Grief, despite its presence in all human life, is a taboo subject. Grief has a bad reputation. In recent years, you have been subjected to an extended period of high stress brought on by events that far exceeded your earlier experience in quantity and intensity. Other stressors of life became more complicated. The result is widespread grief that is harder to live with.
But what is this thing called grief? How does work? How can you adapt to the myriad changes that bombard you every day? Your journal can be your best friend and your most faithful companion. Let’s unravel some of the mystery.
What is Grief?
Grief is a piece of a three-component process, and the meaning of each, though often used interchangeably, can be confusing. Grief is the response to loss. Mourning is the adaptation to a “new normal.” Bereavement is the period of the grief and mourning processes. These states are universally personal and varied. Everyone experiences grief in diverse ways. This is true within one person as every event presents its own distinct circumstances and meaning. The gamut of feelings and the way each person goes through them are as unique as fingerprints.
People referring to grief typically are talking about the loss of a loved one, but grief encompasses so much more. Other losses may be just as devastating and wreak as much havoc in your life. Grief can take place in minute quantities that you may not notice consciously. Some losses may be almost imperceptible and bind to existing losses, forming a tangled ball of grief. Even good news and happy events can bring on grief because the new event means leaving the familiar and embracing an uncharted path.
Other people may be uncomfortable with your grief for a plethora of reasons. They may find their own grief about the event too fresh and intense to allow them to hear someone else’s. Others may think the reason for your grief is unimportant, even trivial. Still others seem immune to sadness and think everyone else should be also. Everyone has been on the giving end of not knowing what to say to others in grief and the receiving end of how to respond to remarks made by others.
At the occurrence of the event, you may appear strong as you handle the whirlwind of initial responsibilities. After that, you are expected to get on with your life. Friends and family members no longer stop by or call to check on you or invite you to coffee or dinner. You no longer hear the words, “Let me know if you just need to talk.” They then compliment you for your show of strength.
Be wary when someone tries to stuff you into a phase, or ridicules or discounts you about where you are in your grief. Grieving people often are perceived as weak, which is hurtful. Grieving uses a lot of energy and demands courage. You feel what you feel when you feel it. This comes very early in the grief process and can be quite unnerving.
What Happens in Grief?
Some common responses to loss are shock, numbness, denial, bargaining, anger, depression, sadness, and acceptance, characterized by a host of other symptoms, physical as well as emotional. Other feelings of loss of identity, trust, faith, failure, shame, and fear of an uncertain financial future can further complicate the process. You may experience overwhelming feelings of guilt, regret, the loss of partnership, and lack of direction. If you are grieving the loss of a pet you may feel the emptiness of the end of the companionship and no longer caring for another living being. You may struggle to keep a sense of serenity and connection if you are isolated from people and activities you love.
How Long Does Bereavement Last?
Self-help books that outline stages of grief ranging from five to twelve are intended only to be used as guides to the myriad feelings and emotions you experience. They can help you understand your feelings at any given time but are not ascending stair steps or linear markers on a road. They are fluid, both in form and in type and quantity. Grief is rarely precise and tidy. You may ping-pong among the various phases, you may feel several simultaneously, or you may skip some altogether. You may move back and forth between several stages many times. You may move into a state and stay there for weeks, months, or years. You may find yourself at different points on the grief continuum in multiple situations.
These processes take as long as they take. Defined stages fall short of capturing the nuances of individual experience and rob the griever of valuable support, insight, and transformation. An undercurrent of deeper meaning flows through every phase. Grief catapults you into previously unknown territory and requires a new language. Every experience of grief differs from its predecessor.
Factors that influence your process include:
1) the significance of the loss
2) your feelings about the event
3) underlying health and mental health disorders
4) the presence or absence of getting
your needs met, such as a support system and help with the mechanics of dealing with the loss, like notifying everyone who needs to be informed. Awareness of this can help you find comforting and peace so you can learn what you are feeling and why and plan for your care.
Grief heightens mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and other conditions already present in your life. You can benefit from honoring the directives of your body—eating and sleeping when necessary, rather than trying to adhere to a rigid schedule, maintaining your social support system, taking prescribed medication as directed, and continuing with professional counseling, if applicable.
Throughout the grief process your journal is, as always, your best friend, ready to receive all your emotions and feelings. When your loss is new, writing may feel difficult because your emotions are in stun mode. The shock of the event does not allow the time for you to begin to adjust to the change. Here are some ways to approach your grief and mourning:
1. Your grief is all about you as you go through a painful process of transformation. Treat yourself with gentleness and compassion and honor your needs. Ask for help when you need it. As much as possible, eat well, get plenty of sleep, and exercise or walk if you can.
2. When words do not come, write repetitive words or phrases that may seem mundane and ineffective. A good phrase is, “I don’t know what to write.” Repeat the sentence on the page or electronic device. Sometimes words will flow after a few minutes and sometimes that may be the extent of your writing at that moment.
3. Record what happens in your day. “I just drank a cup of my favorite tea.” I went to the mailbox. There was no mail today. I forgot it’s a holiday.” “I don’t feel like writing or doing anything else, so I’m going back to bed.”
4. When you are ready, write your feelings with or without defining them. “I feel really angry right now.” “My whole body feels out of whack.” “I don’t understand.”
5. As you feel stronger, you may want to write about memories and explore your feelings one at a time. Elaborate on the memories that relate to the feelings.
6. Find reasons to pamper yourself. Declare National Do Whatever I Want Day and treat yourself to a bag or bowl of the gourmet popcorn you love. Engage in a favorite activity.
7. You may not feel much change in yourself from one day to the next, but you may look back and realize you are in a different emotional place than a few days, weeks, or months ago.
8. Write as often and for as long as you feel comfortable, whether multiple times a day for hours, or once a week for ten minutes.
9. The importance of these activities is to help you keep moving. Your body needs movement which may be quite difficult when in bereavement. Give yourself permission to walk or exercise for one minute if that is all you can do right then.
The process of bereavement, as you go through the response of grief and the adjustment of mourning, can be a hard, tedious experience. It is no wonder you try to avoid the intense barrage of feelings and emotions. Grief is a universally human process. All grieving deserves respect and compassion, from yourself as well as from others, no matter how insignificant it may seem.
A caveat—grief is a topic to which entire books, websites, and wellness programs have been devoted. The above offers you a framework, a snapshot to go with you as you embark on the path of hope and begin your journey of healing.
With warmth and gratitude and writing.
Author bio: Billie Wade is a writer living in central Iowa. She is the creator and founder of Journaling to Heal, a program she designed to help people as they travel their journey of healing from emotional stress and trauma. Her background, education, and experience enhance her innate compassion and reverence for other human beings.
She shares her strength and hope on www.journalingtoheal.com.