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Giving Way to Grief: An Introduction

March 19, 2020
Man is grieving on a park bench

With even positive change comes loss in addition to gains. There exist more than 40 types of losses that we can experience throughout our lifetimes. In other words, more than 40 ways that our worlds can be turned upside down, and hearts potentially broken. Grief is the natural reaction to such losses. It’s a special sign that someone or something had a positive impact on our lives.

Not all loss will break our hearts, of course. Grief can involve very conflicting feelings around the end of or big change in anything that’s familiar to us. For example, we may feel relief over a loved one’s abated suffering, and despondency about their absence from our lives. Excitement about being relocated for a significant job opportunity, and fear about being away from the comforts of home. Anger or loathing towards a parent for letting us down, but yearning for their affection. Grief is a process that everyone experiences differently. Perhaps this explains why there is so little information out there about how to heal our grieving hearts.

Luckily, the Grief Recovery Institute has dedicated the last four decades to studying grief. They have systematically uncovered the necessary steps in easing suffering. They’ve developed the only evidence-based grief support program in the world and offer oodles of information about this topic. Read on for a summary of some insights from Grief Recovery Method co-developers, John W. James and Russell Friedman.

IT’S ABOUT MORE THAN DEATH

Often, people associate the word “grief” with death. Death is just one event through which we can experience multiple and differing kinds of losses. Breakups, accidents, injuries, illnesses, career changes, and moving are some other examples. What follows is a list of various things that can be lost to us through such events, and possibly contribute to unresolved grief.

  • Freedom, Independence
  • Health
  • Hopes, Dreams
  • Identity
  • Intimacy, Connection, Relationships
  • Innocence
  • Meaning, Purpose
  • Memories
  • Opportunity, Potential
  • Power, Control
  • Routines, Rituals
  • Safety, Comfort, Security
  • Self-esteem, Self-Worth, Dignity
  • Sense of belonging, Community
  • Spirituality, Faith
  • Time
  • Trust (in self, others, systems)
  • Values, Beliefs

UNRESOLVED GRIEF

Unresolved grief is a sign of unfinished emotional business. There are more complicated feelings surrounding it, beyond that of typical sorrow. More specifically, unresolved grief suggests the existence of “undelivered communications of an emotional nature”. These communications can be intended for another person, a pet, place, substance, object, or even aspects of ourselves.

Such unspoken sentiments can feel positive or negative, but that doesn’t make them morally good or bad to be experiencing. The sense of incompleteness, however, takes us out of the here-and-now and can disrupt our lives over the long term. Some signs that someone may be experiencing unresolved grief include:

  • Difficulty living in the present moment, while your time and energy are preoccupied with:
    • How things could have been better or different (i.e. what “should” have been).
    • Hopes, dreams and expectations that can’t be fulfilled (i.e. what will never be).
    • Fears about the future (i.e. planning ways to prevent future hurts/disappointments).
  • Idealizing (seeing only the good in) or bedeviling (seeing only the bad in) the object of the loss.
    • This can lead us to miss the “bigger picture”, blind us to helpful life lessons, and limit our capacity for joy (e.g. getting caught up in the nostalgia of an old romance, to the neglect of a healthy present partnership).
  • Avoidance
    • Refusal to talk about the loss.
    • Keeping overly busy/distracted, creating a life imbalance. Throwing ourselves wholly into one area (e.g. work, a hobby, kids).
    • Numbing through increased substance use, eating, exercise, social media use, sex, pornography, gambling, shopping, etc. (anything in excess can be unhealthy).
  • Social isolation or difficulty being alone at all
  • Lack of energy and lost sense of purpose (e.g. “What’s the point?”)

THE HEAD CAN’T HELP A GRIEVING HEART

Because grief is an emotional experience, healing happens when we engage in an emotionally focused process. That is to say, logic can’t help us move through the pain (sorry to disappoint any of you rationally minded folk!). Understanding or intellectualization about what, how, when, where, why, and to/by whom something happened cannot fix a grieving heart. Moreover, enlisting the head to try to resolve issues of the heart can do damage and delay the healing process.

BUT CRYING ISN’T A “MUST”

Every relationship is unique, and thus, everyone’s journey in grief recovery is unique too. Tears aren’t a necessity for healing. The absence of them is not an indicator that the loss lacks impact.

COMPARISON IS CRUEL

Let me repeat: Every relationship is unique, and thus, everyone’s journey in grief recovery is unique too. To deem our loss as bigger or smaller than someone else’s serves only to invalidate our or their experiences. We must fully honour everyone’s natural reactions to a loss. Shame over the grief itself doesn’t need to be added to the mix.

MYTHS OF GRIEF

From a young age, we receive messages that suggest that we should not feel the natural way we do when it comes to grieving. By our mid-teens we’ve generally received an average of 23,000 of them. Six of these  messages that play off each other and can disrupt our healing are:

  1. Don’t feel bad.
    1.  “Think about all of the good times!” “They’re in a better place now, no longer suffering.” “Let me give you a rundown of your ex’s flaws…” “It’s a ‘Celebration of Life’ not a funeral.” “Let’s go out for ice cream to forget about it.” And so on. Each of these statements indirectly communicates something similar- it’s not okay to feel bad (even though we of course do!).
  2. Grieve alone.
    1. “If you’re going to cry, go to your room.” “Don’t burden others; they have their own stuff to deal with.” Although isolation is common during grief, it’s a learned behaviour, not our innate human tendency. When we get good news, we want to share it with the people we trust. Yet when we feel bad, we isolate so we can be strong for others (#4) and protect them from feeling bad (#1). As humans, we’re hardwired for connection. It is unhealthy to deny those attachment instincts, especially in times of need.
  3. Replace the loss.
    1. “There are plenty of fish in the sea.” “We’ll go down to the shelter and pick out a new puppy.” “Time to hop on Tinder!” Because every relationship is unique, simply building new ones cannot bring emotional resolution to the old.
  4. Be strong.
    1. “Hold your head up high.” “Keep smiling!” “We can’t give so-and-so more to worry about.” “Everything will be okay.” By hiding our honest emotions, we end up lying to our loved ones and often to ourselves. It’s inauthentic, thereby driving disconnection and emotional incompleteness in other relationships.
  5. Time heals all wounds.
    1. Just as time alone does not put air into a flat tire, it cannot reignite a grieving heart. Concrete steps towards healing must be taken within the time that’s passing. Getting used to a loss is very different from finding emotional completeness with it. 
  6. Keep busy.
    1. The mistaken idea is that if we keep busy, eventually enough time will pass that our wounds will be healed (#5). Really though, pushing our feelings away doesn’t mean they’re not still around, directing things behind the scenes. To be fully functioning, we need to create space to honour all our thoughts, feelings, and sensations.

These (often indirect) messages put us in conflict with our human nature. They’re head-based, not heart-centered, and encourage us to try to get rid of the very normal sadness in our hearts. As a result, they leave us incomplete. They are life-limiting rather than life-enhancing beliefs and need to be challenged for real healing to take place.

THE ONLY WAY OUT IS THROUGH

There is no “getting over it”. Really, the only way through grief is to let it have its way with us. We need to challenge the myths surrounding loss and more gracefully surrender to our human nature. Slow down. Feel. Connect.

If you’d like to begin or further your own healing journey, consider enlisting one of Unstuck’s therapists as your companion. To book a risk-free consultation, simply give us a call, book online, or stop by our office today 🙂

Shayla Drewicki, MC, RPsych

References

Friedman, R. (2013, February 1). Understanding grief: Still the most off-limits topic? (Grief myths) [Web log post]. Retrieved December 29, 2019, from http://www.griefrecoverymethod.com/

James, J. W., & Friedman, R. (2009). The grief recovery handbook: 20th anniversary expanded edition. New York, NY: HarperCollins.