Grief, loss and mourning are an unavoidable part of life and living. We all experience it to some degree, but no one is quite sure of the right way to navigate it. That's because while grief is a common to us all, and there are feelings and coping means we all share, grief remains a very individual and unique experience in many ways. There is no right way to grieve, but we all sense we can ease the process and complete it in a satisfying way...or stall, even halt, its progress and our ability to heal.
Grief is a normal response to loss. It may be momentary based on the the extent of the loss, or continue or an extended period of time. We suffer minor losses every day, perhaps calling them inconveniences. Other losses are more profound and may result in a deep sense of mental anguish or grief, and sorrow. While there are various levels of loss, the feelings of grief we experience are real at every level.
Examples of Losses may include and not limited to:
- Close Family Member (spouse/parent/child/sibling) including Divorce
- Friendships and Pets
- Home/Personal Items/Comforts of Life
- Time/Sleep/Missed Appointments
We may begin with feeling shock, especially if there was no anticipation of the loss, such as in an accident. It seems unbelievable and we want to deny that it is happening. We go numb, performing daily tasks on auto-pilot, going through the motions and only doing what is immediate and essential.
Shock can buffer us for a time from being overpowered by our emotions and allowing us to continue to do what needs to be done. It can be a comfort to deny what has happened and live in avoidance and numbness, or medicating and dampening their emotions, but this can lead to being stuck in that moment of grieving and never truly moving on or forward. Grief must have an outlet or these stalled emotions may cause physical or emotional problems.
When the shock wears off, and we must fact the reality and aftermath of what has happened, some rely on their faith and confidence in who God is and what He offers to the grieving. Others become unable to function or unable to begin the process of grieving, staying in a continual state of loss. Some people may travel the road of grief in a straight line always moving towards the goal of peace, others take detours or circle back, but the journey is unique to the individual.
Common emotions are helplessness and confusion. You may discover you were emotionally unprepared, even if the loss was anticipated. While there may be “stages” of grief, going through each stage does not mean grieving has necessarily ended or that you will not experience one or more stages again. There are many events that may continue to trigger varying levels of grief as we move through time, for some these may result in the remembrance of treasured memories, for others a re-experiencing of loss.
Common questions we all ask are: will I recover, will I get to the point it won’t hurt so much, will I regain some sense of normalcy, be able to cope, stop grieving, get through birthdays and holidays, and how long will this last? The answer is that there is no definitive answer for everyone because we each look at loss from a different perspective over time, and we each have a different level of willingness to move on from pain. For some, the pain keeps a sense of connection with our loved one or even acts as penance for guilt, or punishment, or becomes confused with letting go of the love and the good memories, instead of simply letting go of the pain, guilt and blame.
The answer to, will my life return to normal, is no, because we will never be the same and things will not go back to what we considered normal, however there is a new normal, and it has the possibility of being hopeful again.
In your new normal, life as you knew it before your loss will not be the same, however you will continually adjust to life as it is now. You may doubt it will happen, but remember that adjustments take time, and it is more helpful to allow yourself to simply begin to accept and adapt, instead of trying to rush forward and adopt a certain feeling, belief or way of thinking, or make permanent choices based on how you feel or are processing information, right now.
You have never experienced this particular and unique loss before, even if you have experienced other losses. Do not put yourself, or allow others to put you, on a particular time schedule to adjust to this loss and embrace the reality of your present life.
The pain inevitably lessens in some ways even if we do not want it to, and it lessens even more when we are willing to be in it, experience it (not necessarily all at once or in a short period of time, but when it presents itself) and even allow it to impart positive meaning to the loss. If you allow it to, this wound in your soul, like those in your body, will heal.
God designed us to heal, but we can certainly choose not to. If we heal, our thoughts about our loved one, or what we lost, will remain in some form, however true healing will bring about insight, wisdom, gratitude, and peace.
There is hope for the lowly in spirit, the depressed and the broken hearted. Jesus promised,
“The mighty Spirit of Lord Yahweh is wrapped around me because Yahweh has anointed me, as a messenger to preach good news to the poor (humbly, lowly, depressed). He sent me to heal the wounds of the brokenhearted, to tell captives, “You are free,”and to tell prisoners, “Be free from your darkness.” Luke 4:18 The Passion Translation
What happens if we don’t allow our process of mourning and instead remain in a state of continual grief? Often the result is anger towards others, ourselves and especially God, bitterness, an inability to experience joy, withdrawal from relationships that matter to us and from the people who need us, and we may either immerse ourselves in our work or feel unable to focus on work. We may create shrines in our home to keep our loss in the present, be unable to engage in holidays and happy rituals because believe we cannot gather in that treasured place or with those loved ones. As a result, the loss takes over our lives, defines us, and truly entraps us. There are few loved ones who would want their death to trap us in grief.
We can begin to release ourselves from what was, begin to adjust to the new reality, and even allow for new traditions, relationships and futures, by remembering what was good, finding meaning in the loss, and cultivating gratitude for what was, is, and is to come.
We must allow ourselves to begin to be comforted, even by God. Do not expect for the loss to be “undone” or expect to quickly stop feeling pain, but do expect that Jesus will keep His word to never leave you or forsake you on this road you will travel. It may feel lonely, that others do not understand, but He will, He does. Lean in to the grief, and lean up to Him. When you mourn with the Lord, you will find the comfort you long for. Matthew 5:4.
The following definitions are sourced from Webster’s 1928 American Dictionary of the English Language.
- Loss - to be separated from a person or thing, to have no knowledge of where a person or thing is, to forfeit or be deprived of, waste or squander, people, property, money, health, reputation, destruction, ruin, defeat, waste of time, labor, or possessions. It is not a detriment when we lose bad company or evil habits.
- Grief - the pain of mind produced by loss, misfortune, injury or evils of any kind; sorrow; regret. We experience grief by sympathy for others. It may be occasioned by our own misconduct, sorrow or regret that we have done something wrong; pain accompanying repentance; when we have offended or injured a friend or the Supreme Being.
- Sorrow - the uneasiness or pain of mind which is produced by the loss of any good, real or supposed, or the disappointment in the expectation of good or happiness, loss of friends or loved one, in misfortune, calamity to friends or country. Frustrated hopes, sad, depressed, dejected.
- Mourn - to express grief or sorrow with weeping or audible sounds, sobs, sighs, or inwards silent grief. To wear the customary habit (traditional clothing, behavior or time) of mourning.
- Comfort - relief from distress of the mind, hope and consolation; from pain, ease, rest, cold, distress or uneasiness of the body. That which gives strength, support or cheers in distress, difficulty, danger or infirmity. New strength and quiet invigoration.
Grief and sorrow are a normal response to any loss, of any kind. They are natural and even necessary emotions. Grieving enables you to sustain yourself and adjust to loss. You are expected to grieve when you experience a loss. How you do so is up to you, it’s a moment in your life, unique to you, and one that you must personalize and give to it your own meaning.
Mourning is your outward response, the voice of grief. Mourning is what you say and do not say, what you wear, where you go, what you do or do not do, and how long you remain in that state. It is individual but may bring comfort to mourn in ways traditional to your family, your faith, your community or to others that also seem meaningful and helpful to you.
Give yourself the space and time to mourn. Allow yourself to be comforted in different ways. Allowing comfort does not mean forgetting who or what you lost, that you don’t care, that you are “all o.k.” or that you are anything other than choosing to not dwell only in pain, all the time.
Treat yourself the way you would someone else who is in mourning: with compassion and kindness. Let go of what you should need, should be, and do or do not deserve. Try not to compare yourself and your grieving process with your expectations about grief and mourning. Your coping methods may not be the same as someone else. You are not the same person as you were before the loss, so try not to compare you, to you.
Accept that the normal range of emotions, experiences, feelings and sensations, beliefs and cognitive processes are wide and deep, and that you fit in there somewhere. While it is not helpful, and is even harmful, to continually focus on the emotional, physical, and spiritual pain of loss, it is just as detrimental to avoid it completely or try to shut it down every time, or deny that it is a natural and necessary part of grieving and healing.
You wouldn’t ignore a physical injury or deny it exists, demand it heal faster than natural, judge yourself for having pain or evidence of the injury, and neither should you with grief. Acknowledge and care of your needs, your wounds, even as they change over time. Find constructive ways to heal, to participate in the process, not rushing, but also not stagnating.
Sometimes the hardest thing to do is accept help from others. We don’t want to be a burden but when we don’t allow others to comfort us in some way, we actually create a burden for them, in that it’s more difficult for them to relieve the pain and helplessness they also feel. It’s ok to say, “I don’t know what I need.” Start with allowing friends and loved ones to initially do some minor tasks or chores, like dishes, preparing or serving food, walking or feeding pets, doing laundry, writing cards, making calls, etc.
Take time off of work, socializing, business and focus temporarily on meeting your basic needs, including food, water, warmth, rest, security and safety. The authors of What’s Your Griefi website add,
“While many people think coping with life after loss is only about confronting and coping with difficult grief emotions, we believe that coping encapsulates anything that helps you feel better and gives you a boost of positive emotion.”
Don’t be afraid to continue to love and feel bonded to a loved one - without apology. After my son died I continued to celebrate his birthday for a time, I still wanted cards from family members or some acknowledgement that he lived even though he died; I talked about him and how his short life affected and changed mine; and I continue to place his ornament on the Christmas tree. A death does not negate their life or their place in your heart.
You will continue to develop your relationship - the way you relate to them - for the rest of your life and I encourage you to honor that relationship in varying ways as you move forward. For the some the greatest honor may be to meet grief with the courage to feel what must be felt and to dare to grow into a new life with new joys and sorrows.
If you feel you are not moving forward over time, and you need help, reach out to friends, clergy, and grief groups and counselors or coaches. We cannot all be experts in all things and often we need help in learning to adapt to a new normal or learn more effective ways to cope, let go of the pain, and embrace a new way of living.
For more help, visit Renewing Your Mind Transformational Counseling and Coaching.
For more help, visit Renewing Your Mind Transformational Counseling and Coaching.
This blog post relies heavily on chapter one of the NCCA course, Joy in the Midst of Mourning, by Dorothy M. Dye, PhD, and the article, “Seven Ways to Treat Yourself With Kindness While Grieving” on the website, What’s your Grief?