Author: Esther Wei, MA MFT
Date: 1/29/12, Revised 3/18/12
“Why do I have to go through the grieving process?” a friend complained. “I’d rather stuff my feelings, numb my pain, distract myself, or run far, far away.” Many people can relate to this sentiment because acknowledging real feelings of sadness or discomfort regarding a loss or change can be scary. Many of us would rather avoid the whole mourning process altogether because of the accompanying feelings of vulnerability and pain. However, the danger with unprocessed grief is that it will often appear later on, in indirect and unhealthy ways. Unprocessed grief may exhibit itself in the form of unhelpful or even destructive behaviors such as distractive immersion in entertainment or busy-ness, emotional eating, alcoholism or drug use, or even violent anger responses, to name a few examples.
Others are only familiar with the concept of grieving as it relates to facing a loss that has been catastrophic, such as losing a loved one. The truth is however, grieving is just as important for any type of loss, change, or adjustment that is difficult to face or accept. Examples of difficult loss and change may include a couple facing an empty house because their children have all left for college (a life stage change); the failure of a marriage for a divorced man (a loss of a dream); a good supervisor suddenly resigning (a job situation change); or a closing down of a favorite neighborhood restaurant or a likeable classmate moving away (general changes).
Professionals in the medical and mental health professions agree that grief is an important and good process to go through. The widely accepted stages of grief formulated by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss physician who cared for the terminally ill, testify to this belief. The Kübler-Ross stages of grief (1969), which can be in any order and of any duration, are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Grieving and mourning are not only the healthy responses to loss and change, they are a necessary process that allows a person to find closure and eventually move on. Grief and dealing with losses is a normal part of life. Without going through the grief process, we may remain stuck in our pain and remain debilitated from the negative impact of a loss. Author Anne Lamott (1999) puts it this way, “But what I’ve discovered since is that the lifelong fear of grief keeps us in a barren, isolated place and that only grieving can heal grief; the passage of time will lessen the acuteness, but time alone, without the direct experience of grief, will not heal it.”
Below are some helpful tips to cope and get through the grief process:
Acknowledge the loss and its impact. No matter what size the loss or change you are facing, they all have the potential to impact us in a significant fashion. The loss could be of a dream or of an expectation that was not or has not been met. The loss could be of regarding lost freedom, or opportunities, or any disappointment. You cannot address something you do not admit. The first step is to identify what exactly is the loss and how did or does it affect you.
Don’t stuff your feelings. Feel your feelings, as painful as they may be. Pretending that they don’t exist is called “denial” of what is true and real. Our feelings are much like the waves of the ocean, passing through us with ebbs and flows. Allow your feelings to bubble up as they come, note what they are like, feel them, and then let them pass on their own accord. Although you may not like it or feel uncomfortable, intense feelings of sadness, anger, disappointment or other negative emotions will not hurt or kill you. You can survive them.
Externalize the internal. Give pause and reflect as to what is really going on inside of you. Process it. Try to identify the underlying issues beneath the surface symptoms. Try listing out all your lamentations, complaints, and feelings, whatever they are, until you run out of them. Get them all outside yourself to externalize them. When we externalize our thoughts and feelings, there is less power in them. We can then observe and scrutinize them. We may then see what exactly has been bothering us so much. We can reflect upon them and gain new insights. We can choose to even laugh at them or dismiss them, saying “ha ha, is that all?!” To avoid having a full blown pity party, try also making an equally long gratitude list. This list will contain all the things that you are thankful for. You’ll be surprised sometimes at how good this exercise can make you feel, as you remember the blessings in your life.
Find a safe person to share with and/or a safe environment to fall apart. If you’re like many people, you have a job to do or have regular responsibilities in life to attend to. Therefore, you may not be able to break down and cry or think about what you’re going through immediately when strong feelings come. However if you can schedule some time for yourself, a window of a space that would be all right to have a moment to yourself, that may be very helpful. For instance, sometimes running to the restroom or outside to get some fresh air when we need a moment may be an option. Another idea is to do deep breathing exercises, cry into your pillow or on a friend’s shoulder, take a walk by your favorite place, or find a good buddy to talk to. Most people find it helpful to find another person who is “safe”, meaning someone who will not minimize feelings and will be a good listener and support. Many find that utilizing professional counseling resources in their community to be a helpful option if a person’s immediate support network does not adequately have “safe” persons.
Be prepared for unexpected triggers or episodes. Be prepared to have the pain of old losses triggered by a more recent change or loss. If you did not adequately grieve previous losses, the unresolved grief work remains until you address it. Sometimes a seemingly minor loss could trigger an avalanche of painful feelings simply because a person has not grieved properly for previous losses. Therefore, you may need to grieve multiple losses at the same time. To keep from feeling too overwhelmed, remind yourself that you only need to grieve as much as your body and mind can take at any one time. Spread out your mourning and grief episodes and take the pressure off yourself to complete all your grieving at once.
Processing the pain and grief. There are many creative and culturally meaningful ways to process through the grief process. You will need to find the most appropriate method for you. Some people find it comforting to allow crying whenever they need to. Others find writing down their thoughts in a journal helpful or expressing themselves with art or music. Other examples include writing letters to lost loved ones or estranged family members but not necessarily mailing it. Finding a way to symbolically express yourself could also be extremely helpful. Another idea is to joining a grief group in the community or at a faith based center. These grief groups may be helpful in gaining support, not feeling alone, and gaining ideas from others in how they have dealt with their grief.
How we start feeling better. Start with knowing yourself better in order to understand what strategies may be effective self-care activities or mood-lifters. What cheers or comforts someone else up may not work for you. Though, as a general rule, the strategy should not be destructive or unhealthy to you or others. Ideas to try may include moderate or rigorous exercise, taking a scenic walk, or talking to a safe person, utilizing prayer or meditation, engaging in healthy social interaction, seeking needed solitude time, working in gardening or around the house, or meeting a friend for tea. Only by trying various activities will you discover the activities that will be refreshing, energizing, or comforting for you.
Whittle down your To Do list. When you feel emotionally taxed and are going through important periods of grieving, it is important to be realistic about your energy level and time available for tasks and responsibilities. Try to prioritize the most important tasks and responsibilities in order to create the margin and space needed for your healthy emotional processes. If there are things on your To Do list that do not need to be done immediately or can be postponed, let them go temporarily.
Finally, ancient Judeo-Christian scriptures (2007) also agree that grief and mourning are good and necessary. Matthew 5:4 states that, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” and Ecclesiastes 7:4 says, “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” It is encouraging that even the ancients understood the importance of healthy grief. May these shared tips be helpful in your own grief and mourning process.
The holy bible: English standard version. (1999). Illinois: Good News Publishers.
Kübler-Ross, E. (1970). On death and dying. Great Britain: Tavistock Publications Limited.
Lamott, A. (1999). Traveling mercies: some thoughts on faith. New York: Anchor Books.