Our growth around Grief
“It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.”
Grief is universal, but at the same time, individual and isolating. We will all experience grief at some point in our lives, but the course our grief can travel will take us all to different places at different times. Grief, when we are experiencing it, is like the thing greater than ourselves, with the capacity and velocity to knock us down, to take over, to envelope, to abstract and force us to a time-less, space-less, altogether quite unfamiliar life-less place, where nothing is the same. Our senses become seized, our reality becomes unreal, so we hold on, we just hold on.
The word grief comes from the Latin verb gravāre, meaning“to burden,” from gravis, “heavy.” It implies a weightiness that is heavy enough to break, even our own hearts.
Lonely, dark, depressing, sad, painful, regretful, uncomfortable….grief is all these things. It is not something we like to think about or talk about greatly, but the reality is it will happen to everyone and so, however differently we all walk through this area, we must endeavour to be open to walking, or hobbling through it together, differently, compassionately.
There are many reasons why we grieve. You may have experienced the loss of someone close to you, the termination of a much loved job, a divorce or break-up, the loss of your home. All these states signify great change and a shattering of great dreams, which can break you emotionally and in doing so, bring on a sense of deep sadness and grief.
So what can we understand about the process of grieving or the “stages of grief” that we experience?
In 1969, a Swiss-American psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross wrote in her book ‘On Death and Dying’ that grief could be divided into 5 stages. Her observations came from years of working with the terminally ill, and while originally written for these individuals, these stages of grief have been largely adopted into our experiences of loss.
What are the stages of Grief?
Denial: When you first hear or discover the news, it’s natural or instinctive to assume that “it’s not normal”. Physically you may feel numb or shocked, but this is a way for the body to deal with the overwhelming emotion. A natural defensive mechanism.
Anger: As the reality of the news sets in, the initial thoughts of denial will almost be followed by anger. Feelings of frustration and hopelessness will move onto a feeling of anger, generally directed towards other people, higher power or life in general. Anger towards a loved one that has died is also common, as they have left you alone.
Bargaining: This is a period where you dwell on what has happened and to think about anything you could have done to prevent the loss. The “if only” and "what if's"
often appear in your thoughts and comments..
Depression: Sadness and loss will be followed by a sense of depression as you begin to process the loss and the possible effects on you personally begin to sink in. Signs of depression may include: uncontrollable crying, sleeping issues, decreased appetite along with the overwhelming feeling of regret and loneliness, even when others are around.
Acceptance: This is usually the final stage and the time to reach the stage will vary greatly from person to person. Acceptance is what the word means, finally accepting the reality of your loss, which can’t be changed. Sadness in reality, but it suggests that you are finally ready to move on.
Whilst these stages are helpful for understanding how we might be processing our loss, it can give us an unhealthy expectation of where we are and where we should be. There is no ‘right’ way to grieve and a better way to think about these stages is that, they are not linear. People don’t necessarily go through all the stages or in any particular order and it is natural to move back and forth between stages over and over. Although there are commonalities, grief is entirely personal, and there is no set time for how long grief will last.
Sometimes, more helpful to think, is that grief can often feel like it comes in waves, initially intense and overwhelming, out of nowhere you can constantly feel like you’re being hit by enormous waves of grief-triggered memories, leaving you barely no time to come up for air. With time and distance, the size of the waves tends to lessen, with larger gaps of rest in between and the ocean around you calms and you can anchor yourself more firmly again. Memories and new firsts will still trigger big waves of grief, but not the ones that will keep you underwater.
Triggers for grief can come at any time and come in many forms; a photo, a scent or a song, each bringing its own form of personal reminder of who and what has gone. Anniversaries of the passing can be an especially tough time, but can also be a time to celebrate. A trigger can be an unfulfilled dream that you had already played out in your mind for the future that will never come to pass. Helen MacDonald says it best in ‘H is for Hawk’;
“There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps..”
Dr Lois Tonkin developed a helpful metaphor for grief in that we don’t ‘get over’ grief – it doesn’t ‘go away’, instead as times goes on, you learn to grow around your grief.
For a moment, imagine drawing a circle on a piece of paper. The circle represents you and your life. Shade a section within that circle to represent your grief – soon after your loss it might almost be filling the entire circle of your life. Many people believe that with time the shaded section of the circle becomes smaller as the grief passes, but Tonkin’s theory proposes the opposite. Rather than the shaded area growing smaller, the outside circle (you and your life) grows bigger – your life grows around the grief. You will have many ‘firsts’, new experiences, and ups and downs in your life. You might start to reconnect with your family and friends, you may meet new people, start to socialize again and even start to have moments when you feel joyful and happy. As these experiences accumulate, the outer circle grows bigger. As this happens your grief remains but it no longer dominates and so becomes more bearable. In this way your life ‘grows around’ your grief, and you continue to carry your grief with you.
There is no wrong or right way to feel with grief, but as with many emotions, grief can be especially damaging when kept bottled up. For many, “time” will help you accept the loss, but for others, professional help may be necessary to aide in the healing process. Visit your doctor first as they are able to assess whether “complicated grief” (inability to accept the loss) has occurred.
Signs of complicated grief can be: trouble keeping a routine around the house, prolonged feelings of depression, thoughts of self-harming and suicide and constantly blaming yourself.
A professional grief therapist can provide you with dedicated time to explore your emotions as well as teach you skills to cope/manage with grief.
Deep emotional grief or pain can often leave sufferers feeling empty and can be more likely to fill the void by using drugs, alcohol or both to help numb the pain. These escapes are often temporary and will often leave the sufferer feeling even lower and may lead to a more serious case of addiction, anxiety, depression or suicide.
As a society, we do not always cope well with the idea of death or grief. But, we owe it to ourselves and others to get more comfortable with the grief stricken world around us. The term ‘grief stricken’ literally means ‘wounded by a heavy weight’. If we could see each other more clearly in this compassionate ‘wounded’ context then we would realise how careful and kind we need to be around grief.
Grief has more questions than answers, but it is our ability to sit in our own grief and others grief, knowing that it is not something we will just ‘get over’ but something which will profoundly change us forever, that leads us from sitting to standing again. There is no answer, maybe that is why we wait for time. Time is often mentioned as the great healer. Time is sometimes all we’ve got, when we don’t want it, and all we want, when we don’t have enough. But time does inevitably bring us through each stage and storm and finally, hopefully, through to moments of joy on the other side of our grief. Drawing close to others even in the middle of our isolating loneliness and accepting everyone’s journey through grief is different in a compassionate and loving way – we can one day hope to grow again ‘around our grief’.
I have yet to experience any great personal loss. Eventually, I know it will happen and reading about grieving has given me some insight, but I’m sure when it happens the experience will be greater than anything, anyone can write on paper.
I lost my father nearly 4 years ago and if I am honest, I am probably still grieving that great loss. He was a larger than life man and it still feels strange that he is not around. More recently, we lost a close family friend, Graeme, who was in his 40’s and I still find it hard to comprehend that he is gone – I can still hear his laugh!
My brother in law and I played golf last month, and typically we would have shared a game with Graeme as well (who would have always beaten us!) As we walked around the golf course, we talked about him and our memories. We decided to make that golf game an annual thing for my brother in law and I, we now have a commemorative cup in Graeme’s memory to go to the winner each year (we’re both very competitive!) This is a way for us to act out in sentiment and togetherness our grief and gratefulness of his impact on our lives.