Everyone grieves differently. Your grief depends on many factors, including your personality and coping style, your life experience, your previous experience with grief and loss, your faith practices, the nature of the loss and how you view it. The grief process takes time and there is no normal prescribed timetable for grief. Forget the theories, graphs and charts. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months only to feel worse months later. For others, the grieving process takes years.
Grief is not to be compared. This is your story.
A sign in my office reads, “We all have a story to tell.” In some ways, it has become my mantra. As a therapist, my greatest privilege is companioning clients through life’s journey when it has become difficult or unmanageable. I hope to offer a safe space to tell their story, what it means to them and explore ways to cope with their current life situation. Everyone has a chapter in their life story that addresses death, the death of someone important and the journey of grief and loss. No one travels through life without experiencing death.
For some, it is a recent death bringing them to therapy because the symptoms feel like something terrible is wrong. The presenting issues are similar. “I am exhausted and I don’t do anything.” “I can’t stop crying.” “I feel sick to my stomach all the time.” “I am so depressed I don’t care if I ever wake up again.” For others, time spent in treatment allows them to write their chapter on previous losses…recognizing the depression and sadness symptoms started after the death and may have persisted for years. We uncover them during treatment.
With each story it is apparent that layers of grief from death, or multiple deaths, have stayed with them like a tattoo on the heart.
Grief is not pathology or mental illness. It is rather, forced change. Grief is adaptation and transition to a life we assumed would be a certain way—indefinitely. This forced change brings individuals to seek support and encouragement to find a way to adapt to loss. It is how the chapters get written.
In C.S. Lewis’s book, “A Grief Observed”, published in 1961, he provides the following description of grief after the death of his wife:
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says.”
Since September 11, 2001, our American society has been more public in recognizing death and emotional pain, transporting this grief into our living rooms around the country sending us a message that grief and loss now has its own specialty and lifelong effects on the bereaved. We no longer expect individuals to put “closure” on a relationship that had such significance, and we now look at grief as a lifelong journey or transformation. And that is another story.
The truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all way to cope with loss from death.
The bonds and relationships we form with those we love continue after their deaths and remain lifelong imprints – those tattoos on our hearts – permanent, forever reminders of what we have lost. The chapter gets read over and over. Sometimes we read story lines we have not seen before. We must have skipped them in our haste.
Several years ago, I attended a conference on parental grief and heard the most powerful yet simplistic statement by Dr. Kenneth Doka, “The most difficult loss in the world is the one you’re dealing with.” It gave rich perspective for the work I would come to do and serves as a constant reminder. The other important reminder came later while reading Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture, when he wrote, “Put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others.” I had to tell my own painful story.
What does grief look like?
For some grief comes in waves, for others it’s a tsunami. For some it is like riding a roller coaster. Grief is defined as a normal reaction to loss, or the price we pay for love, and can have physical, behavioral, cognitive, emotional and spiritual responses.
Grief is a journey; not something we get over but rather learn to live with. Learning this is part of the grief process.
For some, grief is cumulative.
With each new death, the other losses come back requiring more work, even years later. We may be at a different developmental level and have reached a new awareness of the death and its implications. We may have remembered important elements surrounding the death that need revisiting. And with each subsequent loss brings new awareness, richness, and deeper understanding of our feelings and responses to grief. And, another chapter is added to our story.
Rev. Dr. Jerry Jones, a wise colleague of mine with an equally wise grandmother, shared one of her thoughts on grief: “Grief is like grapes. It comes in bunches.” It is that cumulative loss, or those “bunches” that can bring an individual in for therapy for the first time even years later. I often refer to this moment as connecting the dots. It is often how the chapters connect.
While grief is individual and personal and can affect people in different ways there are also many similar symptoms while grieving. Remembering that almost anything you feel in the early stages of grief is normal, including feeling as if you are going crazy, feeling as though you are dreaming or questioning your own belief system or acknowledging that you have simply lost touch with reality.
Consider the following letter I quote with permission, authored by an 85 year independent, woman who was recently widowed. “I bet you think I’ve lost my mind-that I’m crazy. I’m not – I just can’t explain it. I know somehow that he (deceased husband) is here with me. He calls my name, and last night when I answered and said, just a minute, let me put my hearing aid in, he was gone. It’s hard to explain. He still makes me laugh, especially when he turns the thermostat down to 65 degrees. Talk to your loved ones. They will hear you.”
Symptoms of grief
While everyone is different, most experience some of the following symptoms:
- Physical: changes in appetite, sleep patterns; stomach and digestive issues; headaches; fatigue
- Behavioral: aggressive behavior; irritability; isolation, self-doubt; reckless or self-destructive behavior; acting out of stress and anxiety
- Cognitive: reduced attention span; loss centered thinking; impaired self-esteem; idealization of the past
- Emotional: self-blame and guilt; fears; helplessness; hopelessness; anger; yearning; withdrawing; anxiety
- Spiritual: spiritual changes; loss of faith; anger with God, religion; loss of assumptive world
During periods of grief and loss, healthy self-care is extremely important.
Grieving takes a tremendous amount of energy. Many people feel as though they have run a marathon and I refer to this as their emotional marathon. It is physically and emotionally taxing and that is why many bereaved complain of fatigue. Take a thorough inventory of your self-care strategies, ensuring they are helpful and restorative.
You can try and suppress your grief, but you can’t avoid it forever.
It will surface at some point in your life. In order to heal, one must acknowledge the pain and be aware avoidance prolongs the grieving process. Unresolved grief can lead to a variety of health problems.
Find your creative/expressive side. Make, create, and explore ways that help you express your feelings. Find time for involvement in a cause that the deceased found meaningful or as a tribute to the deceased. When you feel good physically, you feel better emotionally.
Don’t let anyone take your grief away. Your grief belongs to you and no one can tell you when it is time to move on or how long it should take. It is your story.
Be aware of “grief triggers.”
Anniversaries, holidays and family milestones can rekindle memories making the death feel as though it happened yesterday. A familiar sound, song, smell or anything else for that matter can trigger grief. Be prepared for the emotion that could arise, and know that it’s completely normal.
Share your loss with supportive people.
Hearing the stories of others and sharing yours are beneficial. You begin to feel normal, knowing that you are not the only person who cries in the grocery store picking up the item you no longer need. People who join grief support groups report better adaptation to grief and form new friendships based on their similar stories. They feel understood. They are able to laugh and cry together without having to apologize.
Seek out friends and family member. Now is your time to draw support from people who care about you
Draw comfort from your faith.
Find your spiritual side: engage in activities that are meaningful to you such as praying, meditating or going to church. Some churches offer faith-based grief groups. This may offer you solace.
Join a support group.
Grief can feel lonely, even with others around you. You may feel misunderstood. Returning to your life and schedule as it was before the death can be discouraging. Colleagues at work avoid talking about the deceased because they need to get their work done. Friends avoid the topic because they don’t want to upset you. Sharing your story of grief and loss with others who have experienced a death can help in a setting that has a trained facilitator.
Talk to a therapist or grief counselor.
If your grief feels like it is unmanageable and is interfering with your life, call a professional with experience in grief counseling. An experienced therapist can help you work through the intense emotions associated with grieving.
When we experience a death, and we all will at some time, our perception of the world changes. It’s how we tell the story that matters.
LuAnn Arnson, LMSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at the Pine Rest Northeast Clinic. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology from Central Michigan University and her Master’s in Social Work from Western Michigan University. She has a certification in treating traumatic and acquired brain injuries. LuAnn works with individuals of all ages and her specialties include anxiety, depression, grief and trauma. She is available for speaking engagements in the community on topics such as grief, loss and bereavement and compassion fatigue and resiliency training for professionals and family caregivers.