By Brianna Riddlebarger
As mentioned in our previous blog “Things We Grieve”, grief is a process that is typically avoided and can unfortunately lead to lasting health issues as a result. And in that blog, we identified things in this life that may need to be grieved that are beyond loss of life or death.
Since we’ve established what we need to grieve in our lives, what do we do next? What is a healthy way to process grief?
A simple and non-satisfying answer is: There’s no perfect way to grieve.
Grief is messy. Grief involves many complex emotions at once. So rather than start off with what grief should look like, let’s establish what it is not.
1. Grief is not wallowing
A lot of individuals avoid the true grief process in fear of wallowing, being a victim, or just getting stuck. The genuine desire is to keep moving and to not be defined by the loss. That desire isn’t wrong, but can lead to unhelpful coping mechanisms when paired with fear of intense emotions. If you are afraid of the grief emotions that will come up, and choose to bottle them up, avoid them, and label the emotions as weak or wallowing, you create dissonance in your body. And dissonance can present in a variety of uncomfortable ways - shame, distractibility, irritability, reckless behaviors, addiction behaviors, panic, insomnia, physical pain, etc. Ironically, the person who avoids grief in desire to want to move forward will never truly be able to move forward until they work through the grief.
Grief is painful, but it’s healthy and normal to go through the process. You
2. Grief is not on a schedule
This is a frustrating one for most. But grief doesn’t have a timeclock or any sense of predictability. Grief is not a matter of: “6 months after your loss, you will no longer be mourning”. Grief thoughts and emotions will hit at seemingly random times and various durations. You may be overcome by tears or anger or a deep sense of loss when you least expect it. And it will happen even when you were certain you had made peace with your loss. You can’t control the fact that grief never really ends, but rather it changes. And when that happens looks different for everyone. Grief will rear its head and the only thing you can control is if you will acknowledge it and allow yourself to feel and process those difficult emotions.
The less you hold your grief to a schedule, the less confined and frustrated you will be, and freedom will start to set in.
3. Grief is not a place to stay, but is a place you pass through
Grief is an experience that will wash over you at certain times. When the moment hits, it’s a place that we acknowledge and allow to occur, but we don’t stay in it. What does that actually mean?
It means that you are not identified by your grief. You may feel so many conflicting and consuming emotions at once, but it is not who you are. It is an experience you are having. You, as a person, are so much more than how you feel.
It means that your life has other joys, pains, and realities. The reality of your loss may feel all-encompassing at times, but it’s not. You have other areas in your life that you can invest in, relationships to develop, skills or hobbies to train in, and other things to look forward to.
Finally, it means that you have a choice in how you choose your perspective. Will you dig yourself a grave next to your loss, or will you choose to climb out and still live? If grief is a passage and not a place, do not dig a grave for yourself. You don’t belong at the graveyard.
So now that we’ve acknowledged what grief is not, what are some ways that we can assist our minds and bodies in the grief process? Here is a simple list to get you started in your journey:
1. Don’t judge your emotions
When the feelings hit, and they feel uncomfortable, foreign, or even wrong, don’t make judgments just yet. Remember, your emotions are a way that your psyche is processing things that don’t make sense. Emotions aren’t morals or ethics. There’s no right or wrong, they are simply a hormone release in your brain that elicits a feeling. Just be a bystander when your feelings erupt, acknowledge them, identify them, and give yourself space. Be kind to yourself (self compassion), and think of how you might sit silently and listen to your friend if he shared about how angry and sad he was about his loss.
The less you judge or shame yourself for your emotions, the smoother your emotions will be able to pass, and the sooner you will find the emotional clarity you’re searching for.
2. Move your body
Physical movement, exercise, stretching or any simply form of movement does wonders for the grieving body. Movement not only helps to relieve stress hormones (like cortisol), but it increases dopamine and endorphins to help buffer the psychological pain. Movement also helps the body “keep going”. Yoga, walking, running, and martial arts have specifically been studied to aid in the grief process. These practices help you be more grounded and in tune with your body, helps you breathe full breaths, and prevents passive thinking in the brain, which is connected with spiraling and negative thoughts.
It’s especially beneficial if you are exercising or moving in nature and able to breathe fresh air.
The movement does not need to be strenuous, but rather gentle, kind, and soothing to your body.
3. Honor the grief
Grief is valid. Grief is necessary. For a human psyche and body to be able to process difficult losses that don’t make sense, grief emotions must occur. Rather than viewing it in spite, regret, or seeing it as weak, shift your perspective to normalize it as a human process. Just like your arm will bleed if you scrape it, the heart will grieve when loss occurs.
To further this thought, most religions even view grief as a sacred or worshipful process. Grief and mourning is an opportunity to surrender control and submit to the will of your Higher Power. Grief is honorable in a spiritual setting. Honoring your grief process is healing, validating, and helps you come to acceptance sooner.
4. If grief brings suicidal thoughts, seek help
If you are allowing yourself to feel the emotions but you feel like you’re getting stuck in them, it’s time to seek professional counsel. Whether it’s feeling suicidal, dark ruminations, desire to escape the world, self harm, or plans on how you might attempt to end your life, you need skills to help you cope with your grief emotions. A therapist or counselor can help provide guidance, safety, and clarity in the storm of the process.
5. It gets better
Grief is horribly painful at times and can truly feel unbearable. But nothing heals like time. It does get better. Acceptance will come. With the right support, skills, and space to process the emotions, the bleed slowly stops hemorrhaging, the clots begin to form, and the skin begins to scab. You won’t forget the pain or loss as if it never happened, but it won’t always feel so utterly painful. The effort and care towards yourself will truly pay off and healing will follow.