“It’s not like anyone died, so it’s not like we actually get to grieve that stuff, right?”
“But there’s all this good stuff going on in my life, too, so I can’t be sad about that.”
Comments like these, in my opinion as a psychotherapist, unintentionally and unfortunately illustrate how misunderstood grief actually is and how dismissive many of us can be about our own feelings. Comments like these showcase how many of us essentially de-legitimize the grief we may be experiencing around events in our lives.
And that’s sad and hard. Because grief is painful and challenging enough as it is. When we tell ourselves, “No, I don’t get to grieve this, this doesn’t count, I shouldn’t feel this way”, we make the experience so, so much harder for our tender, vulnerable selves.
Now let’s face it: Grief is a huge, complex, intensely personal, unusually painful and triggering topic – one short online article from me can hardly do the topic justice and I want to admit that fully.
However, my hope is that in today’s post I can at least challenge some common myths about grief, validate what it is you may personally be going through, and provide some further resources if you need additional assistance navigating the wild, brambled, thorny journey of grief.
So if you in any way tend to dismiss, invalidate, or ignore your own grief, today’s blog post is meant for you.
Grief: How can we possibly find words for it?
Grief. What a powerful, evocative word. And yet what words exactly can describe such an intense experience?
Grief, according to Merriam Webster, is explained as:
: deep sadness caused especially by someone’s death
: a cause of deep sadness
: trouble or annoyance
From the complications of loving you
I think there is no end or return.
No answer, no coming out of it.
Which is the only way to love, isn’t it?
This isn’t a playground, this is
earth, our heaven, for a while.
Therefore I have given precedence
to all my sudden, sullen, dark moods
that hold you in the center of my world.
And I say to my body: grow thinner still.
And I say to my fingers, type me a pretty song,
And I say to my heart: rave on.
(I personally prefer Mary Oliver’s interpretation.)
Look, chances are we all intellectually know that grief is an emotional reaction to loss in our lives, and we all likely have heard about the five stages of grief, pioneered by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, MD in her groundbreaking work on death and dying: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. That’s grief, right?
Maybe. Kind of. In a sort of way, yes.
But, to quote the opening paragraph of On Grief and Grieving, also by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross:
“The stages have evolved since their introduction, and they have been very misunderstood over the past three decades. They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grief is as individual as our lives. Not everyone goes through all of them or goes in a prescribed order.”
“Our grief is as individual as our lives.” You see, there’s no way I could capture what grief is or means to you in this blog post. Grief is up to you to define both in how you experience it and also in what triggers it. And while we have some wonderful, helpful thought leadership about the actual physical and psychological symptoms of grief, still many of us hold onto myths about grief – what causes it, how we get to experience it, etc.
A Sampling of Myths About Grief.
- “It’s linear, right? I’ll just move through those five stages and then I’ll be done grieving.” See the above quote. Also, see this amazing little illustration that circulated on social media last year. Grief could not possibly be less linear.
- “Time will heal my grief.” Maybe. Or maybe not. As a psychotherapist I personally think it depends on how much you’re willing to turn and face and acknowledge and feel your grief. It depends on how much you’re willing to process and metabolize your feelings of grief across time. Time could pass and still you may not have “fully healed” your grief.
- “Grief is something that can be fully healed and gotten over.” Fully healed and gotten over implies an endpoint to grief and I don’t think that’s realistic. For many of us, the intensity of the sting and acuity of grief may ebb over time and with the processing we choose to do, but there may always be “spikes” in pain when memories surface, anniversaries and holidays come round, or when we encounter particular triggers. So in this way, grief may be something we can integrate, something we weave into the fabric of our lives, fold into the depths of our psyche, but perhaps it’s unrealistic to think that we can ever “fully heal” or “get over” our grief.
- “I can predict how grief will feel for me when it happens.” Like with so many things in life, we can only take guesses from outside the experience. It’s only when we’re going through the experience will we know, truly, what grief may actually feel like and there’s possibly no way you could predict the rollercoaster of corresponding feelings, behaviors, thoughts, and new ways of being this may birth in you. You will only know when you’re in it.
- “If I let myself feel my grief, I’ll be grieving forever.” Oh honey, no. You see, the only constant here on earth is that everything changes and shifts and eventually ends. And this includes your feelings. It may feel like once you start letting yourself feel your grief it may never end, and that’s normal and makes sense: grief is such a painful, huge soup of emotions! But it will end. Sometime. Especially if you help yourself by getting supports as you move through it.
- “I don’t get to grieve unless there’s a death.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, please read on below for a list of things and life experiences many of us may often grieve and yet also often do not allow ourselves permission to grieve.
Yes, sweetheart, you DO actually get to grieve this.
Too often, I think, many of us disregard and invalidate our grief by believing grieving is only “allowed” or “reserved” for death. And while, of course!, the deaths of those we love will cause us to grieve, there are countless other ways and reasons why you might personally be grieving. Here’s a handful of examples why, “yes, sweetheart, you DO actually get to grieve this.”:
- You get to grieve parenting you didn’t receive;
- You get to grieve the release and death of a dream (or many dreams!) you once held;
- You get to grieve selling the family home;
- You get to grieve the loss of your identity before you became a parent;
- You get to grieve the loss of ability in your own body as you age;
- You get to grieve expectations you have to let go of;
- You get to grieve what you may never be able to receive from your partner or spouse;
- You get to grieve the state of the world and the pain of others;
- You get to grieve the loss of a job;
- You get to grieve the change of responsibilities within your job;
- You get to grieve a change in your finances;
- You get to grieve a change in your home life, in your living conditions;
- You get to grieve transitions from your beloved city, employer, career, even if it’s by your choice, it’s still a transition;
- You get to change a loss of trust in others, and in yourself’;
- You get to grieve the passing of time, and your own aging;
- You get to grieve the shifting form of your relationships with others;
- You get to grieve separating from your partner (if even by your choice) and you get to grieve reconciling with that partner (if even by your choice);
- You get to grieve the addition of a new family member;
- You get to grieve the outgrowing of friends, of lovers, of the life you’ve previously created for yourself;
- You get to grieve the loss of babies from your body;
- You get to grieve the impossibility of fertility within your own body;
- You get to grieve the illness or changing health of a loved one;
- And of course you get to grieve the death of loved ones: spouses, partners, parents, siblings, a child, a pet, a friend.
And this list is just but a small, tiny fraction of the possibilities of things/events/circumstances that may trigger grief!
You see, in a way, we’re all always grieving. It’s part of being human in this world where we are constantly tasked with recreating and recrafting our identities, our meaning making of life, and where we are challenged with tolerating the inevitable losses of the people, places, and even abilities we love. To grieve and to mourn is inevitably part of our collective human experience.
So what can we do to help ourselves through this experience?
Tending to yourself through grief.
There are, of course, as many unique supports for your own grieving process as your grieving process itself will be unique. There is no one size fits all when it comes to what your grief will look like or what supports your grief may need. The supports that work for some may not work for others but examples and suggestions could include:
- Acknowledging your grief
- Turning towards your family and friends for comfort
- Seeking out therapy or support groups
- Tending to your feelings, tending to your body
- Setting healthy boundaries with the difficult people in your life
- Practice creative, need-fulfilling self-care
- Reading the memoirs, accounts, articles and poetry of those who have also traveled down the road of grief
Grief is a complex, tangled, emotionally vast and utterly individual journey for each of us that we will face many times in our lives. What we grieve, how we grieve, and what can support us in our grieving process is going to be unique. One of the more important things we can all do though, is to honor and validate our feelings of grief when they emerge and to remember and say to yourself, if you can, that “yes, sweetheart, you DO actually get to grieve this.”
Now I’d love to hear in the comments below: What’s an example of another life situation that you’ve grieved? What’s an example of a support that helped you through this time? Or what advice or personal words of wisdom might you share with someone who’s currently grieving? Leave a message in the comments below for our community of blog readers and I’ll be sure to respond personally.
And until next time, take very good care of yourself.
Additional Resources To Support Your Grieving:
- This extensive list of books on grief and grieving from GoodReads
- This powerful open letter from Sheryl Sandberg last year on her grief on the death of her husband.
- This article from Buzzfeed filled with self-care tips that can help you while grieving.
- This online support community for people dealing with grief, death, and major loss, with over fifty monitored support groups for both kids and adults.
- “The Well of Grief” and “Despair” from poet David Whyte.
- This letter of encouragement from me to you.