Grief is a universal human emotion. At some point, we all experience it – whether we lose someone dear to us, suffer a trauma or tragedy, or simply live long enough to feel the ache of loss that accrues naturally over a lifetime. And although grief affects us all, it’s rarely easy to deal with.
Our ancestors marked death with lavish feasts, loud and sustained lamenting and the wearing of mourning clothing for at least two full years. Yet grieving today has mostly become a solo endeavor, and one we’d better hurry up and get through.
When we lose a loved one, well-meaning friends and family members show up with meals, cards and soothing words. But that support also comes with an unspoken timeframe. The meals taper off, the check-ins get further apart, and within a few months, people stop asking how you’re doing. Everyone disappears back into their own routines, and soon enough, they expect you to have rearranged the pieces of your life into some semblance of a new normal.
If your grief comes on the heels of another type of loss – a shattered relationship, an unrealized dream, a financial catastrophe – chances are you’re given very little, if any, time to process your grief at all. Others may not even recognize it as “grief” to begin with. No casseroles show up at your doorstep, and there’s no special gathering of loved ones when you’ve been served with legal papers, or lost your home, or suffered a crushing professional disappointment.
No matter the cause of your grief, what happens when you find yourself unable to resume life as usual, or to move forward on the “timetable” everyone expects?
What do you do when the echoes through an empty house shatter your already broken heart, or when panic and anxiety rob you of the clarity required for even the most basic decisions? How do you deal with the sadness or guilt you may feel because you aren’t “moving on” fast enough for everyone else? Or because your grief over a particular loss isn’t even “real” in their eyes?
First of all, the fact that you’re feeling grief means that it is real. For as long as you experience it, you’ll need to find ways to support your mental and emotional health so that, without rushing yourself, you can eventually move forward into the next stage of your life – and even find a new “normal” that includes joy and happiness again.
If you find yourself on a seemingly intractable journey of grief, try taking these gentle (and sometimes counterintuitive) steps.
1. Recognize the authentic pain of your grief.
Grief is real, present-time pain. When you’re in the depth of grief, your anger, confusion and fear of the unknown are all authentic parts of the grieving process. Despite anyone else’s expectations, your grief is personal, and its timetable is too.
Recognizing this is your first step forward. It will get you further than trying to resist it, forcing yourself to say or do things that feel inauthentic for others’ benefit, or denying yourself the time and space to process this complex emotion.
2. Be mindful of your emotional reactions to this pain.
Something you’ll hear me talk about a lot is the need to differentiate between authentic pain emotions and emotional reactions.
When the authentic pain of grief overwhelms you, your mind identifies it as a threat instead of as a necessary stage in emotional processing. This triggers your brain’s fight-or-flight response. And because grief isn’t something you can outrun or outbox or even hide from, your mind needs a way to deal with these stress chemicals – so it often stirs up emotional reactions like shame, blame, outrage, guilt or self-pity.
Notice when you are feeling the authentic pain of grief, and when you’re feeling an emotional reaction to that grief. Then, acknowledge that these reactive emotions have the potential to make you feel a lot worse. You don’t have to try and change the emotions; just acknowledge them and keep moving gently through these steps.
3. Resist getting caught up in your reactions.
Once you begin to see the difference between authentic pain and emotional reactions, the ongoing challenge will be to restrain your mind from getting caught in the trap of those emotional reactions.
You’ll know when a reaction has taken hold because grief will be churning inside you – but it’ll be accompanied by shame, blame, guilt, outrage or self-pity. The telltale sign is a story you’re telling yourself about why something is your fault, or someone else’s – or how this kind of thing always happens to you, or how weak you are for not being able to get yourself together. It will be a story driven by your emotional reactions.
Learn to recognize these key reactive emotions as red flags that your perceptions are likely not accurate. Then you can press the “Pause” button on these storylines, giving yourself the space and time needed to process the grief itself.
4. Give yourself permission to slow down.
Our culture of quick fixes has little patience for slow-moving processes. This means that, whatever the cause of your grief, you will have to be the one to give yourself permission to slow down – even if others pressure you to move forward.
Allowing yourself the time you need to process this drastic change in your life will eventually give you clarity and momentum to make the adjustment. So, stay committed to returning to “business as usual” at a speed that feels sustainable for you. Do what you can. Hold off on what doesn’t yet feel doable.
Another reason it is so essential to slow down is that there is nothing about grief that isn’t stressful, which means that the habits you usually adopt to cope with stress will be amplified as you navigate your grief. For instance, you will be more likely to snap at people, spiral into hopelessness, over- (eat, drink, shop, etc.), or whatever it is that you already tend to do in stressful situations.
Slowing down will help you better recognize and deal with your stress and its triggers through self-awareness. Pay attention to things like the signals your body is giving you. Where in your body are you holding tension? Can you take a moment to practice breathing and releasing that tension? Notice what kinds of interactions trigger you. Can you prepare for these interactions by giving yourself some emotional space?
Think of grief almost as an uninvited guest in your home that you can’t push out the door with force – but must instead tend to until it's ready to leave of its own volition. Click To TweetThink of grief almost as an uninvited guest in your home that you can’t push out the door with force – but must instead tend to until it’s ready to leave of its own volition. You can’t overcome it with sheer force of will, but you can influence the power it has over your mind and body.
And if you’re feeling pressured to make decisions before you’re ready, keep in mind that sometimes doing nothing at all is the best course of action.
5. Practice compassion with yourself.
Depending on the magnitude of your loss, dealing with your grief may be the hardest thing you ever have to do. So, be gentle with yourself. Give yourself space to process.
Compassion will allow you to stand firm and resist being strong-armed by the brain’s insistence that you’ve got to do something, anything to get the pain behind you. Because you’re human, your mind will have trouble staying calm in the present-moment reality of your loss. It can’t help but jump to the worst-case scenario: that you’ll never recover. Remember that this is simply the brain’s survival mechanism at work, trying to “solve” a problem it perceives as a threat.
If there aren’t many people around you who understand what you’re going through, your despair can seem abnormal in some way. Having compassion for yourself will remind you that it’s not abnormal at all. It’s only human.
6. Reach out for the right kind of support.
Make it a point to reach out to those who do understand you, especially those who have been through similar losses. Their experience and compassion will give you the opportunity to dismantle the myth that your first priority is to get past the pain. Instead, they’ll remind you to give yourself permission to grieve, and they will be able to truly support you through the process.
Whether that support comes in the form of in-person or online counseling, joining groups, or even diving into self-guided resources, there is a wealth of it available in our interconnected world.
Finally, if you’ve been taught to believe peace of mind isn’t possible in the midst of intense pain, know this: It is always possible to find peace of mind even when you’re dealing with life’s most painful moments. As you move through the steps above, you’ll find that more and more you’ll be able to feel your pain and be at peace at the same time. They are not exclusive of each other. In fact, accepting your authentic pain is the only way you can find peace.
Grieving is a process, but there is no need to get caught up in the emotional reactions of shame, blame, guilt, outrage or self-pity. Instead, allow yourself time to feel your grief, along with your anger, confusion or fear. These 6 steps will lead you to true and lasting healing. No matter how crushing your grief may feel, there is a way to move forward, gently, with all the time, space, and compassion you need and deserve.
Take good care : )