Photo: A candle for Alex, Margarita, 2012
I had my own notion of grief.
I thought it was the sad time
That followed the death of someone you love.
And you had to push through it
To get to the other side.
But I’m learning there is no other side.
There is no pushing through.
But rather, There is absorption. Adjustment. Acceptance.
And grief is not something you complete,
But rather, you endure.
Grief is not a task to finish And move on,
But an element of yourself.
An alteration of your being.
A new way of seeing.
A new definition of self.
‘Grief’ by Gwen Flowers, Poet
Grieving the loss of a loved one hurts and it is a complicated process. But the emotional pain we feel when we lose someone close to us reflects the love, friendship or affection towards the person who died.
Grief is a developmental process rather than a fixed or static state of being. It involves adaptation to a new inner and outer reality and an emotional and spiritual transition. Based on a developmental model of grief, we express and experience grieving in different ways as time goes on.
During the early grief period
Over the first few weeks after the loss, we find ourselves in a state of reaction and survival. During this time, we might experience a sense of isolation and emotional anesthesia. We do things in automatic mode; just carrying out our day and completing necessary tasks can be exhausting and overwhelming. It’s common to feel more forgetful, irritable, bitter and numb.
We lose interest in engaging in conversations with other people, and we may feel fatigued but still struggle to sleep. We may feel lonely, and at the same time, we avoid being around people. We lose interest in things we usually enjoy. For some, self-care and meeting basic needs are relegated to the last item on priorities.
Things we ask ourselves during this time: ‘Why did this happen?’ ‘Why did it happen to me?’ ‘Why did my loved one suffer so much pain before dying?’ ‘Was God punishing my loved one with such pain?’ ‘Why did tragedy strike us’ ‘Is life punishing me?’
What do we need during this time?
We need people to listen with compassion and feel that they identify with our mourning during this time. We need people who can let us just be and help us with concrete tasks rather than ask us what we need. We feel flooded with emotions; therefore, we don’t know what we need.
During this time, we must respect our own need for space and time alone. It’s normal to feel tearful and apt to cry when we think or talk about the loss we recently experienced. It’s normal to feel sad, angry, and we may think as we’ve lost hope in ever feeling joy or contentment again. We must give ourselves room for those feelings to flow through us.
We must surround ourselves with people showing patience and understanding that the experience of hopelessness is transitory. We just need someone who can listen without judgment and expectations about how we are supposed to be feeling but instead meet us where we are at each moment. It can be a friend, a teacher, a therapist or counsellor; people who may not be directly related to the deceased and who can hold space for us to show ourselves as we are in each moment without feeling judged.
Give all your feelings space
During this early time of the grieving process, the present moment feels intensely sad. It presents itself with such a sense of void and hollowness that it’s not yet possible to feel positive or hopeful about the future. Therefore, people mustn’t rush the process or tell us how they have concerns that we will become emotionally stuck or live in the past or lack the intention to move forward. We need to take control over the pace of how we move forward, how fast or slow we think we can move through the days.
If we were in a caregiving role, we might also feel a sense of relief and the need to rest right after the loss. On the one hand, if we were responsible for the person’s caregiving during the illness and death, we experience relief because the person who died is no longer in pain if that was the case. We don’t have to be a witness to their physical pain or loss of their cognitive and physical abilities any longer. On the other hand, we may find relief from our tiredness and overwhelming busy routine, anxiety and constant hyper-vigilance often involved with a caregiving role. As soon as we notice the arising of the sense of relief, for many, it elicits guilt, thinking that we have the wrong feelings or shame — believing that we are bad people and shouldn’t feel relief. It can be confusing. That is far from the truth!
Months after the loss, we start a period of reconstruction
We wonder where we place our loved one within the scope of our life. We gradually become more aware that our day-to-day landscape and our life experience at large has changed, and there is no going back to how it was before the person died.
We are likely to revisit photos, think about shared memories and look for things that belonged to the person who died. We may start looking for pictures we want to frame and have them on the walls or personal space. We might redecorate and adjust our living or working space if we previously shared that space with our loved one.
Throughout this time, we notice more vividly the physical absence of the person who died, including phone calls, texts, having lunch together, going to the movies, walking the dog, washing the dishes, gardening, shopping, hugging, kissing, touching, bathing the children, inside jokes, etc. So we find creative ways to start bringing them into a different kind of material presence: pictures, random items, wearing some of the clothes that belonged to them, art features, music, etc. We may focus on memorializing the person in our life and seek to fill the absence we feel. During this time, some people experience the fear of ‘forgetting’ the person who died — how they looked, their smell or the sound of their voice, etc. — or even the worry that other people will forget them.
What do we need during this time?
During this time, it is an integral part of the grieving process to surround ourselves with things, stories, memories and objects connecting us to the person who died. We begin to be more at peace with internalizing past experiences attached to the person who died, and it may feel as they are a part of us and will forever live inside of us. We gradually and slowly begin to take baby steps in learning how to relax more and more in the tension between the experience of void and the gradual acceptance of the loss and finding our way forward.
During this period, some people may find comfort in creating personal rituals such as: lighting a candle on meaningful dates, making a shrine, visiting the cemetery, releasing their ashes in nature, visiting significant places, visiting people from the past who knew them, cautiously letting go of things that belonged to them, listening to the music they liked, listening to their friends and family tell stories about them, watching movies or shows they enjoyed, taking care of a garden they nurtured.
For some, finding a connection and a sense of continuity between the past and the present can be healing. The motions between taking-in and the letting-go feel more in balance, and it can give us a sense of soothing and grounding. It’s time to develop a new way to continue to get to know the person who died and learn about who they were in life from different perspectives and experiences. We begin to accept that the relationship with the deceased continues to manifest — just in another way.
During this time of grieving, we need to experience validation, understanding and, above all, permission to maintain a bond with our loved one. It is vital to surround ourselves with people to share stories and our personal and unique grief stories during this particular grieving period.
Some people around us may feel uncomfortable talking or asking about the deceased for fear of upsetting us. They may avoid calling or forget to connect with us during anniversary dates, such as their birthday or marriage anniversary, the anniversary of their death, mother’s or father’s day if you lost a child or pregnancy, and other meaningful life events’ or anniversaries. When this happens, we may feel confused, alone and even hurt. We need to be kind to ourselves for not having the tools to effectively communicate our need for connection with those in our social and familial circle while maintaining a bond with the one who died. In some cases, the relationships allow enough space and trust to safely express what we need and how we hope they will act when an anniversary comes up.
Years after loss, we begin reorienting and post-traumatic growth
Throughout this period, we ponder meaningful thoughts, such as ‘Who am I now?’. We start to feel permission to change and re-invent ourselves and there’s an opening for searching meaning, growth and even altruism. Maybe at this time of the grieving process, we have developed new relationships that are sources of inspiration and motivation to move forward. We may have created some rituals and habits that we feel are powerful enough to honour the person who died and our relationship with them.
Some people may feel more vital and profoundly transformed by the experience, and they have developed enough resilience to express more kindness and compassion to others and themselves. Many will find ways to use the experience of grief and growth in their empathy to support and serve others in a vulnerable situation.
We start to feel more comfortable communicating our needs and hopes when an anniversary comes up because we feel a stronger sense of agency and authenticity during this time. We may feel more comfortable asking a friend or partner to mark some of the anniversary dates on their calendar because you need them to connect with you during those sensitive times.
We may feel more resourceful to deal with painful and sad memories when they arise. We have learnt more about who we are and how we respond to the stress connected to grief. We may feel a bit more engaged and vital, and some may even expand their circle of people to socialize. During this time, we may want to learn new things, try a new hobby or explore learning how to do things we used to rely on the person who died to do.
What do we need during this time?
We need to remind ourselves to accept that many of the feelings attached to the grief and loss of the person who died will never fade away. We need to be open to the idea that we will never get over the painful emotions and sense of loss and void, but we will find ways to heal and grow. It is beneficial to reach out to a therapist or counsellor, a spiritual mentor or kindred spirits during this time because these relationships can offer a platform for us to grow, build resilience and expand our mind and heart.
It’s essential to recognize the moments when we need to reach out to others. We don’t need to go through this alone. We are more alert, and we have learnt along the way who are the people who have grown with us as they witnessed our personal and unique grieving process.
During this time, some people may change their career, work, relationships or even their residence. We redefine and uncover parts of our dormant identity; therefore, we need to surround ourselves with the people we trust most for judgement and advice. We want people around us who sincerely want the best for us and are flexible enough to understand our need to reorient ourselves.
We need to respect our wisdom of knowing what gives us vitality and the strength to remain engaged in life. We can find refuge in nature, music, dancing, reading inspirational books, cooking and baking, physical exercise, helping others, singing, volunteering, etc. Some people may want to deepen their connection with spirituality or religion. We need to permit ourselves to explore all these venues without judgment or expectations. We have no control over more things than we wish or hope, and we need to trust that we will find our way through it.
“Grief is a force of energy that cannot be controlled or predicted. It comes and goes on its own schedule. Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes. Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to. In that regard, Grief has a lot in common with Love.”
Elizabeth Gilbert, Author
References: R. Neimeyer and J. Cacciatore, 2016