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The Art of Balance with Grief
“The need of mourning requires us to embrace the pain of our loss—is something we naturally don’t want to do. It is easier to avoid, repress, or deny the pain of grief than it is to confront it, yet it is in confronting and expressing our pain that we learn to reconcile ourselves to it. Balance is the key to working on grief in order not to repress and to not get overwhelmed. This need of mourning involves encouraging yourself to pursue this relationship and share it outside of yourself. In my experience, remembering and sharing the past makes hoping for the future possible. Your future will become open to new experiences only to the extent that you embrace the past.” – Alan Wolfelt
First and foremost, it is very important to validate grief. This is easier said than done because our society prioritizes “moving on.” Often, other people’s reactions to our loss (especially if it is a tragic or sudden loss) can keep us from grieving naturally. Once we receive these “reactions” and “messages” we may ask ourselves- “Am I going crazy?” We may even apologize for our feelings- “I’m sorry, I am just not up for going out tonight.” Or worse, question our process- “Do I cry too much?” or “Maybe I shouldn’t bring up mom in conversation.” The truth is, someone we love very much died and we are supposed to feel pain. We need time, and everyone’s time line of grieving is different. It is not something that other people can decide for you. It is a personal process and only you can discover and understand your journey through grief.
So, the very first step is to allow yourself to grieve. Let go of what other people say or think and validate all of the many different feelings that you will experience as you go through this process. Acceptance and validation of our grief prevents us from repressing and avoiding. You are normal for feeling sad. You are normal for feeling confused, lost and angry. You are normal for feeling happy and distracted one day and then feeling very depressed the next day. When you feel like crying, cry. When you are sad, don’t apologize to others. When you need to talk about your grief, reach out to someone who will listen without judgement. Validation and acceptance may also decrease anxiety as it takes energy to try to fight against something that is natural.
The next step in achieving balance is finding gratitude after validation. This step should always come after validation and acceptance, so we do not minimize our grief. For example, Linda’s 97- year-old father passed away. She is beside herself with grief and during the funeral a few people said, “He lived a wonderful long life” and “Be grateful that he lived so long.” These statements are said with good intentions and it’s helpful to keep people’s intentions in mind as most people do not intend to say things to minimize our pain, after all, the majority of people are taught to “move on.” When you get these reactions, you may start thinking “My dad did live a long life, I shouldn’t feel so sorry for myself.” Or “He couldn’t live forever, I should have prepared myself for this.” These kind of thoughts, especially the classic “should ofs,” lead us to an unnatural repression of our grief. When we do receive statements that may repress us, instead of telling yourself that you “should feel different” or “should be ready to return to daily routines.” It is healthier and truthful to tell yourself- “I know my father lived a long life, but I loved him so much and its perfectly OK to feel heavy with grief” (this scenario can also apply to losing a spouse, sibling, etc…).
Please note that dealing with suicide and/or the loss of a child is traumatic grief, and the reactions from others may be different in content but the message to “move on” may be the same. When a child dies, family and friends will often project their own discomfort and anxiety toward the parents with statements like “Your son/daughter is in a better place” or “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” When the child is a baby, they may hear “You can have another baby.” When a suicide occurs, you may hear the gut reaction of “What happened?” Once again, people are not taught to deal with death even when it occurs naturally, and we live well into old age. So, when a child passes away or when the death is a suicide, people are even more at a loss for words and their attempts to comfort you may backfire, revealing their own distress over the severity of the situation. It is most beneficial for parents to meet other parents who have lost a child, and for people who lost a loved one to suicide, meet others with the same loss. We all need people around us that can relate to our experiences because there is something inherently healing about being with others who understand our pain. It will help you to open up more readily and feel safe to express your grief. You will avoid the unintended reactions from others that cannot relate and most of all, it will give you hope that healing through a traumatic loss is actually possible.
So how do we balance our grieving without getting too overwhelmed, consumed or depressed? It is so important to strive to keep gratitude at the forefront alongside grief. Again, this is easier said than done while going through one of the hardest times in life. I emphasize the need to establish validation and acceptance first, or you may find it difficult to see your blessings. Our minds need confirmation of the reality of our pain and loss in order to even entertain the positives that still exist in our life. This can be difficult if we are also saddled with other problems while experiencing a loss. Achieving both validation and gratitude takes a continuous, conscious effort.
When we are grieving, the world feels dark and it is hard to focus on anything else but our loss. We may struggle to return to daily life. Depending on our personality and life experiences, some of us will fall into extremes. For some, distracting themselves from the grief comes easy, however they may struggle to really acknowledge their pain. For others, they are more apt to express their sadness and anxiety, they will allow themselves to cry and they can talk about their grief openly. The flip side to this may be their inability to distract themselves and take a break from grieving. The old life adage- “too much of something is just as bad as not enough” is very true and it also applies to grieving.
If we are constantly dealing with grief day in, and day out, we can easily get consumed and this can lead to depression or severe anxiety. Depression and anxiety can easily lead to isolation and a loss of daily functioning. Taking a break from grieving is just as important as allowing yourself to express it. How do we decipher when it is time to face our pain and when it’s time to take a step back? It is important to be in touch with your instincts and listen. This is time for deep self-reflection. We can find what we need to cope within ourselves by being honest with ourselves and finding the support needed for guidance. When you wake up one day with a “heavy heart,” and don’t have the desire to do your daily routine, you try to go on with your day, but you are bombarded with thoughts and feeling of grief. If you isolate yourself or you just can’t hold back the tears, have sudden outbursts of anger; these are signs that we need to find a way to express our grief and feel cathartic release. We need that cathartic release in order to make room and let other emotions in, like hope, inspiration and gratitude. If we don’t, we may grow pessimistic and bitter, leaving us in a rut and feeling stuck with no hope or direction. When you wake up some days actually feeling good, embrace it- this is a sign that today is a break from grieving. It is Ok to feel good and distracted some days. You will need these days to balance out the really tough days. Keep in mind that our loved ones who passed away love us too and they do not want to see us suffering.
Once we find a safe place and utilize healthy outlets to grieve, such as art therapy, we are more likely to be open to seeing our blessings. Going back to the example of Linda who lost her 97-year-old dad. She may feel “guilty” for the amount of grief she is experiencing, since she was reminded that her father “had a wonderful long life.” Create balance within your mind by using all truths. To clarify this, take everything with a grain of salt and then piece together the reality of what you’re experiencing. Is it true that living until 97 is a long life? Yes, it is. Is it true that some people lose a parent during childhood which is more traumatic? Yes, that is also true. Having said this, is it true that when anyone who we love dies, regardless of age, are we truly devastated by the loss? Absolutely. Is it also true that the flip side to love is pain and that it is impossible to not experience pain once we experience love? Yes. All of these statements are true. Our job is to keep all of these truths in the forefront of our minds because to lose sight of one truth will throw us off balance.
Once we are in the midst of expressing our grief, once we experience that cathartic release and reach acceptance and validation, it is time to consciously find gratitude. When you feel like your grief has been validated and not minimized, you may feel more able to integrate all truths together in one stream of thought. Using our example, instead of Linda thinking- “My dad did live a long life, I shouldn’t feel sorry for myself.” A much more healthy and truthful thought flow would sound something like this- “I was so blessed to have had a wonderful father for so many years as he got to see me grow up and witness my accomplishments and my family. But he was my father, he loved me and I loved him so much. Nothing can replace him, my life will not be the same without him and I am going to struggle to cope through this. There will be many times that I wish he was here and I am going to have tough days ahead. It will likely take a long time before I feel like myself again and that is ok. He was my dad, I am not supposed to “get over him.” I know my father will stay with me in spirit as I am his child. I also have so many years of happy memories with my father and one day I hope that all of my memories will comfort me in days to come. I hope that sharing the memories of my father will keep his legacy alive and his spirit close to me always.”
Lastly, take this journey one step at a time. You will likely experience a vast range of emotions and at times it will feel like you are on a roller coaster. All of these steps, stages, finding coping skills and tools, finding supportive people, all takes time. Just like anything else in life, to learn anything new takes practice and a conscious effort. All of this may feel scary and foreign to you as it is not comfortable to go through any transition. Do not put expectations or pressure on yourself. Be tolerant and patient with yourself. Grief is one of the very few universal experiences that every single human being will have to experience at some point in life. This means that we are truly never alone in our grief and we do not have to go through it alone. We cannot control death, but we do have control over how we will deal with death. Treat yourself with the same kind of compassion, tenderness and love that you would give to someone in your exact same position.
Activities to explore grief: https://www.pinterest.com/explore/grief-activities/?lp=true