Death and Grief
Grieving can be likened to a waterfall. When we allow ourselves the space to grieve as we need, the water pours over the edge as it needs. In some spots, the water is powerful and intense; in other spots, merely a trickle. When we attempt to force ourselves to grieve in “the right way,” it’s like building a well-constructed dam. The water will not be allowed to follow its natural course, instead building up causing pressure and disruption, until, at some point, the dam bursts.
Death is an occurrence that has been contemplated at length by human beings from religious, philosophical, psychological, and physiological perspectives. Amongst all these perspectives there is one distinct common conclusion: death is a part of life that can foster meaning. Certainly, the way in which death fosters meaning differs from perspective to perspective. For instance, the existentialists believed that if we embrace the anxiety of our impending death, only then can we begin to create a meaningful existence that is authentic to one’s self. From the religious perspectives, generally speaking, meaning is found in one’s connection to their higher power. That being said, no matter how much one holds to their conception of death and the meaning that may be ascertained from it, loss of a significant individual is painful. Given an individual that is significant in one’s life may be a loved one or may be any individual that was significant in some other kind of way, whether positive or negative, I will use “significant individual” as shorthand.
Grieving is the process of learning to live in a world where this significant individual no longer lives. It’s the process of accepting in some way, that someone can be here one minute and gone the next. There is a pain inherent in that process. Generally, that pain is proportionate to how close one was to that individual, though not always. Human beings and human relationships are complicated, and so too is grief. We tend to expect that if we are close to someone that we will experience intense pain when they die. However, consider the following situation: an individual watching their beloved partner with a terminal illness suffer for an extended period of time. In such situations, it is common for the individual to feel relief at the death of their partner, as they know their partner is no longer suffering. On the other hand, we expect that if we had a difficult, unhealthy, and/or adversarial relationship with someone we will feel little, if any, pain. However, consider the following situation: an individual’s grandmother who was psychologically abusive and complacent in that individual’s sexual abuse by their grandfather. In such situations, the individual may feel quite a bit of pain, sadness, and anger at the loss of their grandmother and the loss of the opportunity to have a nurturing relationship with her.
Grieving is complicated. Grieving is arduous. Grieving is confusing. There is no one true script for how to grieve. Every single individual will grieve differently with each and every loss, though there may be some commonalities. It is incredibly important to understand and accept this point. The more we are able to give ourselves the space to grieve as we need, the less we suffer. Don’t mistake that statement, there will still be emotions, some strong, some faint; however, there will be less suffering or feeling stuck. Grieving can be likened to a waterfall. When we allow ourselves the space to grieve as we need, the water pours over the edge as it needs. In some spots, the water is powerful and intense; in other spots, merely a trickle. When we attempt to force ourselves to grieve in “the right way,” it’s like building a well-constructed dam. The water will not be allowed to follow its natural course, instead building up causing pressure and disruption, until, at some point, the dam bursts. To provide a bit of guidance, I have listed below some general tips for allowing yourself to grieve as you need, not as others prescribe.
Give yourself space Essentially, what I mean by “give yourself space” is allow yourself to feel whatever comes as it comes. To do this, notice the thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations as they occur without judgment or force. It is not uncommon to feel confused, not know what you are feeling, feel numb, or a general sense of being overwhelmed, particularly shortly after the loss. That’s ok. Meet yourself where you’re at; your process of healing is exactly what you need it to be.
Give yourself time Grieving is a process that takes time…more time than our society tends to give. First, no one “gets over” a significant loss. This is not a thing. As described above, we learn to live without that person’s living presence in our lives. We learn what losing them means to us. This takes time, as does healing in general. As you allow yourself to grieve in the way you need, you will slowly begin to learn what it means to have lost this individual and how you can navigate your life without their living presence. The first 2 years are the most difficult in many ways. The first year is full of, well, firsts, as well as the shock of the loss. The second year tends to be when the shock has worn off and the reality of the loss truly sets in. Significant dates often continue to be more sensitive for many people, even years after the loss. Allow yourself as much time as you need, rather than trying to force yourself to grieve in someone else’s prescribed time.
Give yourself support We all need support. This may come in the form of family, friends, coworkers, colleagues, or classmates. It may come in the form of support groups for those who have experienced loss. It may come in the form of a psychologist or therapist. Give yourself permission to seek the support you need to help you in your process of grieving.
Give yourself a break It’s not only acceptable, but also necessary, to give yourself a break from the intensity of your grief. Engaging in healthy activities to distract and/or take care of yourself is an important part of this process. Trying to be sure to eat healthy, drink water, get adequate sleep, exercise, and bathe are all important self-care activities. Social activities, reading, engaging in a hobby, etc. can be helpful to balancing out the intensity of the grief to some extent. Also, school and/or work can serve as a bit of a break. Giving yourself a break can be difficult and may not always work, which is ok. Again, there is no right way to grieve.
Give yourself permission to experience positive emotions Many people struggle with feeling positive emotions, including experiencing enjoyment, as this feels like a betrayal of the individual they lost or a sign that they didn’t care about the individual. Though understandable, this is simply not true. We can miss someone immensely and still enjoy our lives, feel happiness, feel pleasure, or feel joy. These are not mutually exclusive. Feeling positive emotions or having fun is arguably one of the best ways to honor someone we’ve lost. It’s ok to struggle with this, many do; however, if you find a little positive emotion there try to allow that experience.
Grieving is an intense personal experience that will vary from person to person and loss to loss. The overarching theme to all the above suggestions is to try to the best of your ability to listen to and give yourself what you need as you grieve. As with all ways in which we move towards better being, you don’t have to know where you’re going or how to get there, you just need to try to listen to, and give yourself permission to, honor what you need.