Grief is the natural and normal response to loss. We are social creatures, built for love and connection. When someone we love dies, we are supposed to grieve. It does not make it easy or enjoyable, but it does make it normal. We also grieve when a relationship ends, we lose a pregnancy or struggle with infertility, we are diagnosed with a chronic or terminal illness, or other significant life transitions. The focus of this piece is grief related to loss through death, but the principles can apply to all forms of grieving.
Talk to anyone that has experienced grief and they will tell you: grief is more than an emotion. Grief is an experience that affects the entire person: mentally, emotionally, relationally, spiritually, and physically. Neurobiological studies show that our bodily systems respond to the loss of a loved one. “Grief affects appetite, digestion, blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, muscle fatigue, and sleep- basically everything. If it’s in the body, grief affects it. In addition to the physical effects, cognitive changes, memory loss, confusion, and shortened attention spans are all common in early grief.” (Devine, 2017, p. 118). Anxiety is also a common symptom experienced during the grief process. Relationships may change, get messy, or end. Spiritual crises of varying forms may develop. All of this is incredibly difficult and completely normal.
Many people talk about the stages of grief, made famous by the important work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in the late 1960’s. Unfortunately, Kubler-Ross’ work became an inaccurate road map, suggesting we all move through a limited number of stages in a specific order. As Megan Devine shares in her honest and perspective-changing book about grief and loss, “The stages of grief were not meant to tell anyone what to feel and when exactly they should feel it….They were meant to give comfort, not create a cage…you can’t force an order on pain. You can’t make grief tidy or predictable.” (2017, p. 31). We naturally want to make it tidy and predictable, and many of us make every effort to make that happen (for ourselves or for others). Trying to make grief into something that it is not will make the process even more difficult.
So where can we start to do better at grief? I suggest changing some expectations and responses.
Lengthen the time frame for grief.
Those close to the person who died are just beginning their grief process when the funeral or memorial services are over. While the period of intense grief varies from person to person, many people report years of grieving. Some say grief never ends, it just changes. Accepting and adapting to a changed life can make grief look much different than the early grief stages of shock and deep despair, yet it doesn’t mean grief is over. If you or someone you love are three months in, one year in, five years into the loss, or more….don’t expect that something is wrong because the pain is still so real. Unrealistic expectations can create more pain for the griever through feelings of disconnection, isolation, and shame.
Grief looks as diverse as the world around us.
As outsiders, we are constantly making judgments about those amid their grief, even if we don’t intend to. A helpful approach to grief is to get rid of expectations. We have no way of knowing how we might respond in our own grief if we haven’t experienced it yet, and no way of expecting anyone else to respond like we have or think we would. If we recognize the diversity in our individuality, we must also expect grief to be diverse and individual. Picture the following scenarios, and see what judgments come to mind. Then say to yourself, “He or she is just doing their best in their grief right now.”
- Griever is at the grocery store in pajamas, sunglasses, hasn’t showered, kids in tow, and has wine and pop tarts in grocery cart.
- Griever returns to work immediately following the funeral and expresses no evidence of sadness.
- Griever goes out with friends a couple weeks after a spouse’s death, laughing and dancing.
- Griever snaps at you and walks off after you ask how they are doing.
- Griever can’t stop tearing up and crying. It’s been six months since the death.
Stop the avoidance.
If you see someone and it seems like an appropriate time and place, say something that acknowledges their grief. “I’ve been thinking about you.”, “How are you doing today?” Phone or text later if the public encounter is not a good place to have a conversation. People usually don’t want to break down in the middle of the freezer aisle, but you can squeeze a hand and say, “Can I call or text you later?”, or “Can I stop by sometime soon?” If they say no, gracefully accept and follow up with them in a week or two. Don’t make the decline about you.
Start thinking about grief as change and adaptation, not moving on and recovering.
I’ve heard people write and speak about the pain it causes when people suggest the griever needs to “move on” or “recover” from the death of a loved one. These words minimalize the loss, inferring they should somehow forget or leave their loved one behind. Additionally, “recovery” can also suggest that grief is problem to be fixed, like healing from a broken bone. The care in which we choose words to describe the grief process are so important because words convey meaning. Meaning influences how we think about things (particularly how we think about how we should feel), which influences our expectations and actions of ourselves and others.
Stop thinking there is something you can say to make things better.
In our own discomfort of someone else’s pain, we try to “fix” it by offering words we think will make someone feel better. I’ve personally experienced and heard from other grievers of how well-meaning platitudes makes things worse. Saying things like “He’s in a better place; time heals all wounds; God has a plan; You’ll have other children; Everything happens for a reason; At least you had her for as long as you did.” are hurtful. Stop looking for the magic words. They don’t exist. Instead, be honest and present. Say things like, “I don’t know what to say; I’m so sorry; I love you: I care about you; I’m here for you.” Ask to give hugs and hold a hand. Sit in silence. Say the person’s name who died. I even go so far as to suggest changing our polite condolences. Saying, “I’m so sorry for your loss” sounds impersonal to me. The “loss” is a person who died. Consider changing this to something more authentic: “I’m so sorry [name] died, I’m so sorry that you lost [name], or I am so sorry about [name].” Grievers have shared one of the biggest fears is that the presence of the person who died will be missing from life. What better way to acknowledge that they are remembered and present than by speaking and writing their name?
Normalizing a broad range of behaviors and emotions in grief does not negate than some behaviors and emotions are cause for concern. Suicide risk and reckless or dangerous behaviors are valid concerns, and intervention may be necessary. Remember, though, there is a difference between shaming someone versus acting for safety and care. You may not know what to do! Staying connected is key. Never tell someone they shouldn’t feel something or reprimand them for behaviors. Don’t lecture; check in and express concern. If you can’t influence or take direct action, contact a loved one who is and gently and kindly express your concerns with care and respect.
With awareness, intention, and practice, we can all get better at loving and supporting people in their grief. As much as we don’t like to think about it, death is universal, and loss is inevitable. What makes it bearable is to be assured we will not be alone in it. We feel most alone when our experience is invalidated or ignored, or when we don’t see ourselves in others. Being with and supporting people in their grief is a far better way to show others that they are not alone as they navigate their journey.
References for this blog post include Megan Devine’s book, It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand; as well as writer’s personal and professional study and training in grief and bereavement work.
For a list of books, videos, and websites to explore more about reframing grief, visit https://www.sarafender.com/resources and scroll down to Grief & Loss.
What are your thoughts? Comment below
No more confusion or wondering how you’ll face the roller coaster of life with mental illness. Mental Health Academy is here to take the mystery away, and give you the knowledge and the tools you need to have relationships that last! The time is NOW to get our first course: Trauma.
Please subscribe for videos on our Youtube Channel for our amazing resources. I’ll be sharing great tips and encouragement for whatever your facing—whether you’re fighting mental illness or have a loved one who is.