Has anyone ever talked to you about dealing with grief? About that feeling that hits you when someone you love passes away, or even just disappears from your life? Or when you lose that job opportunity you were pumped about? There are moments in our everyday lives that have the potential to strike us so suddenly that we’re left wondering what to do next. We don’t lose people, opportunities, or things every day, but grief is such a common part of our lives that we need to know how to manage it. It’s only natural that these losses impact us in a way that can make it hard to process and move on from them. And, even if the loss seems minor, learning how to navigate that loss doesn’t always feel natural.
At the end of August, my family lost the newest, and youngest, addition to our family. This loss has made it obvious to me just how differently we all process our grief. While that isn’t a bad thing (there’s no shame for how anyone chooses to grieve), it’s important we know how to do it in a healthy way. I spoke with grief counselors about what exactly grief is and how we can best approach and work through those often unexpected emotions in healthy ways.
What is grief?
For most people, myself included, the first thing that comes to mind when you think about grief is probably death. When someone close to you, whether it be a family member, close friend, or family pet, passes away, what you experience is what we call grief. Merriam-Webster even defines grief as a “deep sadness caused especially by someone’s death” and “a cause of deep sadness.”
We don’t just feel grief from losing someone in that way, though. Grief can be caused by numerous scenarios. If you lose something that you had an attachment to, you may experience grief because of it.
Dr. Tami Frye, Ph.D., LMSW, MSCJ, DCC, a faculty member in Walden University’s Master of Social Work program, tells Her Campus that she would define grief as “the loss of anyone or anything significant to a person.” Dr. Frye, who has her own grief and loss counseling practice, adds, “The loss could be permanent, temporary, sudden, or expected.” There’s not a big difference between the grief of losing someone or losing something – just that something important to you was lost.
How do we experience – & Empathize with – the emotion?
Out of the many emotions and feelings that people go through, grief seems to be one of the most complex. “Grief consists of seven distinct phases: fear, denial, anger, depression, bargaining, acceptance, and forgetfulness,” says Gail Trauco, R.N. BSN-OCN, a 43-year Oncology nurse and Licensed Grief Mediator. “From my clinical experience, fear always comes first and forgetfulness last. Day-to-day emotions experienced vary from anger outbursts to overwhelming sadness and crying. An individual needs to honor these feelings as part of the healing process, [but] learning to process these emotions takes time.”
Grief can often feel like a taboo topic, which is unfortunate because we truly need one another during these times in our lives. Once others find out that you’ve lost someone, they offer their sympathies, love, and prayers, but it becomes an afterthought to those who weren’t impacted directly. For those actively dealing with the grief, it can almost feel like there’s a ticking time bomb just counting down until a few months, weeks, or even just days later, when everything’s supposed to suddenly be okay. Grief doesn’t work like that.
“Everyone grieves in their own way and in their own timeline,” Dr. Frye says. “Just as we are all individuals, we all mourn losses in our own ways and in our own timelines.” She goes on to say that there is no typical timeline and that we need to be cautious about trying to fit others into a timeline that we see as normal. For instance, the way that I cope and deal with the loss of my nephew is going to be far different than how my sister deals with the loss of her son. We both lost someone, but the grief surrounding that is going to be impacted by the memories and life we each had with him.
And, even if you find you don’t, or can’t, relate to someone’s grief, it’s critical that you find it in your heart to be patient and understanding. “Even if [someone’s] loss seems minor [to someone else],” Dr. Frye says, “it’s still not their grief, so they have no way of knowing what it really feels like. They have no way of feeling the amount of pain associated with it.” The best thing you can do if someone close to you is grieving the loss of someone or something is to just be there for them.
Grief comes in many different forms and from many events.
Grief can occur in our daily lives, and not just with the loss of a loved one. Grief can also come through other universal experiences that some may think aren’t worthy of grief. Maybe you got fired from a job, broke up with your significant other, or got a health diagnosis that changed your life as you knew it. Perhaps you even found out your comfort show was canceled. Those things cause you to grieve the life that you had, just as you grieve the loss of a person who you loved. These emotions could even come from potential opportunities. So many of us, especially while in college, are floating between opportunities for jobs and internships that can be ripped away as quickly as they show up. The loss of that potential change can also be hard to grieve and process.
Because of the difficulty grief can cause, and because these changes can be sudden and hard to overcome, you may struggle with your mental health, even if you’ve never struggled before. Traumatic events can trigger things for you and in you that you didn’t even know were there. They make a lasting impression on your life.
I’ve never been one to truly understand why certain things impact me the way they do. I’ve had friends who just bailed on me with no explanation, I lost the job I had for eight months, and I didn’t have the same opportunities some of my peers did in college because I lacked transportation. Those events affected me more than I would care to admit, and I’ve realized that these events impacted me the way they did because they caused me to grieve — even if I didn’t have a name for it at the time.
There’s no right or wrong, but there is healthy and unhealthy.
Moral of the story? You have to take time to figure out how you’re going to process your emotions (even if you have a tendency to avoid them). The most important thing is not trying to control what makes you grieve (or avoiding these events or feelings), but actually learning how to grieve in a healthy and helpful way. You have to let yourself feel. Try really hard not to block your feelings out.
With the recent loss in my family, I’ve found that spending time with my family and continuing to work has been most helpful. I’m not one to talk about my emotions and how I’m doing most of the time (I’m working on it, though); I would rather do things that make me and the people around me happy. To begin healing and processing, I had to accept that what I lost was gone and that no amount of questions or avoidance was going to change that or make me forget.
It’s no easy task at first, but Trauco and Dr. Frye both affirm that there’s no shame in how you process your grief. She says to take the time to cry and be angry, but do your best to try to express your emotions in a constructive way. It’s crucial that we don’t do things that can be dangerous for us and our health during the grieving process.
There are instances where spending time on your own can be helpful, but make sure you don’t isolate yourself. “Being alone all the time is going to lead you down a road where you will think lots of wrong thoughts,” Dr. Frye says. She adds, “It can be easy to revert to bad habits as a way to try and make ourselves feel better. Reaching out for food, alcohol, or even medications we have lying around as a way to try to numb ourselves may seem like an easy fix…but, in reality, will only bury emotions that will still be there.”
It can be challenging to choose a route that won’t let you ignore the things you’re feeling. Trauco, who’s also been a patient advocate throughout her career, suggests putting yourself first and taking small steps to improve your mood. She has three “mood lifters” she recommends: taking a walk in nature, spending time with a pet or friend, or even buying a rocking chair and spending 30 minutes a day on your front porch. You can also try journaling or coloring to calm your mind and set your thoughts straight. If you need help doing so, seek a therapist or counselor if you need to.
There are many ways you can take the time you need for yourself; just remember you are not alone in what you’re feeling. The most important thing to remember about grief is that it can hit you at the most unexpected times. Whether you realize a little late just how great that job opportunity would’ve been, or if the loss of a loved one didn’t become real until months after they’re gone, your feelings are valid. You’re allowed to process these feelings however you need to.
If you’re finding it difficult to cope, reach out for help. Find someone to speak to so you’re able to process your grief and keep yourself safe.
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Dr. Tami Frye, Ph.D., LMSW, MSCJ, DCC
Gail Trauco, R.N. BSN-OCN, Licensed Grief Mediator