begins with ourselves, we no longer think of those around us as being totally responsible for our well-being. Take good care of yourself. Try very hard to eat well, exercise, remain hydrated and get adequate rest. Taking care of yourself is one way for you to promote your own healing and to begin embracing the life ahead of you.
If ever you’re feeling you won’t make it through the next few weeks or months, talk to someone immediately about your feelings of panic and despair. Talk to a health professional like your family doctor or call, text or chat with a 24/7 crisis line service.
You will recognize you are healing from your grief over a loss when again you have the capacity to enjoy life and plan for the future. Your eating and sleeping habits will have stabilized and you will nurture your relationships with others again allowing yourself to be loved and to love others.
You have the right to fully experience your grief and heal. Grief is a journey, not a destination. Allow yourself time to heal whatever your loss may be.