“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
Grief, according to the poet Mary Oliver in her poem, A Pretty Song, feels like this:
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.
If you would like additional support right now and you live in California or Florida, please feel free to reach out to me directly to explore therapy together.
Or if you live outside of these states, please consider enrolling in the waitlist for the Relational Trauma Recovery School – or my signature online course, Hard Families, Good Boundaries, designed to support you in healing your adverse early beginnings and create a beautiful adulthood for yourself, no matter where you started out in life.
And until next time, please take very good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.
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.
I have never really grieved before my son became ill with a severe mental illness — paranoid schizophrenia. I was sad and I mourned when my parents died. I’ve cried buckets over pets that have died. I’ve never been a cry-baby over just any old thing; but when my son was diagnosed in 2013, I thought my world would end! At first, I thought it would be okay. He was involuntarily committed for 30 days and has since been on an antipsychotic (a monthly injection). It seemed like for about 6 months he was great. Then I began to see the negative symptoms, the very saddest part of schizophrenia, the side of Sz that the public at large is not aware of. He has flat affect, no motivation whatsoever, no friends, no hobbies, no girlfriend, doesn’t drive anymore, no job, no life basically. He is socially withdrawn and at this point he barely talks. I have been grieving so hard, I can feel my heart and I cry most days, some days more than others. It’s a terrible thing to see your beloved (adult) child like this. So I have basically been grieving the loss of my son to schizophrenia. He is 28 years old and very good looking, sweet and was always a good little boy, never a day of trouble. It’s so sad, so unfair!
I work in mental health as a psych nurse. I agree with what you say that the public at large doesn’t have a good understanding of how devastating schizophrenia can be. They believe if a person just “takes his meds” it will all be okay. I hope your son is getting the treatment he needs, medication and supportive therapy.
Hi Jean, much love to you…. And yes that is heartbreaking. I have a similar experience with a child with chronic illness that catapulted her life away from fun, dancing, friends and hope for the future.
That’s great that you’re greiving, when we do we are honoring those feelings of love for that person.
However it’s really important we don’t drown in them, that there’s some guide posts to get us,/keep us on track of Life. Make sure you are getting the comfort and support to navigate these difficult times and emotions. As this is a chronic illness, we need to feel the grief but keep living too. Much love, Andrea
I learned that it was not only ok but a necessity to grieve the full life I lived before I began my battle with a serious chronic illness. The grief I finally opened up to felt traumatic at the time, but as I moved through it I found a spaciousness emerging within me, a place of self compassion and acceptance. I feel the waves of grief still; it ebbs and flows, but I’m learning to ride the emotional waves.
I appreciate this posting and how it acknowledges the expanse of grief.
Two years ago I had a miscarriage. The best and kindest words came from the doctor who completed the 2nd ultrasound, she said, “I wish I had something better to say to you. This just sucks.” They weren’t the typical words of consolation, but they gave my husband and I the most comfort.
I feel my grief has been compounded since then I’ve had ongoing health problems, which may or may not be related. I definitely have moments where I grieve my body as it once was: healthy, strong.
Another big area of grief is my marriage. My husband has depression, anxiety and PTSD. I grieve most on the days where I feel more like a caregiver than a wife. On the rough days, the thing that gets me through is I try to remember is his depression goes in episodes and tomorrow may be a better day. What helps me most is being able to talk to my therapist who helps me understand what I feelings I have are “normal” and “okay”.
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your personal experience. And I’m so glad the post felt validating in acknowledging the expanse of grief.
It makes so much sense that you would be grieving both the memory of your body as healthy and strong, your miscarriage, and even the shift in your role as a wife. Grief is so complex and multilayered, isn’t it?
I’m so glad you have the support of a therapist who gets you and can help you through this process.
I’m sending you all my very best.
Brenda Maria Bradley on
Grieve for my health and my old lifestyle. Since being diagnosed with CFS/ME in December 2013 I have lost my old life.
Researching and knowledge and talking with others helps me but I still struggle. Meditation helps and I’m trying healing acceptance
Thank you so much for taking the time to stop by and share your experience. It sounds like you’ve gone through a lot and it makes total sense you would be grieving.
I’m sending you so much warmth and all my very best to you on your journey.
This is a lovely article. Thing is it applies to all our emotions, thoughts and feelings.
This is what we do in meditation. When we sit……. We realise just how many, how much stuff we dismiss or modify to make it more acceptable. Our heads and hearts are full of a world of shoulds/ shouldnts/ have too’s. When we stop and start to pay attention to what we are feeling, pay respect to our feelings, we can navigate forward from a more authentic place. Non judgemental acceptance of all we are is liberating.
Andrea, I couldn’t agree with you more! When we allow our emotions to surface and practice letting them just BE versus judging them or shaming ourselves for having them, we are more liberated. Thank you for bringing the lovely lens of mindfulness to your comment and thank you for taking the time to read the post. Warmly, Annie
I have just read your article on recovering from narcissistic parenting. All of it rang true and I believe the next stage in healing is to grieve all the irreparable damage this has caused and hence I arrived at this article. Recently reconnecting with a family who loved and cared for me during my teens but who my mother cut me off from, awoke painful feelings of sadness again, of not being able to have them in my life (or so I thought – it was like they had died as I wasn’t allowed to see them). Reading your articles has defined the sadness felt for decades – grief, which I can now begin to process. Thank you for bringing this to my awareness, and strength and well wishes being sent to everyone who is fighting their own battles.
Hi Kate, I’m so pleased this post resonated with you and helped put into words what you’ve experienced. It sounds like you’ve done and continue to do a lot of personal healing work to accept and make sense of your past and that is really tremendous. It’s no small thing to embark on healing journeys like yours.
If my either of my online courses – Hard Families, Good Boundaries, or the forthcoming Relational Trauma Recovery School – could be of support to you as you progress and continue along with your grieving and sense-making journey, I’d love to be of support to you. In the meantime, please know I’m sending you my very best. Warmly, Annie
This is helpful! I definitely feel urgent for the finish line with a lot of my grief. In the last six months I had to stand squarely in front of some painful realities while I dismantled the safer less true beliefs about my family and upbringing. There were times I thought I might drop anchor in all that grief and despair and get stuck there. I’ve slowly crawled out the last few weeks and this is a reminder that there are just forever truths about losses that cannot ever be recovered. I’ll never know what’s it’s like to be a child with someone to hold onto. I can experience it as an adult with some work and fortitude and even that can be steeped in mountains of grief. As I experience that holding now I’m just buried in remembering the years without it. It will likely not always feel this raw and exposed. But I imagine I will always be heartbroken for the way I started in life.
Hi Bre – you’re doing such an amazing job in your relational trauma recovery journey. I’m so proud of you and how well you’re parenting yourself now as an adult. I’m so glad to know you.
Very helpful information, you alwasy need to get heal from your griefs, but it depends on your definition of grief. We do not cry or express grief when we lose materialistic things. But we are sad, we feel loss. Only when we lose an emotionally important person, we feel grief. We understand that we will not see that person again and we miss that person. Maybe you loose your materialistic things, but because you are not emotionally attached to them, you do not feel grief.
Very well said! Thanks for taking the time to comment and for sharing your insight. Sending you my very best.