A few weeks ago I asked Facebook to give me some ideas for my blog: “What are some topics you’d like to hear me write about?” (By the way, I’m always up for more suggestions!)
One of the topics that came up was grief – specifically how we deal with grief – and how few rituals and rites we have to grieve not only the ‘big’ losses (like the death of a close loved one) but all of the other losses that take place in life.
I have written elsewhere on ‘big’ grief, but this weekend I was thinking about all of the kinds of ‘little’ (and not-so-little) losses life can throw at us:
- Job losses.
- Dream losses.
- Relationships that drift away or friends that move or even just the way that life changes can change how often we get to see each other.
- Transitions – like when your child starts school or learns to drive or your parents move out of the house you grew up in or your siblings who lived far away to begin with move to a different time zone that makes communication even more difficult.
- Health challenges – even something as simple as spraining your ankle or getting a bad flu can leave you feeling cut off from events that you were looking forward to fully participating in.
- Loneliness and isolation can be especially hard to mourn because sometimes there isn’t a concrete loss as much as an absence of and a longing for.
I was thinking about how hard it is to notice these losses and grieve them as we go.
We often seem to jump to dismissing our grief in the hopes that by dismissing it the pain won’t be as bad.
We decide that they’re ‘silly’ or they ‘don’t count’ and sometimes actively minimize them to try to gain a sense of ‘control’ over the randomness of the experience.
Sometimes the changes happen so slowly or silently that we miss that the loss has even happened – so we miss the chance or the need to grieve.
But the problem is that when we don’t deal well with grief it doesn’t just disappear.
It’s a bit like the cobwebs in my stairwell window or the dust that collects on the blades of my fan. No amount of ignoring them does anything to get rid of them – if anything cobwebs seem to attract more cobwebs and dust seems to attract more dust, and the same thing seems to be true of grief.
Because when we don’t deal with the pain of this loss, then the next loss hurts a little more, the next one more and the next one more still until we can’t quite understand how “this little thing” could hurt so much.
Or sometimes on top of this growing wall of pain we find that we start to tell unhealthy or unhelpful stories about our experiences. If we don’t allow ourselves to be sad that this happened we can fall into the trap of blame and shame. We can tell stories that say that this is our fault and it can start to constrain our actions and behaviours, creating new loss and pain in our lives.
But even if we don’t end up with blame and shame, the sadness still eclipses our view, making it difficult for us to accurately remember the story – and if grief is allowed to go unchecked over time we start to lose track of both the good and the bad and we end up with fragmented stories, gaps and kinks in our perspective of ourselves and others.
So since life seems to be full of potential loss, and ignoring and avoiding it don’t help, then what can we do?
- Learn to recognize the stages of grief in ourselves. Although grief is rarely a simple cycle, the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross on the process of grief can still be very instructive. Grief – whether over the death of your partner of 50 years or over the loss of a friend whom you have grown distant from – includes emotions like shock, anger, denial, bargaining and acceptance. When we start to understand how these emotions look in us, we become able to realize sooner that what we are feeling is grief, and that we might need to do some work to process this grief in a healthy way.
- Get honest. Often the second barrier to a healthy grief process is our fear of – or avoidance of – honesty. As with the forgiveness process we talked about months ago, healthy honesty in the area of grief requires that we name the pain, tell why it hurts, and tell what we have lost. Although some people may find that they can to do this process in a journal or through art, to be effective, this honesty often requires a witness – someone who will listen to our process and affirm and acknowledge that this pain is real.
- Sit with it. Once we have been honest, there can be a real temptation to run as fast and as far away from these emotions as possible, but it’s very important that we make time to simply sit with them. Perhaps we go for a walk in the woods or sit by the beach and watch the waves. Perhaps we light a candle for the person or go for a drive after dark. Maybe there is a place where the grief happened, or a place that embodies the relationship that is lost that you need to go and sit in. Maybe there is an activity that reminds you of what you have lost that you need to engage with in some fashion – art, sports, music, religious ceremony, etc. Whatever you choose to do, the point is to take time to create a space to feel the pain of the loss you have experienced. To allow it to be real.
- Tell the story – well. Once you have identified the grief, you’ve been honest about the pain and you’ve sat with it, it can be valuable to take the time to tell the story. To find a way of marking the ‘sunshine and shadow’ of the relationship. You might write the story out in a journal or gather mementos of the relationship in a collage. Perhaps you’re more creative and want to write a song or poem or paint a picture or choreograph a dance. Perhaps you want to make a scrapbook or crochet a quilt or bake a cake. It is through these types of creative outlets that you learn how to integrate this grief into the broader tapestry of your life.
As much as we want to fight it, there will always be loss and brokenness in life. Although there are ways to avoid some of it, no amount of living well or keeping the rules or being a good person is going to protect you from all of life’s hurt and pain. But if we have the tools to recognize grief when it comes – to acknowledge it and accept it for what it is – and to move through the process of grief when it shows up, then we have the potential to change the story around grief from an experience that breaks us to an experience that reshapes us into wiser, kinder, more empathetic, more compassionate individuals.
If you need to talk more about grief in your life, please feel free to get in touch!