By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
Some of us start to experience grief and loss early in life. Others don't get hit with the big whammies until our later years. Either way, we all have to face grief and loss, as long as we choose to love. In fact, the bigger the love, the bigger the grief. I hate that. When I realized recently that the more I love my people, the more I have to grieve when I lose them, I thought, Uh oh. I'm screwed. I love my people big.
But what are our options? I only see two: love less or seek solace. I’m goin’ with door number two. One way I find solace is through reading and listening to matters of the heart; spiritual matters that go deeper than our thoughts or the material world around us. Much of the spiritual literature I dive into teaches about the need to let go of attachment. I repeat, Uh oh. I'm so not unattached to my loved ones. I love talking to them, seeing them, playing word chums with them, having them on the planet.
So how do we bear the unbearable? How do we shore up to prepare for, or weather the storms of grief? Do we try to love our loved ones less? Attach less? Close our hearts more? Isolate? Use massive amounts of pharmaceutical and/or street drugs? Check-out on screens? Having evaluated all these options and more, I come back time and time again to choosing a wide-open heart. And if your heart is filled to the brim with love for your loved ones, you understand only too well how this leaves us wide open to grieving the loss of said love ones. Darn.
So how do we get some relief from grief? How do we handle losing the people (or furry friends) we are the most connected and attached to? Whether you have just been hit with an insurmountably shocking loss, or you are experiencing a loss you saw coming but still have to face and feel, or you are living in anticipation of a loss around the corner, may these ideas help you feel some comfort and connection.
Welcome and honor your pain.
As challenging as it is to feel our painful emotions, the only way to move through them is to allow them up and out. Let yourself cry and sob and wail. Then rehydrate. Get water in you and you in it. Drink water and tea, take baths and showers. And repeat. Remind yourself that crying is normal, necessary and healing. Our tears actually contain toxins that get released when we cry. So although crying is certainly not the funnest part of life, it is part of what helps us move through loss. Since our emotions are natural and we are designed to experience feelings like sadness, anger and fear, the only way to avoid them is to stuff them down unnaturally. That’s where substance abuse or excessive behaviors come in. Those are attempts to stuff down our painful emotions. But pain is part of the deal here. When we befriend, or at least accept our emotions and allow them out in healthy ways, they move through us.
Speak to yourself as you would speak to a loved one.
Allowing our emotions to come up and out is one thing, but how we speak to ourselves internally is another thing entirely. So often, my clients tell me they let themselves cry but they feel no relief. Sometimes it’s because they are just in the thick of it, but oftentimes it’s because their self-talk is unkind. Imagine if a crying child came to you for comfort and you said, “Quit crying.” Or, “Stop being such a crybaby.” Or, “Stop, that’s enough!” They certainly would not feel better. In fact, they would feel even worse. So, if your internal talk is anything less than empathic or kind, you will be that much less likely to feel relief from your grief. Take a look at the way you speak to yourself when you are in pain and see if you can upgrade it to a kind and tender tone. The better you get at welcoming what you feel, the sooner you will feel better.
Treat your body respectfully.
In addition to the way you speak to yourself, pay attention to the way you treat yourself. I’m guessing (or hoping) that if someone you love was grieving, you would feed them well, make sure they got rest, fresh air, and lots of TLC. Some people have a hard time eating when their bodies are filled with feelings, so respectful treatment for them might be to encourage themselves to eat anyway (even if it’s just soup and smoothies for a while). Other people have a hard time eating moderately when they are highly emotional and they may need to encourage themselves to reach out for support rather than to excess food. If you are in the thick of grief, do your best to get adequate rest and some movement, even if it’s a short walk around the block to get some air. Many people have the tendency to reach for unhealthy substances or habits in an attempt to comfort or numb themselves, but in the long-run this is not respectful, loving treatment for your body or your grief. Ask yourself how you would take care of someone you love and do your best to treat yourself that way.
Give yourself time (but not too much).
Several years ago, I experienced the death of a loved one. I spent hours and hours sobbing in bed. I longed for a nightstand brimming with pharmaceutical drugs and alcohol but refused to revert back to my old ways of coping. Eventually, my husband came in and said, "You have two more hours and then you have to shower." I told him, “Thank you for your concern but showering won't be possible.” (Though I’m fairly sure I didn’t use big words like “concern” or “possible.”) My head was about to explode from sobbing so much and leaving my bed simply did not seem like an option. But it was. And I did. And it helped. The warm water helped. Getting up helped. Doing as I was told helped. I still sobbed and howled in every corner of the house but each day, week, and month, the intensity of the grief changed shape. Some losses are with us always, like scars on our hearts, but they often change shape with time.
Creating rituals and writing.
Another way of expressing your grief is to create a ritual that symbolizes and honors your relationship with your loved one. Lighting a candle, creating a memory book of pictures or symbols of your relationship, playing your loved one’s favorite music, writing them a letter, eating his or her favorite foods, watching their favorite movies, listening to their favorite music or songs you enjoyed together, or creating art to express your grief. One client took time on the anniversary of her husband’s death, to walk to their favorite spot in nature and write him a letter. A grief dialogue is another written ritual that many people find healing. This is where you allow your grief to express itself on paper. You write whatever wants to come out until you feel complete. Then you write a loving, compassionate response back. There are countless ways to honor your grief. As long as it feels productive and kind to yourself, it has the potential to help you along your healing path.
Stages are not set in stone.
It can be helpful to know that there are essentially five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. These were originally developed by author and grief expert, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Being familiar with these stages can help to normalize what you’re going through and know you are not alone. However, it’s important to know that these stages are not always linear and they are certainly not quick, cut and dry. Some can take months or years to move through. Some stages get recycled back to when we (or others) thought we were done. In general, most humans in grief do go through these stages in one form or another, but they are certainly not given a timeline or a linear prognosis. Be gentle with yourself as you move through the process, and perhaps cycle back to stages you thought you were done with. Grief takes time and some losses are with us forever. Certain dates or times of year can trigger our feelings and even a song, picture, dream or memory can ignite a flame of grief out of the blue. Remember, the bigger the love, the bigger the grief, so it’s not always a bad thing if your grief wells up. It might be inconvenient, and it’s certainly not easy, but it is often a sign of love and connectedness to your loved one.
Don't mistake berating for bargaining.
One stage of grief, bargaining, can easily slip into berating. Many people beat themselves up for the things they think they “should” have done differently. The “if only’s” that are a normal part of grief can often turn into turning against oneself. The truth is, we can never know if that “if only” would have turned out any better. It’s easy to think so but we can never truly know. There are a million ways things could have gone. Plus, the chances are, if you had done it differently, your mind would likely come up with a few new “if only’s.” Our minds tend to invent scenarios that really only serve to make us feel worse, when what we need in grief is to feel compassion. If you find you are beating yourself up for things you think you should or shouldn’t have done, see if you can label it bargaining, and go deeper, to the emotions that lie underneath the should-ing story. Perhaps it’s sadness, perhaps it’s anger, or some other emotion waiting to be acknowledged, honored and felt. Most emotions live in our bodies as a sensation. Berating and rehashing our choices are stories that live in our minds and keep us from being in present moment reality. So when you are in the bargaining stage of grief, watch out for berating, and gently steer yourself back to normal, natural grieving.
Four Tasks of Grieving.
While many people are familiar with the stages of grief mentioned above, not as many are aware of the Four Tasks of Grieving, identified by Dr. J. William Worden. He says that these tasks must be accomplished during the process of mourning and while everyone handles and moves through them differently, and in their own time, it can be helpful to have an understanding of them, either for yourself, if you are experiencing a loss, or to better understand and support someone you care about.
The four tasks are:
Task #1: To accept the reality of the loss
Task #2: To work through the pain and grief
Task #3: To adjust to a new environment
Task #4: To find an enduring connection with the deceased while moving forward with life
Reel yourself back to the present (whenever possible).
This one is uberly easier typed than done. Of course it can feel impossibly hard to be present. Present is where the grief is. But present is also where your soft blanket is, or the comforting hand of your loved one, or this breath, this sound, this sensation. It’s so seductive (and actually the minds’ job) to think and think… and um… think! It’s trying to be helpful, I’m sure; trying to figure everything out. But it can’t. We can’t figure out how we are going to handle a loss if it hasn’t happened yet. We can’t figure out how to get through next week if it’s still today. Sometimes an idea or intuition comes to us about something and of course, we can follow its lead, but most of the time, our minds are off in the future, trying to figure out something that we don’t have (or don’t even need) the skills for. I remember working with a client once who was anticipating the loss of her mother. She was so scared about how she would get through it, how she would be able to plan the funeral, clean out her mother’s house, do all the things she dreaded doing. But she didn’t need the skills, grace, energy or know-how to do those things right then. Her mom was in the process of passing and she needed only the skills and grace to handle that. That was hard enough. So see if you can reel yourself back to the present moment as much as possible. We can handle what is in front of us because it’s in front of us to handle, but we don’t need to handle what is not yet here. It's like wondering how you're going to do college level homework when you're still in high school. Just attend the class you are in. That’s more than enough.
Reach out to loved ones.
Not everyone is comfortable with strong or long-term emotions, but some people are. Make sure you reach out to people who welcome your grief; people who totally understand and can offer compassionate listening, tissues, or words that help you feel heard and understood. It can help to talk to the people who share your grief as well, but it also helps to find people who are uninvolved and can offer you one-way support. If someone responds in a way that doesn’t feel helpful, consider asking them if they could word something differently, or kindly let them know what would feel helpful. Some people naturally support us in just the ways we need. Others might be teachable if we respectfully ask for what we need. And of course, there are those who are just not a good fit to take our deep emotions to. It’s important to know who is safe for our big feelings and who it’s best to be vague with. Not everyone speaks the same language and you wouldn’t speak French to someone who doesn’t know that language. Find people who speak the language you are needing to hear or who are open to a bit of tutoring along the way. Whether you are needing verbal feedback or a quiet loving presence, there are people who would be honored to support you.
Seek professional help.
There are countless therapists who could walk you through this chapter, as well as many grief support groups available, both online and off. There are also a wealth of books, blogs, podcasts and other resources that can help. Doing a web search for grief support or seeking a health professional in your area who treats or specializes in grief can get you started. One resource in particular is Hospice. Not only does their website offer many services and answers to questions but many hospices offer free grief support to community members, regardless of whether or not their loved one used their services. It’s important to note that even someone who is a trained professional may not give you exactly what you are needing, so hopefully you can remain open to voicing your needs. Some people really only want to be heard and others want feedback. We often want and need different things, depending on the moment, the day, or the stage. If you have a sense of what you would like for support, it can really help to let your therapist know, and if not, you might get clear as you go. Therapists don't always get it right and not everybody needs the same things. Plus, you find out the most about someone’s safety and support capacity when you make a respectful request and see how they respond. A safe person will respond non-defensively and kindly. They will truly want to know what you are needing and feeling.
Feed yourself spiritually.
Death is the greatest mystery in life. We can’t grasp it in our minds or hold onto it in our material world. As humans, we are all taught to feed our bodies with food and feed our minds through learning but what about feeding our spirits? What about fostering a deeper connection to the things that can’t be seen or held? Whether you have formal practices like prayer, meditation, reading or listening to spirit-filling things, or perhaps you find connectedness through nature or mindfulness practices, it’s so important to fill ourselves up on a deeper level. Dropping down from the busy mind, we can tap into our intuition and this can guide us to what we need and what is bigger than our daily to-do’s. Taking the time to get quiet and contemplative and tune into our hearts is a very important and helpful part of the grief healing process.
Consider reading or listening to reports of NDE's.
One of the things that can provide some comfort is to read and listen to stories from people who have survived a Near Death Experience. Millions of people, from all walks of life, have been pronounced dead from natural causes and been revived. The majority of them report the same things: peace, well-being, light, love, and nothing to fear. Listening to, and reading these stories can provide some peace to a topic that generally induces the most fear. Since death is the biggest mystery we’ve got going here, and one we have no say in avoiding, we can take some solace in learning from those who have experienced it. There are many books, podcasts and reports of NDE’s. If you think this could provide you with some answers and peace of mind, consider checking some of these out.
Find a belief that brings some relief.
Many years ago, I experienced the loss of a dear friend. It was certainly not the first death in my life but it was the first where I was old enough (and sober enough) to grok that we are all here impermanently. I had not really gotten that memo before. I was floored. I simply could not believe that my friend was here one day and then not here, like ever again. I set out to find out what the deal was. I literally asked anyone I could get my hands on, what their beliefs about death were. Many “I have no clue’s” and uncomfortable throat clearings later, I found a few people who shared a few theories that helped me have a few moments of peace. And since it’s all theories and stories we can choose to believe or discard, I decided to adopt a few that helped me feel a bit better (or a bit less dread). One was from a colleague who explained it this way: “Dogs and cats do not know there are planets and stars or a sun and a moon but we know for sure that they exist. Well what if there were all kinds of bigger things that exist but we don’t know about them?” So I tried that one on. Maybe there is more to it and I know as much about that as a dog knows about Jupiter? Hmmmm.
Another helpful theory I adopted came from a cousin. She said, “Since I can’t know what death is really like, I’d rather spend my life believing that it’s peaceful and get to the end and find out I was wrong, then spend my life in fear of it and find out it was peaceful. Either way, I’m making up a story so I’m choosing one that makes me feel better while I’m here.”
We are all in this together.
Regardless of our circumstances in life, we all experience death and loss. No matter how separate we feel from one another or how we manage to separate ourselves through our various labels, the fact is that we are all here temporarily and we will all have loss. It's so common to think or feel that we are alone in our grief, that nobody gets it or gets us. And while your closest people might not fully understand what you are going through in this moment, they will someday, or perhaps they already have. There's an old Buddhist parable called The Mustard Seed that illustrates our universal connectedness. It speaks to the fact that so many of us feel incredibly alone in our grief, and yet we are not. The story is told like this:
During the time of Buddha’s life, a mother loses her son. The devastated woman carries her lifeless child from neighbor to neighbor, searching desperately for someone who could bring him back to life. Someone suggests she ask the Buddha. She does and Buddha tells her to go and gather mustard seeds from all the homes that have never been touched by death. Once gathered, she should bring all the seeds back to him and he would make a medicine that would restore her son’s life. The woman does as instructed and begins knocking on door after door in search of someone who has not been touched by death. Obviously, she is unable to retrieve any mustard seeds because everyone has been touched by death in some way.
While grief can feel so overwhelming and so isolating, it can sometimes help (a tiny bit) to know that this great mystery of death is universal and we are all in this together. Grieving is hard work. It’s surely one of the hardest parts of life. And it can sometimes feel never-ending. But authentic, safe expression of our feelings is the only way to release and relieve our pain so we are not left with the secondary effects of addiction and chronic depression. While there is no cut and dry formula for grief, and regardless of the cause or shape of your grief, speaking to and treating yourself kindly, reaching out for support, and reminding yourself that you are not alone can help.
Andrea Wachter is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and author of Getting Over Overeating for Teens. She is also co-author of The Don’t Diet, Live-It Workbook and Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Breaking the “I Feel Fat” Spell. Andrea is an inspirational counselor, author and speaker who uses professional expertise, humor and personal recovery to help others. For more information on her books, podcasts and HuffPost blogs, please visit www.andreawachter.com