Few of us escape the experience of grief. It begins with loss – loss of a loved one, a relationship, and life transitions such as retirement or children leaving home. In this post I’d like to focus on the grief we experience when someone close to us dies (my next post will put the spotlight on grief around endings of relationships/marriages).
In our busy western world where everything seems to be happening faster and faster and we all want quick results, there is little room for grieving, because grief is a process that cannot be hurried. It is our profound human way of adjusting to life and who we are now without that person in our lives anymore.
Everyone experiences grief in a different way, and every loss is unique. Of course there are going to be significant differences in the death of an 80 year old grandmother who dies peacefully versus the death of a young man in a car accident. That’s not to discount the level of grief someone may feel when their grandparent of parent passes away, but untimely deaths (young people) and sudden deaths (murder, accident, overdose, suicide) are going to be a severely life-changing experience for those close to that person, beginning with shock and disbelief and possibly taking them to the depths of despair.
The grief we feel is also going to be influenced by the relationship we had with that person. The more complicated the relationship, the more complicated the grieving process may be. And of course, the more time and love we share with a person, the greater our sense of loss when you are no longer there.
In other cultures, grief is a respected process. Wakes can go on for days, loved ones are allowed to let out their feelings vocally and the grieving person is encouraged to wear different attire, such as black, for a long period to indicate that they are grieving and for others to make allowances for them. Sadly, in our western world, this is not the case. Funerals and memorial services are public forums for expressing grief, and the rest of the process is done alone. I have met with clients who have never had the chance to grieve their mother or father dying, and it’s not until years later that an event has triggered the stored-up, repressed grief that they have been carrying around for years. Unprocessed emotions are a heavy burden to carry around and they prevent us from living our lives fully. That is why it is important to allow ourselves time to grieve, to really feel the feelings, no matter how painful, and embrace them fully.
During the grieving process a person can feel profoundly alone and feel like they’ve hit rock-bottom. We must go to the very core of who we are in order to be re-born and gain our new identity of our transformed self. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who studied and wrote about the anatomy of grief, named the various stages – denial, anger, etc. It is not uncommon for the grieving process to take two years and for these various stages of grief to swing back and forth. Just when we feel we’re getting on top of it, we’re swamped by more emotions. While many people wish to grieve privately, I advise they seriously consider talking to someone about their grief if they have any of the following conditions:
- Feelings of guilt
- Suicidal thoughts
- Feelings of extreme hopelessness or loneliness
- Prolonged agitation or depression
- Uncontrolled rage
- Inability to achieve daily requirements and tasks
- Substance abuse.
If you have lost a loved one, the following 5 steps may be helpful.
- Honour that you are going through the grieving process. By acknowledging this, you make allowances for yourself and your feelings. Every day allow yourself the time and space to express your grief in the way you need to do it. Don’t judge yourself – be kind to yourself and see this time as healing time. Remember, there are no “shoulds” as to how you grieve or how long it takes for you to grieve. This doesn’t mean that you don’t “get on with life” and do the things you need when you can, but it does mean that you don’t ignore your feelings and allow the time to honour them.
- If you are struggling with unresolved issues around your relationship with the deceased person, write them a letter telling them everything you wish you could have said to them when they were alive. Alternatively, imagine they are with you and have the conversation with them. On an energetic level, this is very powerful, because you are expressing what you need to express and letting it go. I believe that on a spiritual level, the person also receives this communication.
- If you need to forgive the person, do so. Not forgiving is only going to poison you. Remember, forgiveness is not saying that what they did is okay; forgiveness is consciously saying “I now choose to let this go, and all the toxic emotions I hold around it”. If you need to forgive yourself, do so by acknowledging the mistake and taking in the lesson, then let it go. Guilt and self-punishment doesn’t help anybody. Write a letter of apology or have a conversation with that person, in the spiritual sense.
- Write a gratitude list of all the happy memories you have about the person, and another gratitude list for everything you learned through your relationship with them. Some of these may have been painful lessons, but if it’s helped you grow as a person, then it’s a gift.
- Creatively express your grief. It may be a collage of photos, a sacred alter in homage to the person containing things that the person loved, or lighting a candle or incense next to the person’s photo – whatever helps you outwardly express your feelings.
Carlos Sluzki wrote “Losses are the shadow of all possessions – material and immaterial”. Just as we enjoy the gifts of love, we must also suffer the pain of loss.