Seven Ways to Hold Space for Grief

It is impossible to live and love and not experience grief. Whether it is the loss of a relationship, a role, a way of thinking, or the physical presence of a person, loss pervades our human experience.

And yet, most of us flee from it, avoid it, stuff it deep inside, numb it, do whatever it takes to not have to feel it. Grief feels like a terrifying vortex from which we aren’t sure we will emerge whole. Grief means we are fragile and our lives are fragile. Grief means we can’t control the outcome, can’t keep someone from leaving.

Grief is painful.

And at the same time, grief is our way through.

When we allow ourselves to feel the unpredictable and out of control emotions that come with loss, the mountains of rage, the wells of sadness, the depths of uncertainty, the quakes of anxiety, the hole where we once held someone or something dearly, we move through the hole into new possibility, new life. This does not mean we will close the hole behind us; big losses live and breathe with us for the rest of our lives. But they don’t have to become our undoing. Instead of keeping us in a constant pattern of retreat, one of self-protection and avoidance so we never have to feel loss again, loss when held with space to be whatever it is and whatever it becomes, courageously and brokenheartedly, gives us a way to keep living. And maybe, eventually, to even live more fully, with even more vulnerability and more love.

There is a concept in social science research called “post-traumatic growth.” Essentially, this beautiful research acknowledges that when we have experienced trauma or loss, many of us experience stress and psychological pain and suffering. But sometimes, amazingly, when we face our fear, suffering, and loss with resilience, research has found that we actually come through it with greater wisdom, compassion, resilience and strength than when we started. Sheryl Sandberg explores this concept in great depth in her profound book Option B about coping with the unexpected death of her husband.

Many, many wise teachers and writers have written eloquently about their own journeys with grief and on how to hold grief with compassion for ourselves and our human experience. I can’t pretend to offer anything new or profound. Yet I also believe that each of our voices matter, and sometimes, a new voice can be heard in a new way. With ten years of experience working in hospice and grief counseling, I am so grateful for all I’ve learned from my patients, clients, and families who have given me the privilege of sitting with them in their grief and loss. From them, I’ve learned several truths about holding space for grief with courage and self-compassion, and I’d like to share them with you.

  1. Release the “shoulds.” Grief is not a competitive sport. Everyone experiences their own grief in their own way. We have a tendency to either over or under react to our loss when we compare it to others. Just because your loss seems less dramatic or life altering than someone else’s does not mean you are not entitled to feel your feelings. And we must allow our experience to be as it is. Some of us cannot sleep when we are grieving; others of us want to sleep all day. Some of us eat incessantly, others have no appetite. Make sure you are taking care of yourself and meeting your basic needs; if this feels impossible to do, reach out to a grief counselor in your area. But also know that your grief is your own, and it’s helpful to catch ourselves comparing or going to the place of “should” so we can recenter and find our true selves and needs.
  2. Feel your body, connect to your art. Grief can often be accessed more fully in our bodies or in our creative selves. When we try to “think” our way through the grieving process, we often get stuck. Reflection has a place, and journaling about our thoughts can be helpful. Often, though, grief is in our bodies, it’s heaviness, it’s aching or emptiness, it’s energy unleashed or energy lost. When we do things that help us connect to our bodies, whether yoga, going for a walk or connecting in nature, taking warm baths or getting massage, our grief may find release in a new way, a way without words. Similarly, sometimes grief finds its way out in music, by making a playlist of resonant songs or singing or playing ourselves, or in art, using color, collage, or clay to feel our way through our feelings. We are not creating in order to have a final product to present, but rather, to allow our feelings to find their way into the surface and out into the world so that we can find a bit more space to hold them.
  3. Don’t give yourself a timeline. Grief does not fit into a set timeline or linear process. When you are honest and authentic about your thoughts and feelings, you cannot grieve “wrong.” Sure, there are common threads of denial, anger, sadness that often run through our grieving. But just because it’s been one month, one year, ten years, does not mean we should or should not feel a certain way. Sometimes our senses especially give us entry into feelings of grief we thought we had already passed though. The scent of my grandfather’s pipe tobacco embedded in the scent of his old flute case still brings an ache in my chest whenever I open it, twelve years after his death. A song, a taste, any number of sensory experiences can trigger our memory and connect to our grief. If we catch ourselves in a “should”, we are not in a spacious place with our loss. We have to ride the waves of our unpredictable experience if we want to hold space for our grief.
  4. Allow yourself to be moved unexpectedly by “small” losses. The feelings we feel when we experience a loss are often related to the many other big and small losses of our lives. Plenty of us may feel shocked by our feelings of sadness when we loose an acquaintance or even a public figure. Sometimes, these losses are safer to feel because they are less complicated by the ambivalent feelings that those closest to us hold. Or they can be symbolic of a way of life, a way of being, a role, a certainty in safety, that is lost. Again, when we allow the feelings to emerge as they do, we give ourselves space to move through them and learn something from the process.
  5. Allow your worldview to shift until you find solid ground again. Grieving often means allowing the way we view the world to be turned upside down. When we grieve, we often feel an emptiness in the space in our lives where the person we love used to stand. But we also feel like our sense of north and south, our sense of down and up, has been completely upturned. For many of us, grieving may force us to face our lack of control over the outcome of our lives, our lack of guarantees and certainty. We may be forced to reckon with a spiritual shifting, a different way of viewing our relationship to the Divine or the World. We can find our way to a new sense of strength when we face this inevitable shift in worldview with courage and openness, but if we choose to cling to our old views when our world is uprooted by loss, we often find ourselves even more ungrounded.
  6. Connect to both solitude and community. For those of us who turn to people to fill our loneliness, it’s often important to find some space to actually be alone. Let ourselves feel our loneliness and see that it does not destroy us. Sometimes a journal and a pen can be a helpful companion in our aloneness. And for those of us for whom talking about our feelings to others is difficult, it’s important to find others to join us in our solitary grief. Yes, each person’s experience of grief is unique and no one can fix it for you, but vulnerability and sharing is one of the ways we can heal by creating meaning, purpose and connection in the midst of our experience. Find a local grief support group, a faith community, or even a skilled therapist to start.
  7. Bring grief into the public sphere. Grief must enter our public conversation if we want to grieve and live well. When we bring darkness into the light, it becomes light. When we start to talk more about grief and teach one another how to hold space together, without being patronizing or trying to fix each other, we all get to grow and deepen in our experience of being human. And organizations need to follow suite, to support employees to grieve well. Even hospice organizations give their employees only two or three bereavement days off with pay for the loss of a loved one. What would it look like to give more time, more EAP provided counseling sessions, more employee support? Overall health and wellbeing, along with productivity, would increase.

Rarely do we talk about the toxic effect of unprocessed grief and trauma. But we see it played out on repeat in our world. Loss and trauma unprocessed and embittered turn to violence, passed from generation to generation. One study of a group of pimps, imprisoned for sex trafficking of young girls in Chicago, found that almost 90% of them had experienced physical or sexual abuse as a child. Trauma and grief are never an excuse for passing along violence, but neglecting to hold space to heal from them also puts some responsibility on all of us as a human community.

In a culture that fears grief, that criticizes tears, that struggles to hold feelings without a need to fix them, we will undoubtedly struggle to grieve openheartedly and honestly. Let’s commit to accompanying one another, then, in this journey to hold with kindness and integrity our very essentially human experience of loss and grief. Let’s find ways to sit, in silence, in discomfort, in deep pain and sadness, but together.

Let’s trust that light will continue to break through in the midst of the darkest night. And let’s trust that even the darkness will teach us, make us more compassionate, more connected, more wise and more resilient.

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