Grief is both a deep sorrow and a normal, healthy response to the stress of loss.
Grief caused by the death of a loved one can trigger many unfamiliar, uncomfortable and even frightening emotions, thoughts and physical sensations that sometimes lead us to wonder “grief - am I doing it right?”
There Is No One Way or One Right Way to Grieve
Although there is no one way or one right way to grieve, “I think I’m grieving wrong,” is something I hear often from grief support clients at a first meeting. What these words usually mean is: I haven’t yet found a pace or process for grieving that works for me, feels manageable and gives me the sense of inner- comfort, proficiency and forward movement that I want and need at this time.
I also take these words to mean that new grief-processing skills may be needed.
Grieving Is a Learned Skill
Healthy grieving is a learned skill, an active process that informs the way in which you balance time and attention spent working on grief-healing with time spent coping with, and engaging in, day-to-day activities and routines.
The way you grieve is influenced by factors such as culture, family tradition, religious and spiritual beliefs, life experience and individual preference and understanding. These factors initially help you frame your grieving style; you rely on these factors to guide you on your grief journey. But every grief is unique. The healing and coping skills you might have employed in the past may not be what is needed for this particular loss, current situation, or time in life. Assessing what skills are now needed and what actions need to be taken can begin by asking two questions: What must be mourned? And what must be released completely?
What Must Be Mourned?
At first glance, what must be mourned seems obvious: the loss of the physical presence of your loved one. But within that loss are multiple losses seeking to be acknowledged and expressed so that you can find acceptance of the reality of your loss and feel the full range of emotions resulting from your loss experience. For example, when a spouse dies your grief may have many layers: loss of companionship; loss of financial security; loss of a planned-for future together. When a young child dies you may mourn the loss of unfulfilled potential, as well as the laughter and youthful energy that once filled your home. When a sibling dies you may mourn not only lost companionship but also the loss of a link to your origin story and childhood memories. Naming your losses and - over time - compassionately bringing focused attention and healing skills to each loss is the essential work of grief-processing, helping you to say good-bye and adjust to a life in which your loved one is now missing.
Working Skillfully With Discomfort
Grief tends to come in waves. In the initial stages of grief, waves of uncomfortable emotions, thoughts and physical sensations can be frequent and intense. In order to identify and process what must be mourned, learning to ride - rather than avoid – waves of discomfort may require that you learn new resilience-building skills. For example, employing breathing techniques that calm the body (and the mind) can be helpful when experiencing sensations of a “flip-flop” heart, intestinal distress, racing mind, sleep disturbances and other common grief symptoms. Breathing techniques and other resilience skills help physical, emotional and mental expressions of grief to flow rather than get stuck in the body or body-mind, providing a sense of proficiency and control during a time when you may feel both are lacking.
To grieve skillfully and address the multiple losses seeking acknowledgment and expression, it can also be beneficial to engage in systematic approaches to grief-processing. The two approaches I most often employ with clients are Continuing Bonds Theory (exploring ways to stay connected to your deceased loved one) and Worden’s Four Stages (the four stages are: accept the reality of the loss; work through the pain of grief; adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing; emotionally relocate the deceased and move forward with life). Both theories provide activities, rituals and processes for healing the pain of loss that can over time help lessen the frequency and intensity of grief waves, moving you toward greater inner comfort and healing. A grief support professional can help guide you to a grief theory approach that works best for you.
What Must Be Released Completely?
A client once told me this not uncommon story of her brother’s suicide: my client belonged to a faith community in which suicide was considered an unforgiveable sin against God. When her brother took his own life, members of my client’s church told her to forget her brother as he was now lost, beyond redemption. My client remembered her brother as a happy child, and a troubled young man who suffered from mental health challenges. Surely, my client thought, God loves all his children, all his creations, including her troubled brother. My client struggled for several months trying to adopt her faith community’s viewpoint but the more she tried the more she fell into despair and deepening sadness. Finally my client left her church and found a faith community that aligned with a truth that felt right to her: God understood her brother’s suffering and would forgive him for taking his own life. Once my client embraced this belief, she began to heal.
Loss is painful. But sometimes the pain of loss is compounded and complicated by thoughts and beliefs that need to be released completely so that you can find peace and movement toward healing. In a healthy grieving process, issues stemming from regrets, unforgiveness, and/or specific cultural, religious, and family traditions that prevent you from accepting the reality of loss and working through the pain of grief, need to be identified and addressed with focused attention and care in order to make room for thoughts, beliefs and emotions that will direct you toward healing. Working skillfully with such issues can include journaling, engaging in a forgiveness facilitation activity, talking regularly with someone you trust or a grief professional, therapeutic art and more.