Navigating the anguish, despair, and emotional pain of the loss of someone we love through death is NOT a passive experience. Our loved one’s death is an event. Grief work is defined as the process by which we come to terms with that event. This work requires many intentional and arduous tasks.
First, we must open ourselves up and embrace the emotional pain as it floods our mind, our body and our soul. This vulnerability of opening ourselves up to emotional pain is counter-intuitive to our instinct, which usually guides us to avoid pain as much as possible. However, there is no detour, no bypass around grief. The pain must be endured until it becomes thoroughly familiar. This is perhaps the single most challenging aspect of grief work. No one wants to embrace emotional pain forever. And so, we ask relentlessly, “When will it end?”
We must seek out those who will listen to and give us permission to talk about our loss as much--and for as long—as we need. Telling our story is a vital task of grief work. Telling our story can be anything from sharing the memory of our last time spent with our loved one, where we were and what we were doing when we got the news of their death, or the details and timeline of their diagnosis and their medical history, our experience of being present at the time of their death, the joy they brought to our life and the love we had for them. Or, our story may be about the challenges we had in the relationship, the regrets we have, or the guilt we bear for not addressing issues when we had the chance to do so. Certainly, any ‘unfinished business’ we feel we had with our loved one needs to be heard and processed in order for us to now find forgiveness or resolution unilaterally. Each time we tell our story, a new and different aspect of our loss resonates within us. As we gain perspective from telling our story, we are able to slowly adapt to the changes that are the inevitable result of our loss.
We do not need to grieve alone. However, seeking out the support that we need from others often overwhelms and intimidates us. We don’t want to be judged; we don’t want to be a burden; we don’t want others to really, truly know how bad we feel. So, we put on our “I’m okay” face, and move through our days as if we’re fine. If we do reach out for help or understanding, we often discover that our support people might not be who we expected them to be. Other family members are likely grieving themselves. Their relationship with the person who died may have been different than ours, more complicated, or less close. Additionally, our friends and others close to us find it very difficult to witness our pain. They try to cheer us up, distract us, prod us to “…move on… let go… get over it…” These are just a few of the reasons that so many describe grief as such a lonely place—even within their immediate family and close friends.
Often, we need to seek support from outside our immediate circle which, again, is counter-intuitive and in itself a daunting prospect. However, the support found in a griefsupport group can be surprisingly comforting, as members of the group instinctively understand the emotional experience of loss without judgment. The group experience can often provide the unconditional support we need to process our grief on our own terms.
The culmination of our grief work is the ability to acknowledge all that our loved one has meant to us, the influence that our relationship with them has had on us; understanding how our loss informs whowe are now. And, finally, how we take that new sense of who we are—after loss—into our own future.
You don’t heal from the loss of a loved one because time passes; you heal because of what you do with the time. ~ Carol Crandall
What to say that is new or different about our current circumstances of social distancing and self-quarantine? I feel I’ve been bombarded with emails, text messages, blog posts, and professionals of every kind offering me advice on everything from how to properly wash my hands to “quarantine recipes” to at-home exercise tips. Enough already. I’m overwhelmed.
I’ve given a lot of thought to this from my own perspective as well as, the perspective of how best to help my clients?
What I’ve concluded is that what might be helpful is to just simply… allow.
Allow yourself to feel sad, to grieve all that you’re missing out on right now. Everything about our life today was unimaginable just a few short weeks ago. We are adjusting and accommodating to a new way of thinking and doing across every aspect of our day.
Allow for the space you need to just… be. The emotional burden we are all bearing is profound. While we might think that we have all this extra time to do this (exercise) and do that (tackle home projects), the reality is that our minds and hearts are burdened right now. And allowing ourselves to just be is not only okay--it is necessary.
Allow for worry. I frequently caution my clients that worry about the future robs us of today. I also encourage clients to engage in mindfulness, which to the focus of your awareness on the present moment.
But now, who in the world isn’t worrying about their future? And, doesn’t it feel impossible to ‘stay in the moment’ of whatever we are doing when our health, our relationships, our children’s educations, our jobs, our very way of life are all at risk of irreparable change? Worry about the future makes a lot of sense to me right now.
So, what I’ve come to realize is that some of the ‘rules’ that I’ve had for myself, and have espoused to my clients for years, don’t seem to apply right now. I’ve also heard some refer to this as our “new normal.” I don’t think so. This is not any kind of normal! We are in a constant state of uncertainty, fear, and speculation. Maybe, just maybe, we will reach a new normal when we’ve come through to the other side of this virus pandemic. Until then, we need to throw out any notion of normalcy.
Sadness, grief, a need for acknowledging our stress and our anxiety and our worry…. Sounds pretty somber, right? So, let me add a few other ideas that we can allow for…
Allow for dreams about all the things that we want to get back to—and maybe even do differently or better—when we can. We each have the opportunity to thoughtfully consider how we will re-engage with our loved ones, folks we work with, and our neighbors and friends. We will be able to approach past relationship challenges with a new perspective, one born out of time to really reflect and evaluate. We can choose to enact changes in our own way of being with others in our lives.
Allow for anticipation of seeing family and friends again… and for celebrating! There have been so many missed occasions – birthdays, anniversaries, vacations, weddings, births... So much to catch up on, so many people to spend time with, so many opportunities to reconnect. It’s a lot to look forward to, really.
Allowfor possibilities. The possibility that as a community, and as a nation, we have learned so much about what we are made of. We will have been reminded (just as we were after 9/11) of the power and the goodness of every American to come together when we need each other most.
Allow for thepossibility that the way we view our children’s educations, the way in which we accomplish our work, and the manner in which we tackle immense challenges may all shift for the better, and in ways we cannot imagine right now. Think about advances in remote learning for our kids. Or, perhaps we’ll see a shift in new home design that supports a range of creative work-at-home environments. Certainly, our leaders and medical professionals will be more proactive with efforts to anticipate and better prepare for this type of crisis in the future.
Lastly, allow for thepossibility that we will all come out of this with a renewed sense of purpose for ourselves and our community; a more defined commitment to supporting others who struggle or are in need; and a much deeper sense of gratitude for all that we may have taken for granted before.
Finally, if my thoughts expressed here make sense to you, I encourage you to simply allow yourself to feel every feeling and acknowledge every concern that invades your mind. However, please also allow for the hopes, the dreams, the anticipation, and the possibilities that await us when we are able to move beyond our current circumstances. This too shall pass.
When someone we love dies, we are consumed by an overwhelming and all-encompassing experience of anguish and despair. The simplest tasks become arduous and insurmountable. The suggestion that we could ever enjoyanything, or smile, or laugh again seems incomprehensible. We feel that our grief is now our new identity… forever.
Let me suggest that it is possible to experience momentsof joy amidst our grief. Grief and joy are not mutually exclusive emotions (although we often believe that they are). We are capable of feeling a multitude of emotions all at once. It is this tug of our heart and mind in different directions, amidst grief, that confuses and disorients us.
Then, there’s the guilt. The immediate ‘gut punch’ we give ourselves when we feel anything except our grief. It’s as though we are somehow betraying our loved one because we laughed at a joke, or forgot about our loss for the briefest of moments.
The ability to get outside of your grief momentarily is a healthy coping mechanism; a sort of mini-respite from the despair. It is okay to smile when you hear a baby giggle, to laugh as your dog romps through the snow, to take in the beauty of a sunset, or savor a delicious sweet treat. All of these moments can accompany our exhaustive experience of grief; moments that serve to remind us that grief need not be our entire identity.
There is still beauty in the world around us — even as we grieve.
In my career as a grief counselor, I have never had a client who did not experience some form of regret following the loss of someone they loved.
Something left unsaid, a decision made that they wish they could change, or a situation unresolved. Regret can come as equally with action as it does with inaction. We can regret doing something as much as we can regret having done nothing at all. After a loss these regrets can haunt us endlessly.
Some choose to hang on to regret becausemoving forward can feel like betrayal. Your regrets serve as testaments to the love you have felt. Holding on to regret can feel like it helps you maintain connection. Leaving behind the regret can feel like leaving your person behind.
A few suggestions for coping with your regret include:
Tell someone you trust what you are feeling.
You may need to be reminded that you did the best you could. After the fact, we lose the objectivity to remember exactly how things were or we forget all the things we did right. If the person you trust says, “No, you did all you could,” trust them.
Consider writing a letter to your person.
Expressing how you feel about the unfinished or unresolved issues between you can facilitate healing.
Be open to forgiving yourself.
Look for a lesson that can be learned.
Regret can inspire deeper compassion and empathy for others in pain; or just to say “I love you” more often.
A few years ago, my husband and I bought a home in the country. One of the first things we did was enclose our new yard with a split rail fence along our property line. Although our primary purpose was to keep our two dogs in our yard, our fence represents so much more. It tells the world what we own and what we know is our responsibility.
Emotional boundaries function much the same way in our interpersonal relationships. An individual with healthy emotional boundaries understands what they “own” - and do not “own” - in their interactions with others. Conversely, people with unhealthy boundaries find it difficult to say “no” to others. Their behavior is often described as “enabling” because it allows another to continue to behave in ways that are destructive to themselves or to the existing relationship.
Healthy boundaries allow us to convey our thoughts and feelings in a conflict, while allowing the other person to do the same. We are able to recognize what part of a conflict we “own”—and what part we do not. It’s all about accountability in our relationships, and understanding that repair work requires effort from both sides of a conflict.
If you often find yourself feeling hurt, misunderstood, disrespected, or taken advantage of by others, chances are your emotional property line has been crossed. A professional counselor can help with identifying boundary violations and working toward the development of healthier ways to express yourself and to hold others accountable in your relationships.
Everyone is grieving when a family loses a loved one. However, not everyone is grieving in the same way. Once each person moves beyond the initial stage of shock in response to the death, there can be significant differences in each individual’s experience of the loss. These unanticipated differences often present an added layer of confusion and despair for the individual mourners, and can result in discord within the family unit as a whole.
When we anticipate a loss, we often assume that our closest family members will be the ones to support us through our grief. However, each family member’s experience will be unique to them; influenced by a wide range of features specific to the individual’s age and stage of life at the time of their loss and to their relationship to the deceased.
Other factors influencing our experience include:
the stability and intensity of our relationship with the deceased at the time of their death
the age of the deceased at the time of their death
whether the death was sudden or anticipated
whether the death occurred as a result of natural causes or from an accident or tragedy
The task for family members is to recognize these factors and not assume that their spouse, parent, sibling, or child is feeling as they are at any given moment in time. Support offered by others outside the family, or in a griefsupport group can provide the understanding we need to process our grief on our own terms.
Let’s imagine that you have healed from divorce, spent considerable time adjusting to life as a single co-parent with your ex, and have finally begun to consider your own future with someone new. As you begin dating again, you realize that most of the people you meet are also parents themselves.
Now let’s imagine that after a considerable amount of time dating, and discussing all that you each want to do differently the second time around, you conclude that you have found “the one,” and you begin to seriously consider a long-term future together.
You’ve likely introduced the children, had some fun experiences, and shared a few memorable beginnings together as a new “family.” Seems like it’s all going to work out, right?
Well, this is where it gets messy, because those exciting feelings of new love often cloud each parent’s ability to recognize the very real challenges their future will hold for their children.
As a family counselor working with blended families, I often witness parents respond with shock when they begin to address the challenges of loving someone else’s child(ren), managing the logistics of multiple custody and visitation schedules, and facing the harsh reality that their kids haven’t all “fallen in love” too!
This situation requires adults who are patient, realistic, and able to selflessly prioritize the needs and feelings of each of their children--together. The consideration and effort exerted on behalf of the kids will assure each of them of their value in their new blended family.
Those of us who came of age watching “The Brady Bunch” had no idea that this example of a blended family was all a ruse. The struggles, animosities, emotional scars, and inconsistencies of a life together — from two different worlds — are impossible to anticipate alongside our “idealized” version reflected in my title.
But, the struggle is real — even when the children in the family are adults themselves. My counseling practice is filled with remarried couples who admit they hadn’t realized how difficult it would be. Adult children often have strong opinions about their parent’s choice in a new partner, and are usually not afraid to voice it. Reports of adult children who disengage from their parent when they remarry, questions about how the parents balance their time, and the impact on relationships with grandchildren are just a few of the unforeseen challenges.
By the time they arrive in my office the dysfunctional dynamics are overwhelming. Working backwards to educate them on adjusting expectations, setting healthy boundaries, and letting go of that idealized version of how they imagined it all, are just a few of the tasks we take on.
However, if I had been able to offer advice PRIOR TO their union, it would be this:
Do not ignore or disregard the certainty of these inevitable challenges.
Talk A LOT about your kids; the good, the bad, and the ugly!! Commit as a team to support one another, and to respect the emotional limitations of others in your new family.
Most people make the assumption that grief and loss are only experienced with the death of a loved one. However, loss comes in many other life experiences and grief is often the resulting emotional reaction. The experience of job loss is no exception, and can include primary as well as, secondary losses. Primary losses include the loss of income and benefits. However it is the secondary losses that can cause a large part of our anxiety and impact our ability to cope. These secondary losses can include: loss of status, loss of respect, loss of confidence, loss of hope, loss of belief in the future, and loss of trust of others.
As a result of these real and perceived losses, the individual who has lost his/her job is most certainly experiencing the emotions of grief; which can result in feelings of anxiety, depression, and hopelessness. The important thing to remember is that these are normal reactions to grief and require much the same care as those grief reactions that occur after the death of a loved one.
Among some of the basic truths about grieving are that it is highly individualized and is a normal, acceptable, and healthy reaction to loss. The grieving process has no time limit, and often takes longer than is usually recognized. Physiological symptoms such as headaches, back pain, and stomach upset are real reactions to grief. Feelings of guilt are natural, and second-guessing past decisions and actions is to be expected. However, if acknowledged and processed appropriately, grief can also provide unexpected opportunity for growth.
Seeking out and maintaining a support system is the single most significant task of coping with loss of any kind. This includes the emotional support of loved ones who care about us, and can also encompass a formal support group. People in similar circumstances can provide emotional support as well as, networking opportunities that might otherwise be unavailable to the individual alone.
Being organized can be very helpful in managing the crisis of job loss. When so much feels out of control, the person’s ability to structure his/her time and job seeking efforts can provide a sense of order and of being in control of the situation.
Journaling can be a very useful tool in managing stress and anxiety. Very often, we express our feelings differently in writing than we do verbally. Sometimes we can put on paper things that we could never say aloud about our fears and anxieties.
Lastly, it is important to remember the power of prayer in our lives, especially when we face our greatest challenges. Individuals facing job loss are often plagued with doubt in God’s plan for their life. We must remember that while He does answer our prayers, it is seldom in the way we expect or at the time we would prefer!
An individual’s ability to successfully navigate the enormous challenge of job loss affords him/her the opportunity to look back and identify the learning and personal growth that the situation provided. The skills and the personal wherewithal that we use to resolve each difficulty we face offers us new tools to add to our toolbox for future challenges.
During a time of loss the people who care about us are often quick to offer unsolicited advice and counsel in an effort to comfort us. However, the language they use—although unintentional—often exacerbates our sense of isolation and confusion. While intended to comfort or encourage, their words often leave us feeling even more alone in our grief.
In my work as a grief counselor, I have become acutely aware of the power of words to influence our perspective and experience of personal loss. I devote an evening of my ongoing grief support group to a discussion of this topic, and I offer alternative language to use when discussing one’s grief journey with others. This discussion—perhaps more than any other during the course of my group—is often transformative for the attendees who have been hurt by the words and well-intentioned advice of others.
“You really should be moving on by now…”
My suggestions include challenging the use of the word should in any discussion of one’s grief work. There simply are no “shoulds.” Certainly, there are universal features of the grief experience. However, there are many more features which contribute to the uniqueness of one’s journey, and often amplify those intense feelings of being alone in our grief. These features include the individual’s age and stage of life at the time of their loss, their relationship to the deceased, and the stability and intensity of that relationship at the time of the death. The circumstances of the death itself can often complicate the grieving process as well. This includes the age of the deceased at the time of death, whether the death was sudden or anticipated, and whether the death occurred as a result of natural causes or from an accident or tragedy. It becomes quite clear when all of these factors are considered, that any idea of how someone should be enduring the process of grief is entirely unreasonable. Grief work is an arduous and uniquely individual experience, with no rules and no “shoulds.”
“Isn’t it time for you to just let go?”
“Why haven’t you gotten past this yet?”
I suggest that the griever consider the task to be that of moving forward. Suggestions of moving on, letting go and getting past imply the need to somehow leave our loved one behind. When in fact, the real challenge is to figure out how to move forward,with one’s loss now being a part of what informs who they are now.
“When are you going to get back to normal?”
The loss of a loved one changes us forever. With this understanding, it becomes evident that getting back to normal is not a goal at all! We will never be the same person we were before our loss. We absolutely can feel joy, love, and happiness in our lives again, but it will be a new normal; nothing like before our loss.
“You should be reaching a place of acceptance soon…”
I also take issue with the concept of acceptance. Here, I am referring to the painstakingly long ordeal of learning how to live our own life with our loved one no longer a part of it. If we consider the dictionary’s definitions of acceptance, we learn that it can mean:
the act of taking something that is offered
a favorable reception
to receive willingly
to give admittance or approvalto
to endure without protest or reaction
to regard as normal or inevitable
the act of assentingto or agreeing
A common theme of choice or a sense of willingness is implied with each of these variations of the definition of acceptance. However, our loss has certainly not been our choice. Nor would many admit to any sense of willingness to confront life without their person. With this perspective of the idea of acceptance in mind, is it any wonder why so many people who are grieving report feeling offended when asked by others if they have “accepted” their loss yet?? Quite the contrary, their feelings are often ones of resistance and protest.
I suggest we replace the word acceptance with the words adapt and accommodate. Through many conversations with people struggling in their loss, there is a strong consensus that these words more accurately reflect how they are attempting to manage their day-to-day struggle. They readily acknowledge that they are trying to adapt to the changes that their loss has imposed on them. They further recognize that it is possible to accommodate—or make room for—the changes to their own lives that have occurred—through no fault of their own. Informing a well-intentioned observer that they are hard at work attempting to adapt and accommodate to their loss feels more congruent with their actual experience, than an effort to reach some undefined (and often unimaginable) place of acceptance of their loss.
Finally, as a person makes their way through their grief journey, finding ways to cope with the emotional overload, and meeting the challenges of simply getting through each day, there eventually comes a time when the load begins to lighten. Moments of quiet reflection replace anguishing sorrow. There are more sweet memories and fewer feelings of emptiness. It is during this transition that I often suggest we shift our language from words focused on the loss to those that highlight all that our loved one has meant to us. I suggest we leave behind the language of loss and step into our future speaking in terms of honoring—rather than grieving. This final shift in the use of our language of loss supports our renewed sense of our own life as it begins to take shape again.