Donna Williams MA
We would all like to go through life never experiencing emotional pain. Unfortunately, that is not possible. Throughout life, we must cope with changes and losses which hurt and which cause us to re-evaluate our life plans. Sometimes, we are even forced, by changes and losses, to re-evaluate who we are as individuals!
The word grief is often misunderstood. It actually describes the human response to changes and loss. This response may have emotional, physical, spiritual and social aspects, and when the change or loss is major, the human response can feel overwhelming.
Every change means that something is lost. Even happy life changes mean that we must give up something. When we graduate, we give up the security of a familiar environment, life routine and relationships. Is it any wonder that high school seniors experience the grief called Senioritis? In spite of all the happy and exciting prospects ahead of them, they must face major changes as well. When we marry, we give up aspects of the single life, and must adjust to the changes. The bachelor party custom is simply a ritual to acknowledge the grief, even while there is great joy and hope in the new commitment.
Of course, it is much more difficult to live through grief over painful losses. Illness, the death of a loved one, divorce, job loss or retirement, loss of a beloved home, awareness of one’s own impending death – these are major grief experiences and they are usually the sort which people find almost overwhelming.
People often say things to grief counselors, such as: “I just want to get through this as quickly and easily as possible. Please tell me how.”; or: “I want to know if I’m doing this right. I know there are things I need to do to grieve properly. Tell me how to do it right.”
I only know two rules for proper grieving. They are:
Grief must be allowed to happen. It is a natural human process of adjustment to loss. If it is not acknowledged at the time of the loss, it needs will remain within the person and will be expressed at a later time, sometimes years later.
Grief cannot be bypassed, hurried or rushed. It always takes longer than one wishes, and attempting to shorten the process invariably leads to complications and extended pain.
Grief is a process. In order to journey through it, one must experience the initial shock, come to understand the implications of the change and loss, accept those implications, disinvest emotionally from what is no more, heal from this disinvestment process and become ready to emotionally invest in aspects of the new reality.
During the whole grief process, it is normal to experience many physical, emotional and spiritual aspects. Especially in the early phases of the process, because the mourner has experienced something which is tremendously stressful, most people find that their physical systems respond with lowered energy, suppressed immunity, and often headaches and backaches, digestive and intestinal upsets and changes in sleep patterns. Although these problems are perfectly normal, they can make the grief period much more difficult, so it is wise to do what one can to lessen their impact. If you have never before exercised, this is a very good time to begin a daily walk routine. Exercise will help on many fronts, both physical and emotional. Since eating can be haphazard during these times, a multivitamin and some vitamins C and E are a good idea. (Check with your physician for dosages.) If you have trouble sleeping, don’t lie in bed and toss and turn all night. Get up and read, watch TV, vacuum the house, pet the dog, or anything else that feels right. When you are sleepy, go back to bed. If you can, allow yourself to nap during the day if that is when you feel tired. Your body will adjust and you will sleep as much as you actually need to – remember that this is a temporary situation. Don’t add stress by worrying that you are not sleeping. (If you have had an ongoing sleep disorder and it is aggravated by the grief, you should seek medical help.)
Don’t be surprised if you feel emotionally and spiritually distant from other people at this time. Your psyche and spirit have just been buffeted with an almost overwhelming wave of pain. They are adjusting to the shock and the distance they need to do so will lessen with time. Just be kind to yourself and explain to others that you still care about them but that you are unable to relate intimately for a while, because of your grief. Allow yourself the space you need for the healing process.
Soon, you begin to recognize some of the deeper implications of your loss. Full recognition of implications can take a very long time. In the case of the death of a child, for example, new implications will come to light through the years, as the peers of that child move through life stages and experiences which s/he will never experience.
As you recognize deeper and deeper implications of the loss, you will likely begin to experience more and more emotions. Anger usually comes first. Many people have a very difficult time recognizing and allowing anger in their lives – it can be a frightening emotion, especially if it was ever abused by significant people in our lives or if we grew up in families where it was a ‘forbidden emotion’. But in grief, anger is normal and appropriate. So when it comes, just tell yourself something like, “Of course I’m angry; my husband is dead and I have to face the rest of my life without him,” or “It would be ridiculous to pretend not to be angry that my marriage has ended and I am going through a divorce.” Then be careful that you do not inappropriately inflict your anger on innocent bystanders, but allow yourself to articulate and own how it feels. There is a lot of energy in anger and some people choose to use that anger for creative pursuits. One bereaved mother started a support group for other parents. The film The First Wives’ Club is about women who turned their divorce anger into energy to establish a support system for other people in similar situations.
As you gradually accept the implications of your loss, you will likely become deeply sad. This sense of sadness is a situational depression and is different from clinical depression only in its cause and duration. There may also be lingering anger in your grief depression. Clinical depression has no situational reason; it usually comes out of the blue. In your case, you have a very good reason to feel depressed; you have suffered a major loss and are doing some very difficult emotional and spiritual adjusting. Allow yourself to feel depressed.
During this angry, depressed time, many mourners feel obligated to put up a false front so they do not upset other people. Other mourners simply withdraw and isolate themselves, which can alienate social relationships. It is often helpful to reassure those who care about you that you are normally and healthily depressed, as anyone would be who had experienced your loss, and that this is a temporary situation and when you are ready, you will rejoin them socially. Ask them to stand by and extend occasional invitations, and one day, you will accept again.
Coping with this life phase means recognizing and claiming what you need and allowing yourself the time and space for the adjustment and acceptance process. Emotionally disinvesting from something which has been important in your life is very hard work. Remember, grief is a process. Just as one cannot cut down a tree and compress it into paper in an instant, healing from a major loss takes time and has many steps.
Gradually, your psyche and spirit will disinvest from the old reality of your life and will be ready to recognize the new reality. You may not like what you see, but you will be ready to be realistic about the changed parameters of your life. Again, a surge of anger and sadness may sweep over you. Allow yourself to validate these feelings. You did not choose these new life parameters. You are stuck with them. Nobody likes a sense of lost control. Allow yourself to feel the resentment and resistance that is natural. Time will help you to let go of your investment in what was and is no more, and to accept what now is.
Time is your worst enemy and your best friend. You hate that it takes so much time before you can feel good again. You want to build a bridge and skip right over the grief. You feel frustrated and helpless because you cannot shorten the process. But if you allow time to carry you, if you give yourself the time and space for the process, you will heal. Like a surfer who needs to ride to shore, if you simply stand on the board and allow yourself to acknowledge the power of the wave, it will carry you where you need to go. But if you fight the wave’s power, it will drag you under. You cannot overpower grief, but like the surfer, you can ride the waves until you reach shore.
You will know you are approaching shore when you begin to accept the new realities of your life and even enjoy some of their implications. Finally, you let go of most of your old emotional investment and reinvest in new realities.
The old love which is gone will never completely leave your life. It will, in fact, become integrated into your new reality in a unique and special way. After all, you don’t want to completely forget that person or experience which was so important to you. One man said, “Now, I carry my daughter with me in my heart. She is very real to me and we’ll never be apart. It isn’t the same as when she was alive, but I have come to understand that she is still an important presence and influence in my life.” A woman said, “When my husband left, I thought I would die. But I didn’t. Now, I know that I have learned a lot from the grief of divorce and I have certainly grown as a person. I am taking that growth into my new relationships.”
The power and chaos of a major life change or loss can feel overpowering. If you can allow yourself to recognize the normal human responses you are feeling and to claim the time and space you need, you will feel less out of control. Many of us have never learned to look after ourselves, especially when other people do not understand. But at this time, it is important that you learn to ride the waves of your own experience. That is how you will arrive at the shore of life happiness again.