What the Grief: How To Be With Our Own Grief

11 minute read

DISCLAIMER: Eirene strives to provide equal, unbiased information for all it’s readers and customers. That being said, we are not a mental health provider and urge you to seek out expert advice before considering any of the below.

While the below and this piece is specific to grief around death and dying, and distinctly when there is love and great loss for the person who died, which isn’t always the case we know, we recognize that grief comes in many forms and we want to create space for and honour that. All types of grievers are welcome here.

The best description I’ve ever read of grief goes like this:

Alright, here goes. I’m old. What that means is that I’ve survived (so far) and a lot of people I’ve known and loved did not. I’ve lost friends, best friends, acquaintances, co-workers, grandparents, mom, relatives, teachers, mentors, students, neighbours, and a host of other folks. I have no children, and I can’t imagine the pain it must be to lose a child. But here’s my two cents.

I wish I could say you get used to people dying. I never did. I don’t want to. It tears a hole through me whenever somebody I love dies, no matter the circumstances. But I don’t want it to ‘not matter.’ I don’t want it to be something that just passes. My scars are a testament to the love and the relationship that I had for and with that person. And if the scar is deep, so was the love. So be it.

Scars are a testament to life. Scars are a testament that I can love deeply and live deeply and be cut, or even gouged, and that I can heal and continue to live and continue to love. And the scar tissue is stronger than the original flesh ever was. Scars are a testament to life. Scars are only ugly to people who can’t see.

As for grief, you’ll find it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you’re drowning, with wreckage all around you. Everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage and you hang on for a while. Maybe it’s some physical thing. Maybe it’s a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it’s a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is float. Stay alive.

In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don’t even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you’ll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out.

But in between, you can breathe, you can function. You never know what’s going to trigger the grief. It might be a song, a picture, a street intersection, the smell of a cup of coffee. It can be just about anything…and the wave comes crashing. But in between waves, there is life.

Somewhere down the line, and it’s different for everybody, you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall. Or 50 feet tall. And while they still come, they come further apart. You can see them coming. An anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas, or landing at O’Hare. You can see it coming, for the most part, and prepare yourself.

And when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side. Soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you’ll come out.

Take it from an old guy. The waves never stop coming, and somehow you don’t really want them to. But you learn that you’ll survive them. And other waves will come. And you’ll survive them too. If you’re lucky, you’ll have lots of scars from lots of loves. And lots of shipwrecks.

This is of course one experience and one perspective on grief, and grief can look and feel different for everyone. Maybe this description doesn’t feel familiar and what you’re feeling is something else altogether. That’s ok too. This is simply one perspective, one experience, one reality.

This description is both comforting and daunting, similar to many experiences with grief (and this paradox seems to accompany grief—one can seemingly hold, depending on the day anyway, the loss, the grief, the heartbreak and the joy, the meaning, the happiness). In an instant everything changes, you’re suddenly carrying around a giant, overbearing weight and the waves keep coming…

Others have come before you, but that doesn't really matter now.”

What matters is that the sky is wrong, and this life is wrong, and you need someone to see it, to acknowledge it. To say—this is fucked up shit that just happened here.”

In the early days of grief, it can sometimes feel like you’re drowning, like your world has been completely split in two and as though there is a before and then there is an after. If you find yourself here or a friend or loved one is in this place, our hearts ache for you.

There is little to say that will bring comfort.

We won’t offer platitudes or tell you to ‘just be positive.’

There’s not anything to do, or fix.

And the more quickly, we as a society realize this, the more healing grieving we can do.

Grief is a long and winding road and it looks different for everyone.

There are of course no “rules” and what works for one griever might not suit the next, there are however a few considerations we’ve found to be particularly helpful and relevant when moving through grief. Mostly it’s because we’ve been there. We’ve lost, we’ve grieved and we’re still grieving... Through this lens, we compiled a list of things that mightbe helpful. As with anything, it’s simply a guide for consideration. And the most important part of any offering is to do what works best for you.

So, pull up a chair.
Take a load off.
You might be here awhile…

Being With Your Grief

It’s pretty difficult to outswim our losses, which seems to be the inevitable price we pay for living and loving, and there are often leftover feelings of sadness, anger, regret, guilt, and anxiety (and more) that might be looming ominously in the dark and murky waters of grief. So, we must give ourselves and others the permission to acknowledge and grieve our losses, in whatever form feels right for each of us.

They are not steps to move through or phases to check-off, they’re simply words that may bring comfort, and that may provide something to ground in (and it’s ok if not):

Recognize your grief (it’s likely knocking loudly at the door anyway and has probably already made itself quite at home)

Name it (we’re a meaning-making species. This might feel trite and it’s helpful, we promise)

Grief & loss are love and praise with no place to go (this is both heartbreaking and beautiful)

Try not to judge your grief as “good” or “bad,” it just is

It can be hard to recognize beauty and joy and that’s ok: the vibrant colours of life have faded and it can sometimes feel like they will never return. You might not feel any gratitude, you might not be able to recognize or appreciate the little things. Try not to worry about that for now

Grief can make you feel unrecognizable, even to yourself. It’s a harrowing and disorienting time and it impacts your cognitive functioning, your sleep, your appetite, basically everything:

  • “The emotional trauma of loss results in serious changes in brain function that endure.”
  • We can find ourselves fumbling to find words for common objects
  • Try to embrace the changes that are happening in the brain, instead of thinking you’re losing your mind
  • Trauma affects the brain, and especially our center for critical thinking
  • “Grief is often associated with disruptions in brain function that lead to confusion, disorientation, detachment, and increased forgetfulness.”
  • “After emotional trauma, much of the brain is occupied in managing the stress. That’s why we aren't as organized or attentive and don’t have as much cognitive flexibility as usual.”

Consider (grief) support:

  • Maybe it’s a grief support group
  • Maybe it’s individual therapy
  • Maybe it’s talking to a trusted friend who won’t try to “fix” you
  • Maybe it’s sinking your fingers into your pet’s fur
  • Maybe it’s taking a walk in a forest
  • Whatever it is, find something that’s supportive and right for you

Even though you likely won’t feel like it (and you might even roll your eyes while reading this, which is also completely ok), move your body, get outside, drink water and eat when and what you can

Lower your expectations of yourself (when you think they’re low enough, as long as you’re safe, lower them again): sometimes getting out of bed and drinking a glass of water are enough. It might seem like a low bar and it’s also realistic and completely reasonable for a period of time

Go slow. Grief can feel like you’re wearing one of those sumo wrestling suits and moving can feel cumbersome and sludgy. Deep in grief it once took me 30 minutes to walk around a small block, one slow shuffling foot in front of the other. I noticed I was judging myself and then I tried to remind myself I was moving and that was good, slow was ok too and that was enough

Be patient: when we understand and accept that grief is a gradual (often painstakingly “slow”) process, that it takes much, much longer than any of us would like, that it’s uncomfortable and messy, and that our presence really is our only offering, we’ll begin to actually meaningfully support ourselves and those who are grieving

There is no timeline to grief: feelings will diminish, not disappear. Grief, because it is love with no place to go, isinfinitas (‘being without finish’). It certainly doesn’t end, though with time it will likely look different.

The grieving process “takes longer to unfold than we grant it the time to, or than the world around us allows for.” “Early grief” (outside of cultural norms) can be thought of as “the first two years.”

Grief can be wildly uncomfortable with all the unknown, all the discomfort, all the pain, and you have absolutely no idea how you will move through the pain. THIS IS NORMAL.

Consider some kind of ritual: “[t]hose who are grieving cannot raise the dead or change the laws of nature. But by performing their own private rituals, the bereaved can regain their footing in a world that has become a little emptier than it was before.

“Rituals are actions that symbolically connect us to something meaningful. They can be comforting, express feelings, bring about a sense of closure, or keep an important part of the past alive. When rituals are done to commemorate a loss, they honor both the person who is [performing the ritual] and the person they’ve lost.”

People will disappoint you and say the wrong thing, even though they don’t mean to. For more on supporting someone grieving, check our previous post.

It’s A (annoyingly) Lifelong Experience

We want grief to follow a timeline, which is basically the opposite of what it actually does.

“Cultural stories about grief promise it gets better with time. This [can be] true, but grief can also set its own messy course—feeling delayed, surging unexpectedly, or [feeling like it lasts] too long.”

While Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the world to the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), in her 1969 book called On Death and Dying, the term ‘stages’ has proven to be misleading, not to mention it’s said these stages were initially identified for the dying, not the griever.

“There is no straight path or progression of emotions that mourners follow. There is no timeline. Grief is unpredictable, with good days and bad days. We never ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one. Each individual and each loss will have its own unique process for healing.” Which is why many professionals talk about symptoms (emotions, physical, mental, spiritual, behaviours etc.), rather than stages.

What we experience one day may fade and become another emotion altogether. We may circle back to particular emotions, zig zag around others, we may feel at peace for a period of time and then return to a deep, deep sadness.

This is all part of the process.

The more we understand this and alter our beliefs and expectations about grief, the more we can move through our own unique healing process.

Grief Can Benefit From Expression

“Paint, sculpt, throw clay, dance, bake, journal—whatever feels right. And reach out to trusted friends or family members who get it.”

“One of the things a grieving person needs more than anything else is to tell their story and be heard.”

The Space Between Loss & Restoration

“So you’re sad, you’re crying, you can’t get out of bed. You’re angry. That’s loss.”

“Then you get out of bed and you go write in your journal and take a walk in nature—that's restoration. Back and forth, back and forth. As long as you’re moving between those two focuses all the time and you’re not stagnant” and this means you will move through your grief (eventually).

Like Bessel Van Der Kolk says in his book The Body Keeps the Score, for most people this involves “(1) finding a way to become calm and focused, (2) learning to maintain calm in response to images, thoughts, sounds or physical sensations that remind you of the past, (3) finding a way to be fully alive in the present and engaged with the people around you, (4) not having to keep secrets from yourself, inslucing secrets about the ways you have managed to survive.”

“These are not steps to be achieved, one by one, in some fixed sequence. They overlap, and some may become more difficult than others, depending on individual circumstances.”

When we can live fully (whatever that means for each of us) in the face of our losses, that is restoration, and in basic and necessary terms, that is living.

A Heart Broken Open

If we let it, grief can open us up to the world in a different way. When you have known heartbreak and grief, and your heart has been broken open, it becomes a courageous open heart, that has been through hard things, and somehow finds a way to beat still.

What can we do other than try to remind one another that some things can’t be fixed, and not all wounds are meant to heal? We need each other to remember, to help each other remember, that grief is this multitasking emotion. That you can and will be sad, and happy; you'll be grieving, and able to love in the same year or week, the same breath. We need to remember that a grieving person is going to laugh again and smile again [even though that might not feel possible right now].

Some additional resources that brought a great deal of comfort (and again, might not be right for everyone):

Please try and be patient with yourself, even if others are not, especially when others are not. This will likely feel like an impossible task and it’s a necessary one.

Others will want to move you quickly through your grief, they will want to fix and offer solutions and take your pain away. This doesn’t really have much to do with you, even though it can feel personal. It’s more because of their own discomfort and because facing the messiness of being human is hard. Really hard.

You may feel lonelier than you’ve ever felt before.

You may lose friends (because some people simply can’t cope with the harsh reality of your loss and face the possibility of their own).

You may even feel like you don’t recognize yourself, especially as you shift into this new version of yourself, the one that carries this loss.

You may close yourself up.

You may face life with more fervour and zest than ever before, simply because you still get to be alive.

No matter how grief shows itself, no matter how confusing and life altering it is, try, as best you can, to be with it (the body keeps the score).

We need to talk more openly about grief and loss (and while this shouldn’t be your job while grieving, it is an important part) and it’s time to change the dialogue.

And so, as Nora McInerny (a reluctant grief expert) says, “we don’t ‘move on’ from grief, we move forward with it.”

To access additional resources, blog posts and to learn more about our services, visit us at eirene.ca, where we unpack difficult conversations around end-of-life planning and help families navigate the complexities of death care. We want to ensure a better death becomes integral to a good life.