by Glynis Sherwood
- Grief occurs in response to just about any meaningful loss.
It’s not just about bereavement. We experience hurt and sadness in response to a multitude of daily losses including relationships, aging, health, work, role and our own definitions of who we are. We grieve when our belief system – or something we value – is threatened or lost. We grieve when we – and life – don’t live up to our expectations, or believe our hopes and dreams are gone. Grief is the necessary process of emotional pain that – paradoxically -allows us to move into the next phase – acceptance and readjusting to life after loss.
- It’s not so much the pain of grief that gets smaller, but our shoulders that get stronger.
When we lose something important it hurts because we miss our relationship to what has been ‘taken’ from us. That loss destabilizes our world view. Healthy adjustment to loss involves using the experience to strengthen ourselves – our character, our flexibility, our capacity for kindness, our ability to let go of things we can’t control, our understanding that the right thing doesn’t always happen but we can still have meaningful lives, and our appreciation of small beauties. It’s a gradual change that reflects the potentially positive transformational nature of grief.
- Society has unrealistic expectations of grievers.
Grieving people in our culture get a bad deal in general. To be fair, this is mostly due to social ignorance rather than any ill intent. Unfortunately, it’s the griever who pays the price of another loss in the form of lack of understanding. For even in the case of death of a loved one, grievers are expected to be back at work in a few days, and back to ‘normal’ in a few weeks. Grief often starts out as shock, with painful feelings trickling in a few hours, days or weeks later. So just when other people are thinking the griever has had enough time to deal with their loss, he or she may just be starting to come to terms with their emotions.
- We must be actively kind to people who are grieving.
This may seem like a ‘no brainer’, but due to our culture’s difficulty dealing with loss in an open and direct way, many well intentioned people feel unsure about what to do, and either clam up or avoid the person who’s experienced loss. This makes grievers feel isolated and stigmatized. But the solution is actually quite simple: Folks who’ve suffered a loss just need our support. If you see your friend or family member hurting, try to be understanding. Put yourself in their shoes. Whatever you do, don’t minimize the loss or tell the griever to count their blessings, or find a replacement. Grievers need empathy, a shoulder or a good ear. Eventually most grievers will move on to find the solutions that they seek, be it a new mate, pet, job or other adjustments to the loss. A good rule of thumb is ‘support first, problem solve second’. If you don’t know how to help or what to say, ask or offer a solution. For example, you can ask they want to talk or have you just listen. Or you can offer something practical, such as child minding or preparing a meal.
- Many people are stuck in the pain of ‘unfinished’ grief. They call it depression, anxiety, trauma, low self worth or addiction. This emotional pain is a response to loss. It needs to be identified in order to be healed. Sometimes therapy is what’s required in order to heal.
Losses from childhood and beyond that aren’t dealt with constructively can linger on in one of grief’s many disguises: chronic worry, sadness, stress or low self esteem. Sometimes people who’ve experienced loss try and self-medicate the pain away with substance use or compulsive behaviors such as over eating. They may be out of touch with the roots of the pain and not identify it as grief. All they know is that they feel like their life is being run by hurt. It doesn’t mean they are weak but, rather, just at a loss about how to put the hurt behind them. Counselling can help people who have experienced loss, and are suffering today with additional emotional challenges, to understand the problem and, most importantly, get the support and strategies they need to take their life back from the pain.
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Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counsellor, Registered Clinical Counsellor, specializes in helping people recover from all kinds of Loss, Grief and Stuck Grief – aka ‘the pain that won’t go away.