by: E.B. Johnson
When we hear the word “grief” we traditionally associate it with death. Grief, however, comes in many different forms and strikes for many different reasons — some of which might be experiencing in the current crisis. While grieving the loss of a loved one is serious and life-shattering, there are many other major life events that can elicit a similar response from us and our emotions. Losing opportunities, losing our place in an important community or career — theses are all things that can cause us to grieve in unexpected ways.
Learning how to deal with our grief starts with understanding it and the ways in which it undermines our ultimate happiness. Only by facing the deep sadness and sense of loss we harbor in our hearts can we overcome that loss and find our way back to a fulfilled reality. It takes time, though, and it takes a willingness to accept yourself — the good, the bad and the ugly — in order to find a new way forward into the future you’re trying to build.
The real nature of grief.
Grief is a normal and natural reaction to loss or change of any kind. It is not pathological and it is not a personality defect. It does not occur only when we lose a spouse, a child or a parent and it most definitely does not make us weak or less worthy for experiencing it. We experience grief whenever we lose anything important to us — and in these uncertain times, many of us might feel as though we are losing more than ever before.
You should think of your grief as a natural response whose purpose is to lead you to healing. Without grief, we would not be able to appreciate the beauty in our lives and without grief we would not be able to learn the lessons that help us to grow. When we experience grief, we experience an opportunity to see things in a new and powerful life.
Grief is a double-edged sword in its simplest state, but a powerful tool to those who know how to wield it. The trick, though, is understanding grief and knowing when a setback in your life is causing more of a disturbance than you realize. When we accept our grief for what it is and learn how to weather the storm, we find a whole new reserve of strength that we didn’t even realize existed.
The types of grief you might be battling right now.
Though we think of grief as being most intimately associated with death, it can also come as a result of an array of experiences that challenge us and the way we see ourselves in the world. You don’t have to lose a parent or a spouse to feel grief. There are all kinds of events that trigger our sorrow and most of them fall between 4 main categories.
Losing your core identity
When we lose a core piece of our identity, it can cause us to fall into mourning for our lost sense of self. Those who lose out on who they are (through firing or any other kind of social severance) are given the monumental task of not only grieving who they thought they were, but also setting up a new story for themselves in one fell swoop.
Examples of this type of loss include:
- You lose a job or are furloughed from your current career.
- You are forced to walk away from a community or religious group.
- Suffer the breakdown of a longterm relationship.
- Separated from your children for the first time (“empty nest”).
Some of these individuals make the choice to leave their religious community or their career. Though this might sound easier, it can actually compound the grief even further. Because the individual made the choice to end that stage of their life, they can often feel as though they don’t have a “right” to grieve or feel a sense of loss.
Detaching from your dreams
Losing opportunities or experiences that are important to us can be heart-shattering. Maybe there was a specific company you hoped to work for, or just a job you hoped to hold on to. Many of us are dealing with an array of shattered hopes and dreams right now, in the form of disappointed vacation plans, wedding dreams and even career goals. It’s okay to mourn those things, and it’s okay to experience feelings of grief or even injustice.
Examples of this type of loss include:
- Someone on a specific career arch is terminated.
- An over-achiever finds themselves unable to secure their desired place in the “real world”.
- Living in a community with sudden dramatic political shifts.
- A couple struggling with infertility.
Those who struggle with the loss of their hopes struggle to make their way in the world because their sense of failure compounds with their grief to create an impermeable sense of hopelessness. They can often find themselves making unfair comparisons and comparing their process to the process of others (somehow always finding themselves falling short.)
Failing to keep control over your life
Losing your personal autonomy is a type of grief that can cut you to the core. We all have a need to manage our own lives and when we lose that, it can trigger a very real and very permeating sense of grief. Feeling as though you are leading a life that is now out of your control is a very unique experience, and one that feels very like a death of the old self.
Examples of this type of loss include:
- Someone who has experiences prolonged financial setbacks.
- Those who suffer from degenerative illnesses.
- Elderly or aging family members that can no longer care for themselves.
Being unable to control our own lives causes us to lose touch with who we are at our most basic and intimate level. It’s one of the hardest forms of grief to face and overcome. This is because a loss of autonomy results in not only a sense of failure and despair, but it also requires the afflicted to reconceptualize who they are while they face their new limitations.
Losing hold of your wellbeing
On a very primitive level, we expect to feel safe in our homes, our communities and our relationships. When we lose that sense of safety, it can have some serious consequences for our sense of self as well as our mental and emotional wellbeing. It can also result in a sense of hyper-vigilance that causes the person to feel distinctly unsafe no matter what.
Examples of this type of loss include:
- Survivors of physical, sexual or emotional trauma.
- A partner who has just learned their loved one is having an affair.
- Families experiencing eviction or housing instability.
- Children of divorce who lose the sense of safety they had in their family.
- Communities that encountered regular violence and destabilization.
Many of those dealing with this type of grief also suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which causes an array of other issues aside from the regular feelings of hyper-vigilance and numbness. Those who survive trauma and violence often lose their sense of internal safety and it becomes difficult for them to restore it. Alongside dealing with their own feelings of constant insecurity, they are also tasked with grieving this loss while struggling to rebuild their lives.
How grief impacts the way we live.
Because we often don’t fully understand our grief and its complex layers, we sometimes overlook the depth of those emotions, which can lead to a stalling or breakdown in the grieving process. Grief occurs naturally in stages, but those stages can commonly be interrupted or sidetracked, creating some severe emotional consequences for the sufferer. Some of the most common signs of unresolved grief are:
Grief is unpleasant and uncomfortable. As such, we often push the feelings it elicits in us deep, deep down, doing our best to bury them and forget about them entirely. The problem is, though, that this just isn’t how emotions work. Try as you might to bury the feelings of injustice and anger, they will have their day in the sun. Pushing your emotions to the side in order to get past them only leads to an out-of-the-blue explosion and a steady irritability that is corrosive to our closest relationships.
Suffering grief feels akin to having a heavy, wet blanket thrown over you. It’s not only pervasive, it’s leaves us paralyzed and feeling so weak that we start to believe we cannot go on. The result of this kind of perpetual heaviness is often an emotional numbness, as well as a low-grade but persistent depression that can zap your energy drive and motivation.
Hyper-focus on loss
Those grieving a trauma often find that they are not only hyper-alert at all times, but they are also obsessed with the idea of loss and the idea that the world is out to harm them. Suffering trauma causes life to look considerably more fragile and causes us to respond to the world in way that perpetuates anxiety and disappointment. When you’re the victim of trauma, the world becomes an unsafe place and — feeling unsafe in your own skin — you start to expect the worst and suffer with side-effects like insomnia and a collapse of mental wellbeing.
When we are dealing with the effects of grief in our lives, there are often certain cognitive-behavioral responses that we develop. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we develop a number of behaviors that are meant to help us avoid suffering a similar loss in future. Add incomplete grief to that mix and you get an overreaction cocktail, which can transform your grief from a temporary state to a long-term patterns that are hard to overcome.
Incomplete grief festers within us like a sore, poisoning who we are and killing our dreams in one fell swoop. In order to avoid the misery that grief causes us, we often push our emotions to the side and keep them at bay by engaging in self-harming or addictive behaviors like drug and alcohol abuse or overeating.
The best ways to deal with the grief you’re feeling.
The loss of our dreams, identity, expectations and autonomy are all losses that warrant justified grief. Though the world can often make us feel as though these are things we should face bravely and without emotion, nothing could be further from the truth. These are destructive events that break our hearts and disrupt our lives. All grief is different and so are the solutions. These are some of the most common techniques you can use, however, to get beyond your grief and back to the person that you once were.
1. Stop running and weather the storm
Grief is one of the most intense and unpleasant emotions we ever experience in this life. It seeps right down into our souls and has the power to change us at our very core. Because these feelings are so strong, we often want to do something — anything — to dull or stop the pain. When this happens we turn to harmful behaviors like internet overuse, wanton promiscuity or drug use, that can leave us vulnerable to further pain and suffering.
You cannot heal until you learn how to confront your pain and embrace it like the part of you that it is. Ignoring the pain inflicted by loss only works for so long and overtake is inevitable. Allow yourself to grief in whatever way feels natural and don’t be afraid to let your emotions wash over you in their entirety, no matter how unpleasant they may be.
Weather your grief, instead of avoiding it. When a loss is fresh in your memory, give it your full attention and allow it to be as it is in that moment. Draw a line on the grieving processes, however, and give yourself a set period of time to complete your grieving. This could be a couple of days or a week or a month. Burying your grief is dangerous, but so is wallowing in it for all of time. Don’t stay stuck in your sense of loss, but allow the wound to have the time it needs to open up and heal.
2. Find a way to release the pain
Holding onto grief is toxic. When you’re hurt, you have to let that hurt out or it will fester inside you like a gangrenous sore. Let your pain out. Let the tears flow. Let yourself scream and rail and shake and punch the pillows until your hands are trembling and your throat is sore. Release your pain and take responsibility for feeling what you need to feel, as you need to feel it.
There is no right or wrong way to feel pain — short of preventing yourself from feeling it at all. Find an outlet for your pain and you’ll find a way through your pain; there’s no way but to face it and outlets make it easier. If you feel like you need to cry, cry. If you feel like you need to run and run and run, do that.
All outlets for channeling our pain are valid and all of them are equal in the value they provide to us. Avoid doing anything that would harm you or others, however. Though loss can make us do some pretty crazy things, it’s never okay to make other people (or yourself) suffer. Learn how to draw on your emotional reserves in a positive way and you’ll discover how to cope with your pain.
3. Gain a new perspective
If you’re dealing with a particularly gut-wrenching loss, try to remember the good times and the moments or memories that made you happiest. When we focus on only the negative, we generate more of that in our emotions. Your thoughts won’t change what happened, but they will change your future.
Instead of making yourself feel worse, shift your focus and rewrite the ending into one that allows you to heal. A mindful journaling practice is one of the best ways we can shift our focus from negative to positive.
Each time you feel tempted to be come upset, angry or just self-pitying, reach for your journal and write down all the good things you can remember about whatever it is that’s making you blue. Then, in future moments of sadness, return to this journal for a burst of happiness and positivity. There’s no right or wrong way about going about opening up the way you think. The only wrong thing to do is stay stuck and heartbroken.
4. Release your regrets
When we lose something, it often causes us to internalize a strange sense of guilt. Loss can cause us to become obsessed with thoughts like “I should have been there…I should have said this instead of that…etc.” Not only are these thoughts pointless, but they do nothing save to further undermine our self-confidence. Stop beating yourself up and realize that — sometimes — bad things just happen no matter how hard we try to prevent them.
What’s done is done. There’s no going back and there’s no changing what we did, or what someone else could have done. We are in the world we are in, and we have to find a way to make the most of it. Let go of your regrets and stop clinging to them like some sort of life-raft that will bring back a yesterday that’s gone. We only have the here and now to make the most of our lives — no matter what state the world is in around us.
Stop obsessing over what went wrong and focus on what you can do right going forward. Regret is a powerful toolwhen you know how to wield it, but holding onto the baggage of loss that wasn’t your fault will only hold you back. Take action and stop wallowing in things that can’t be changed. Life is not a passive sport, but it will push to the sideline if you waste your time focusing on what could have been or what should have been.
5. Cut out the naysayers
One of the biggest reasons we belittle our feelings and allow our grief to be interrupted is because of the shame or guilt projected onto us by others. Unfortunately, not everyone in our lives will be understanding of our loss or the ways in which it affects us and when this happens, they can say things like, “You’re being too sensitive,” or “I got over this way more quickly…”
People who respond this way to the grieving of others do not know how to feel their emotions appropriately, so they dismiss the emotions of others. While their intentions might be good, their opinions and reactions are not and can often undermine our healing in damaging and toxic ways.
Distance yourself from these people, especially in the early stages of your grief. When you’re stronger, you can choose to reconnect with these individuals but, for now, leave them out. You can’t rush an emotional recovery and they will only slow you down. If you’re not in a place to create physical space, create emotional space with the person and stop giving them access to the valuable parts of your thoughts, your emotions and your reactions.
6. Open up to someone you trust
Suffering from grief is hard to understand and it can cause us to isolate ourselves in shame because of how deeply we misunderstand our feelings. Learning how to share our feelings with others is one of the quickest ways to healing, but it’s often one of the hardest for us to lean into. Why? It’s hard to be vulnerable and nothing makes us more vulnerable than our grief.
Virtual therapy is bigger than ever before, and most specialists are now offering online consultations for those who are looking for mental and emotional help during this time. If you don’t feel like you can reach out to someone at home, consider finding professional help that can allow you to express yourself safely.
It is healthy to seek out the consolation or comfort of others when we are suffering. Even when we are in our lowest depths of rambling, confused and uncertain grief, seeking out others can help us make sense of the pain we’re feeling and help us come to some core revelations. They give us a new perspective and a better way to see ourselves and the world around us. They also comfort us and provide proof that there are still elements in our life to be grateful for.
7. Find some distractions
Keeping busy is one of the best way to get through grief or loss of any kind. By occupying yourself with tasks that require us to focus, we give ourselves a break from constantly replaying our disappointments over and over again in our heads. Think of your brain like a computer, which occasionally needs to be turned off and allowed to re-boot in order to keep operating as desired.
Following our passions and allowing them to distract us also allows us to create the space we need to realize that life isn’t all bad. Finding the right distractions takes time, though, and it takes a little creativity.
Some of the best activities for distracting yourself from the pain include: cooking, gardening, fishing, hiking, camping, walking, drawing, writing, painting, learning a musical instrument or listening to your favorite music. The possibilities are really endless. What matters is that it gives you the sense of peace you’re missing in the chaos of your loss.
8. Reclaim a sense of power
Losing out on something that meant a lot to us can cause us to think that life will never be good again. However, this just isn’t true, and just because one door has shut doesn’t mean another one can’t open. Life is a series of collisions with both the good and the bad in this world. You reclaim your power by embracing this fact, and learning how to control your response to it.
Reclaim a sense of what you lost in your thoughts, words and actions. Cultivate the things in your life that remind you of the good things you once had and rebuild what you can of the world you once felt so comfortable in.
Find ways to get back to your sense of power, and find ways to reconnect with that idea that you’re in control of your life and the future that you’re building. Lean into the comfort of knowing that’s what bad now will not always be bad. That hole you feel in your heart will be filled again, but you’re going to have to dig deep and find your meaning again by getting back in touch with your passions.
9. Be real and stop lying (to yourself)
Re-establishing our normal routines can feel alien after a major disappointment or loss, and doing it too quickly can lead to some serious setbacks. Struggling to find our feet again, we can develop the idea that certain career and social situations require us to be happier than we actually are. In order to truly tap into our happiness we have to be real and let our grief take its course.
While wallowing is not the path to healing, neither is faking happiness when we really feel broken at our cores. Forced happiness is awful, and it’s a burden that eats away at our energy, motivation and sense of self.
Don’t take on happiness like it’s a chore and don’t pull it on and off like it’s an old coat. It’s okay to feel sad; it’s okay to feel angry — as long as you aren’t hindering the happiness of others. If you don’t feel up to smiling and laughing and playing the part, don’t. Save your smile for when it’s genuine and your happiness for a sunny day that doesn’t make you regret being alive.
10. No more second-guessing
When we suffer a major loss or setback, it can cause us to second-guess our happiness in those rare in-between moments where we find a smile on our face, despite the chaos around us. We feel guilty for feeling good, but we deserve happiness — especially in the depth of our losses.
Don’t feel bad for feeling good. Grief is a funny thing and its nature transforms from person-to-person, day-to-day. One day you might be feeling like you can’t go on. But the next? Well the next day, who knows? You might find yourself smiling from ear to ear with an unbridled sense of optimism you thought you had lost.
There’s no set length of time when it comes to recovering from a loss. Our happiness will return to us sooner or later, so don’t feel guilty or think that you “haven’t grieved enough”. If you feel like you’re recovered from a loss, chances are you have. Trust yourself and know how to spot happiness knocking on your door.
Putting it all together…
It doesn’t take the death of a loved one for us to experience suffering. Suffering can come from sexual or emotional trauma, the loss of identity, the loss of autonomy and the shattering of our hopes and dreams. Expectations are at the center of who we are and when they are interrupted — in any format — they can cause us to grieve for the perceived future that was lost.
Learning how to deal with your grief means learning how to identify and understand it. Trust yourself and trust your emotions. Let your feelings out and give yourself the time you need to heal. Reach out and share your pain with someone that you trust and find distractions that can help shine a light on the beauty of the world around you once again. Eventually the pain will recede, but it takes time and an acceptance that is often painful in nature. Take responsibility for your healing and give yourself permission to mourn the things that once were. Your loss is real. Mourn it and then lead yourself back to the light.