How to Grieve–Part 3

We all grieve in unique ways—even among loved ones, there can be differences in expressions of grief. Our personalities have much to do with that, as do some cultural influences, including ‘family culture’. This blog is not a detailed 1-2-3 step process of ‘how to grieve’; rather, I would like to suggest ways of marking your grief, as you move forward—even unsteadily. Grieving well is important to the integration of your loss into your life.

When you start on the road of grief, one of the first reminders of loss you bump up against is facing the first holiday, birthday, or anniversary, without your loved one. During the first year of your loss, these significant markers—times which you usually shared with your loved one—will confront your feelings in a profound way. One of our human temptations (to manage feelings) is to minimize the importance of these feelings. We tend to force ourselves to ‘buck up’ and face forward—as though allowing yourself to feel the sorrow will set you back, show signs of weakness, or whatever the taboo de jour. Well, no. If this is your first Thanksgiving holiday without your loved one, then it is not only acceptable but important for you to talk about how much you miss your loved one, and reminisce about previous Thanksgivings with him or her. Some people fear that doing this will hold them back, make them feel worse, and prolong the grieving process. The truth is, without doing these things, you are more likely to not only prolong the grieving process, but even short-circuit it, so that every holiday, birthday, anniversary, will confront you with fear for how you will be impacted. The irony is, the more you ‘give in’ to the grief, the healthier the process. But you want to ‘give in’ in appropriate and healthy ways. Marking the special day is one way.

Another way to process your grief is one of practicality: going through the articles which belonged to your loved one. This is a highly emotional process, and it is reasonable to do it in small doses, if possible. Those who lock away a room of a loved one, as a memorial of sorts without changing it, not only ‘freeze’ time, but stunt their grieving process. Holding up the beloved stuffed toy, or worn sweater, and crying through the memories it elicits, is helpful to your grief process. It brings intense feelings, but you are only expressing what is already there! This is good.

Photographs are always a wonderful part of grieving. We use them at funerals, but we can also use them to help the grief process. One way you can do this is to make a special photo album—or, if you are technically savvy, make a thumb drive or electronic photo frame of pictures of your loved one. You will find yourself viewing these regularly during your initial stages of grief. As time moves forward, your need to process with these photos will diminish little by little.

If it is possible, spend time together as a family processing your loss. This is important to do with young children, with say, the loss of a parent or significant family member. You can make a special ‘book’, with photos and written memories of the lost loved one. I have often suggested a special box—there are so many beautiful storage boxes you can get today—in which you can place drawings, photos, written stories or memories, etc. Young children can easily access these articles to use as talking points in recalling their loved one. It is especially important for kids to have opportunity to do this. Children can shut down their feelings if they intuit it is too painful for grown-ups to do so. And sadly, then their own grief process becomes stunted.

Some people choose to make a permanent marker to remember someone, like planting a tree or a garden bed of roses, for example. What you choose to do can be a special way to honor your loved one. You can also start a tradition on a particular day (his or her birthday) for anyone to participate in—like going to a park, or somewhere particularly memorable for your loved one.

These are some suggestions for creatively walking the path of grief. I surely have not exhausted all possibilities, but I hope this has stimulated your creative juices, and has given you ‘permission’ to step into your sad feelings and not run from them. Finally, there are some things I’d like to cover as possible complications for grief. These include sudden loss, family disagreements, and ‘complicated’ bereavement.

Sudden loss brings with it a jolt of the fragility of life we typically do not acknowledge in our day to day existence. When you lose someone precious to a horrible accident or sudden heart attack, you are not only faced with the loss, but with the intrusion of a major change in your life and your expectations. You then have to face two major shifts you had no plan to face: the loss, and the confrontation of the fact that life can change so quickly in ways you never planned. For some, the suddenness of loss can bring with it anxious feelings: sleeplessness, fear, and emotionality not previously encountered. This can feel terribly frightening, and can interfere with the grieving process. Because a sudden loss is a traumatic event, symptoms can become severe, and impede the normal progression of grief. Sometimes people around you may not comprehend your reactions, and you may feel unsupported. Counseling may bring some perspective to feelings of trauma and fear, and offers techniques to deal with it.

At times, the loss of a loved one can bring conflict in a family system because people deal with loss in different ways. If someone is more internal, and tends to cry alone rather than in front of others, or even tends not to cry, this person may have low tolerance for another family member who is more expressive with grief. The one grieving more openly may want comfort from the other, but not get it because her tears make the other uncomfortable. The consequences of these differences can bring great struggle, from frustration and anger to hurt with each other. This is part of the reason why some couples eventually break up after losing a child, whether newborn or older. Loss can also bring any underlying conflicts within a family to the surface in an ugly way. If there were disgruntled feelings between the loved one who died and others in the family, these will resurrect even unwittingly as the family struggles with the loss. Without bringing these conflicts to an acceptable resolution, your grief can be suspended, or, you may need to ‘protect’ yourself from others’ ‘issues’ while you grieve on your own.

Finally, there are times that the loss you experience is so devastating that the normal sadness you feel can grow into a depression. If you have depressive tendencies anyway, or have a history of major depression, a loss may cause a severe reaction of withdrawal and disengagement from life, making your experience that of depression rather than actual grief. This is called complicated bereavement, and needs to be treated in counseling, with possible psychiatric intervention or medication.

This has been a quick ‘guide’ to grieving, which I hope has been helpful. I welcome your stories or questions, if you are so inclined!