Grief is like a club membership without the courtesy of an opt-in. You’re just automatically enrolled.
In the mental health world, you’ll often hear it said that grief is the normal response to any loss. The word normal in that simplified definition makes me uneasy. Nothing about grieving, or how society tells us to grieve, is normal.
And no, contrary to the title of this blog, there’s no right way to experience grief.
Find yourself feeling lost, confused, exhausted and/or experiencing weird physical symptoms? Say hello to grief! Wild emotional rides, like you’re living on a roller coaster? Standard. Tearfulness, weight loss or gain? All “normal.”
Grief is like a needy houseguest that shows up at random, with no invite, and then hangs around. It may be a normal response to loss, but it certainly doesn’t feel normal when you’re in it.
Because we don’t talk about grief. We tip-toe around the emotions and feelings and we tip-toe around the names of the loved ones we lose. So do our friends and family. Everyone is in on it. We all try so hard to protect each other from the discomfort and sadness, that grief ends up the elephant in the room. It’s far more uncomfortable than when everyone just opens up in the first place.
My client summed up this experience perfectly this year. Her dad died suddenly while she was away on vacation last year. When she returned to work she noticed that people were avoiding her. She figured people didn’t want to talk to her for fear of “it” coming up. They didn’t want to bring up the loss because they didn’t want to make her sad. She told me, “it’s not like anyone can possibly say anything that would make me more sad. My dad is dead. I am aware of that. And I’m already sad.”
Her words resonated for me. I was inspired to consider a few lessons that we might all carry forward when it comes to addressing grief. Here they are:
Yes, I’m using the word normal. Being sad is normal. And it’s totally appropriate and okay.
Also, grief doesn’t only show up in response to death. It comes in response to all loss (for example, losing that promotion, moving cities, retirement, break-ups, etc). It’s also totally appropriate and okay.
You are not defined by only one story, and that includes your story of loss. Grief is messy but you are not a mess. You are someone who is grieving and that doesn’t need to be minimized.
The days are over when it was thought you should go into a room alone, hide your feelings and yourself from the world. If you are feeling lonely (a “normal” bi-product of loss), remember that there are people out there who are ready to sit with you, to hold space in your grief with you. Test it out. If the first person you connect with isn’t the right fit, that’s fine. Keep trying.
You will always carry a part of the loss with you because you will always carry a part of that person or relationship with you. Moving forward means you’re coping with the feelings. It might mean they feel a little less big. If you choose to, you can always carry that person with you. If you choose not to, that’s okay, too.
I’m part of the grief club myself. 17 years in. I lost my mother. The ways I grieve look different now than they did 17 years ago or even last year. It might change yearly or daily; regardless, I’m still sad. I’m getting married this year. Not having my mom around for the planning and events has made the loss feel raw again. I know it will return again if I choose to have children. That’s okay. It’s possible to be sad and happy at the same time.
Sharing my feelings in my journal and with my loved ones helps me to carry my grief in a manageable way. And that has to be the goal with grief, right? Managing it.
The grief club might not be the one everyone is lining up to join, but your membership does mean you’re not alone in what you go through. Remember that. And from one club member to another—it does get better.
If you want to dig deeper into your own grief, or understand how to best support someone else who is grieving, I recommend reading The Grief Recovery Handbook, It’s Ok That You’re Not Ok, and The Invisible String (for kids or those children at heart).
Even if it’s always with you, you will learn how to carry it.
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