Grief: Integrating, not “Letting Go”

Grief: Integrating, not “Letting Go”

Usually when we think about grief we associate it with the aftermath of losing someone we love or deeply care about.  Grief is a natural response to a significant loss.  If you’ve dealt with other types of loses and you’ve felt grief then you know that you can feel grief about something like a divorce, relocation, miscarriage, job loss, end of a significant relationship i.e. with partner, friend, family member, and even a presidential election.  Regardless of what you are grieving, if you are in mourning this IS for YOU.

Losing someone or something you cared about is painful.  The experience of difficult emotions, like disappointment, hopelessness, and despair, can leave you feeling depleted and thinking that there is no hope and “no good after this”.  These are natural and common responses to loss.  Grief is a very personal experience to each; your grief response, i.e. how, when and why you mourn is unique to you.  And the more significant the loss, the more expansive your grief may be.  Thus, there is no “right” or “wrong” way to grieve but there are healthy ways to cope with the pain, to renew, and move on with life after loss.  Notice I did not say forget or let go; the grieving process is one through which you can transform pain to something bigger than it.

How you grieve depends on personal (i.e. coping skills, personality, etc.), cultural (including faith), societal factors (i.e. stigma around crying in public, etc).  You may hear people say “It’s been long enough”, “you need to move on”, “it’s over”- but stay above that.  Healing cannot be forced or hurried, there’s no deadline to grief, it happens gradually and at your own pace.  Some people may feel better in weeks, some months, and for some it may take years. 

Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced five stages of grief in 1969, these were:

Denial (shock, numbness)- At this stage you may be saying “this is not happening”.  To others, you may appear “unfeeling”; don’t worry if people think you seem uncaring.  This is a normal primary reaction which will decrease as you slowly acknowledge the loss.

Anger- Usually in this stage you may ask questions like “why did this happen?”, “why him/her?”  You may feel powerless and may become angry at a higher power (“God, why did you let this happen?”).  You may even become angry at the person who passed, others in your life, or toward life in general.

Bargaining- Common thought: “If I had done this, then this wouldn’t have happened”.  You may be preoccupied about the things you could have done to prevent the loss, even when there was nothing you could have done. 

Depression- “I just can’t keep going” and “I feel empty” are two common thoughts in this stage.  This stage happens in some people when they realize the extent of the loss and have feelings of loneliness, hopelessness, emptiness etc.  Symptoms may include crying spells, sleep and appetite changes, a lack of energy, motivation, and concentration, short term memory issues, etc.

Acceptance- At this stage you may be thinking “The loss happened, I felt, I grieved, I now move on with this reality”.  At this stage, you are able to accept the fact that the loss has occurred and come to terms with your feelings and your new reality.

Other common feelings include: despair, fear, anxiety, and resentment.  There may also be physical problems, such as tiredness, stomach and headaches (other aches and pain as well), weight loss or weight gain, insomnia, etc. 

Grief can be an emotional rollercoaster with ups and downs.  Yet not everyone goes through each stage, or in this sequence.  Milestones such as graduations and birthdays, anniversaries and holidays can reawaken grief reactions including memories and feelings.  Be prepared, talk to your loved ones ahead of time as to what would be helpful to you, make determinations about time limits you may want to set for certain activities, and prepare rituals that will help you honor your loss and your present life.  It is important to remember that this is part of healing and you can feel better again. 

Regardless of what you are grieving, these are some helpful things you can do:

Crying- It’s release, it’s helpful.

Seek support from people who care about you and accept the help that is offered to you.  Our general culture tells us to be “strong”, “move on”, “be independent”, this is a disservice to ourselves as we often end up isolating when in emotional pain.  Instead, seek help.

Engaging in some mourning rituals can provide healing, you don’t have to be religious or follow a faith for this to be helpful.  Examples: create a keepsake box with pictures and items that remind you of the person or thing you’ve lost, go to a place that reminds you of the person or thing you lost and meditate there.

Engage in activities in a purposeful manner that integrates the loss and feelings.  Going for a walk, going to church, meditating, writing, drawing, painting, etc. about the loss can be very healing.  Listening, dancing and meditating to music can also helpful to some.  Get in touch with and express your feelings in a way that is helpful to you.

It’s important to take care of yourself.  Looking after your needs, including emotional and physical, will help you get through; Get enough sleep, eat right, and exercise.  Creating a schedule can help when you are feeling overwhelmed and disorganized.  Using substances to numb the pain of grief are temporary fixes that can make the problem much worse and prolong the grieving process.

Join a cause or support group- You can spend time with people who have gone through a similar situation; find of support group in a hospital, church, community center, etc.  If you or your loved one cared about a cause, you could invest in the cause. 

Seek professional help- Talk to a psychotherapist or grief counselor.  A therapist can help you work through common grief reactions and complicated grief.

Grief includes pain.  Acceptance of this reality and these feelings is part of the process.  Feeling this way is normal, it does not mean you are “weak”, or “melodramatic”, or any other labels.  It means you are human.  It’s okay to be angry, it’s okay to cry or not to cry, and if something made you happy or even made you laugh, it’s okay, it does not mean you care less, you love less, it means you are human.  On the other hand, unresolved grief can lead to complications such as depression, anxiety, and other health problems.  Be kind to yourself and allow yourself time to heal but if you’re struggling, seek help.

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