Grief is defined as “a natural response to loss” and is typically associated with distress, agony, sorrow, anger, emptiness or yearning. We commonly understand grief in its 5 stages after death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While this can be helpful to understand the complex emotions that come with grief, it doesn’t cover the whole story.
First, it’s important to know that our emotions don’t always fit in perfect boxes. We can feel many things at once, and it can feel very overwhelming and confusing. Oftentimes, when we feel this sense of whelm, we can dissociate or disconnect from ourselves or from others. It’s a learned survival mechanism in the stress response. But more than the complex emotions that come with grief and loss, it’s also important to understand that we grieve in more situations than death. Yes, death is a huge stressor and loss. And it is important to give yourself the space to grieve when a life is taken. But we must also be aware of the other things in our lives that require grieving in order for our body and mind to find peace. If that grief is denied or avoided, we can see a variety of physical and psychological symptoms:
- Addiction (to numb the pain),
- Self harm (to release the pain or to “feel something”),
- Chronic fatigue (the body exhausts from masking/internalizing),
- Dissociation or apathy (to avoid pain)
- Physical/biological symptoms (the body’s stress hormones target other organs). Physical ailments can present as gut symptoms (indigestion, acid reflux, generalized pain or bloating), neuromuscular pain symptoms (fibromyalgia, headaches, joint pain), or metabolic issues (blood pressure or blood sugar dysregulation).
This is not an exhaustive list but helps us understand that psychological stress impacts our physiology, our health, and our behavior.
Why is it important to see how grief can impact our emotional and physical state?
If we better understand how grief can present itself, it can motivate us to work through it and also accept its presence in our lives. But before we jump to conclusions, we must first understand what can bring grief
What are some things we grieve aside from death?
- We can grieve what never was - Acknowledging things in our lives that were never fulfilled or present in our lives is a grief process. This can look different for everyone. You can grieve the absent or abusive parent that never filled the role you needed. A woman who had kids young may grieve the career she never had, or the career woman who never married may grieve the family she never had. The military kid who grew up constantly traveling to various other state/countries may grieve the “normal childhood” he longed for. The only child may grieve never having his own siblings to share life with. This list goes on.
Something you can ask yourself is: “Was there some void I have longed for that I feel should have been there?” or “Was I let down in some way and have I acknowledged that?”
- We grieve when life has big changes - in big transitions, positive or negative, we experience grief. This can be in a marriage, bringing a child into the world, a move, a job change, military deployment, a child moving out, retirement, etc. Even when we are looking forward to the change happening, we still experience a sense of grief from missing our old life. You may long for some aspects of your single life that seemed more simple, the old job that had more predictability and shorter commute, or the neighborhood that had familiarity to it.
Something you can ask yourself is “What are some things I miss that don’t happen anymore?” or “What are some memories that I wish could have lasted forever?”
- We can grieve any negative experience or trauma - Whenever something traumatic or extremely difficult occurs, it has some lasting impact on us. We have to grieve this too. This can look like a victim of sexual abuse grieving the violation, sadness, and shock that occurred. It can be the soldier grieving the intense violence he has witnessed time and time again. It can be the emergency room doctor grieving the constant sudden illness that occurs at his daily job. Grieving small or large difficulties helps us validate our pain and find ways to move forward. You can ask yourself “what hardships in my life still stand out?” or “Have I acknowledged how difficult that journey was for myself?” or “Am I allowing myself to process how sad this reality is/was?”
- We grieve any loss - in addition to death or loss of life, we grieve any personal loss. This can be loss of money, loss of a job, loss of a home, loss of a relationship (divorce, family dysfunction, breakup), loss of health, loss of identity. Something you can ask yourself is “What losses or changes in my life felt especially jarring or painful?”
Just like most processes, acknowledging the grief is the first step to working through it. Our stigma, shame, or denial will get in the way if we let it. We must always remember that grief is a normal process that all individuals experience. It is not weak, hyper-emotional, or a place of wallowing. Life is challenging and will always have unexpected changes. The healthy response is not to move forward and push through as if we’re unaffected. This is not strength, but rather denial, fear, or sometimes even pride. The mindful and responsive individual will take time to humbly acknowledge the grief. Then, self respect and self love will follow.
So the ultimate question for you is: What grief are you carrying? What losses are lingering inside of you? Will you take that time for yourself?
To learn more about moving through the grief process, read our blog next week titled “Allowing Room for Grief."