Articles about grief on this page:
(written by Wendy Littner Thomson, M.Ed., LPC, RYT)
- Guilt & Grief
- Anger & Grief
- Medication & Grief
- Stress & Grief
- Self-compassion in the Midst of Grief
- The Language of Grief & Grieving
- Things are changing all the time....
- Gender & Grieving
Grief & a New Year
- (check back for additional articles)
At Giving Grief a Voice we often talk about grieving in holistic terms. We teach that we grieve as whole people and that out grief is not limited to our emotions, but that we grieve cognitively, behaviorally and physically, as well. We teach that grief is a natural human response to loss; that it is made up of a multitude of emotions; it is universal, unique and life-changing. Among the cluster of emotions we experience, guilt can severely complicate the remaking of our self-identity and the re-learning of our changed world - two primary tasks of bereavement.
Guilt is a cognitive and an emotional response, often experienced when a person tries to apply what they know in the present to a situation that occurred in the past. It is a disturbing attitude, a mental frustration, that can lead to depression and diminished feelings of self-worth, hence low self-esteem. It may carry a message that we violated a valued standard, but once the message is received, as important as it may be, the reality is that we can not change the decision we made or what we did or did not do. If the guilt continues, it can be destructive and paralyzing. It is fundamentally unhealthy. Work may suffer. Relationships may suffer. Our physical health may suffer. What purpose is there in staying plugged into past behavior we regret and not forgiving ourselves for our mistakes? Is there a point at which guilt becomes an uncomfortable, yet convenient, distraction that keeps us from moving into "inner places" that are unknown so that we might get to know ourselves better and explore who we might become? In some ways, could guilt be a form of self-deprecating laziness, in that it robs us of the psychic energy we need to learn from our experiences, to take action to change and to re-engage meaningfully in the community of the living, of which we are still a part - to paraphrase Paul Carnes.
So, what do we do when guilt has taken hold after our loved one has died? It is front & center and we can't get to sleep night after night after night. Questions and scenarios replay in our heads and we think of all the "should have's," "ought to's," or "if only's," and we wonder about how the outcome might have been different. The answer is that we will never know and we have to stop this kind of thinking and reprogram our minds so that we don't torture ourselves with guilt. We have to make up our minds that we are done...done with guilt; done with magical thinking that we can change the past; done with pretending that our guilt doesn't interfere with our responsibility to cultivate kindness and compassion, now, in this moment, toward ourselves and toward others - the community of the living. We have to consciously break the pattern we've fallen into and change the trajectory of our experience. And we can.
First, we need to recognize that we are no longer the people we were when our loved ones were living. We are different now. We have different knowledge and lived experience and it is unrealistic, even unfair to ourselves, to apply all of this as a standard to our past decisions and behaviors. The present "you" exists on a continuum. A beginning antidote to guilt is to look back on the person you were with compassion, with a sense of understanding that you did the best you could at the time with the information and experiences you had to work with. Can your present self meet your old self with supportive tenderness, without judgment or condemnation? What would your present self say to your old self to relieve your suffering, to release you from being a prisoner to guilt?
A second antidote to consider when a loved one has died is to reflect upon your motivation for your decisions and actions. Did you act from a place of love and positive intention or not? If your motive was loving, are you able to let go of second-guessing yourself now, resting in the knowledge that you intended no neglect or harm? On the other hand, do you need to forgive yourself or do you need forgiveness from your loved one? In that case, there are practices that can assist with forgiveness if we are open to them and open to allowing ourselves to learn from our past and re-engage meaningfully in our present. A third antidote to guilt is seeking a "reality check" from someone whose judgment you trust with the intention to discern if your reasons for guilt are "valid" or based in irrational beliefs. If you learn that your guilt is based on rational beliefs, we circle back to forgiveness. On the other hand, if your guilt is based on irrational beliefs, there is work to be done to refute them and to substitue alternate rational healthy beliefs that serve to reprogram your thinking and redirect you toward mental wellness, rather than being stuck in a negative guilt-cycle that benefits no one.
Antidotes take time, practice and patience, as does finding our way through grief. But there is transformation, love and peace that can come from our efforts. Please make the effort.
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When someone we love has died we often feel that we have involuntarily entered unfamiliar territory, psychologically and in many practical matters, without a map and no option to be where we were before, as we were before. Our emotional reactions to loss can be confusing, intense and exhausting. This is frequently the case when one of our concurrent responses to loss is anger. We say we're angry "at cancer," angry our life has been turned upside down angry at what was supposed to be, and now will never be. Sometimes we can't even put our finger on it. We just feel an overall sense of anger at life as it is now. We don't like it and we want it to be different. Sometimes we take it out on people we care about, reacting to them with impatience, irritability, short-tempers and words that hurt. Sometimes we over-use drugs or alcohol; sometimes both. Or, on the other hand, sometimes we simply lace up our workout shoes and go for long brisk walks when we begin to feel the physical signs of our anger: shallow breathing, racing heartbeat, clenched jaw. The point, however, is to acknowledge our anger; not to push it down, skip over it, or to become stuck in it so that it diminshes the fullness of our living and our ability to take part in a world of life.
Anger, is a natural reaction to feeling robbed or cheated, as we frequently do feel when we are bereaved. It is often rooted in, and flows from, hurt, disappointment, frustration, resentment or fear - all common when we are grieving. It's emotionally charged and connected to physical changes in our body including to our nervous, cardiovascular and endocrine systems. To ongoingly suppress and internalize angry feelings does harm. To vent them uncontrollably is equally harmful, regardless of how justifiable they are perceived to be. What's the middle way?
I wonder if we can learn to work with our anger, recognizing its validity under the circumstances, but not letting it become a long-term psychic investment. This would require discharging the anger toward our situation - denouncing it as undesired, even rotten. But, then can we pay attention to the messages of our anger, expand the context of our experience and harness its powerful energy in reconstructive, rather than destructive ways? Can our anger play a role in teaching us something about who we are, who we want to become and how we might act to support the things and the people we hold dear?
In order to work with anger we can't be completely reactive. In fact, anger management professionals point to the wisdom of "counting to 10," creating some space or distance from the situation; and practicing relaxation techniques - as efforts toward modulating our anger. Underlying the effectiveness of these techniques is a process that includes: awareness, space, choice and action. These four steps are the antithesis of automatic living. In many ways, that is exactly what our work in grief is all about - cultivating a more non-automatic approach to life as we deliberately seek answers to the questions of who we are, who we are becoming and how are we going to re-make our changed world.
We can start by recognizing our anger cues and expressions. Some people immediately recognize they are angry. Others notice that their anger is most disguished by the tone of their voice, the pace of their speech, their choice of words and/or their body gestures, stances or tightness.
OK. So, what do we do with these signs? If we choose the middle way, we feel what we feel, wherever we feel it. That's awareness. But at that very point, we take a breath, or two or ten...and create a space between the feeling and the reaction. The breath allows us a moment to make a conscious choice about our response. When we are grieving, we have to discharge the anger at a painful situation, but there are alternate constructive actions that we can choose given all that we know that's important to us. We always have a choice. We can act out of habit or convenience or we can act out of consciousness and intention and take the risk that we might set ourselves free in the meantime. The freedom relates to the toxicity of the anger and not to the validity of the reaction. The death of someone we love is often devastating. But out of that devastation, how do we want to emerge? Paralyzed or cynical or positively affecting the things we care about in any way we can.
Anger tells us what we value. If we didn't care, we wouldn't react with such intensity. This strong energy can propel us to change what we can, including ourselves and our role in our relationships. I invite you to reflect on this and consider ways to navigate this unknown territory of grief and construct your own map so that you can experience freedom from anger, peace and well-being.
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Some people wonder whether taking medication after the death of a loved one is a good decision. They wonder if taking medication to deal with their grief will help them to sleep, feel less anxious, sad or empty. Every person and their situation is unique. Severe reactions to trauma do happen, and in these cases, consulting your physician is the wise thing to do. And, if you go for days without sleep, although it is not uncommon when you're grieving, that needs to be addressed. But, for the vast majority of people, this African proverb is true: the only way out of the desert is through it. Grief is our desert.
Grief is a universal life experience. We're all in the desert at some point in our lives. And as oriented as our culture is toward seeking quick fixes, instant relief from pain, a detour around the scorching sand, this is one experience that can't be medicated away with drugs. In fact, some healthcare professionals not only question the usefulness of anti-depression and anti-anxiety medicines for people who are grieving, but they believe that giving medicines for common grief responses, such as anxiety or changes in sleep habits, may interfere with the ability to be fully present in a natural life process that is essential for effective adjustment to change. They note that when our emotions are masked, softening of our grief over time is inhibited and our adaptation to our new reality is delayed.
Although we may feel overwhelmed by all that is happening to us at this time, anti-depression and anti-anxiety medications do not help us to learn to cope and adapt to the death of a loved one. They don't help us to find a new routine now that our world has been turned upside down. They don't help us to explore questions related to self-identity, such as who am I now and who am I becoming. And, they don't help us to remake meaning and purpose in our lives. These are all critical tasks at the center of healing and regrowth in bereavement. In fact, Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., states that "drugs that make you feel numb or unnaturally peaceful will only complicate your grief experience."
When we are grieving, we are undergoing profound and complex psychological and physical changes. Although it may be possible, and it may feel desireable, to postpone grieving, it is not possible to avoid it forever. At some point in our future, unattended-to grief, grief not expressed, will eventually erupt. The stress from grief unexpressed may impact your physical health, e.g., your head, your muscles and joints, your digestive system, your skin. It may affect your relationships with family, friends, coworkers, e.g., you may become irritable, impatient, withdrawn, less communicative. It may affect your ability to concentrate and remember, and therefore diminish your job performance. Grief unexpressed can affect your quality of life: psychologically and physically.
So, what can help to support you as you cope with and adapt to major loss? Social support, good self-care, obtaining knowledge to avoid the major pitfalls of grief, and setting the intention to heal are usually the "best medicine" for grieving. This may mean talking to family members or friends about what you're going through, or sharing stories and memories together. It may also mean talking to a grief counselor, attending a support and counseling group, a yoga & grief class, or any combination. These may also be places where can obtain knowledge about grief, and your participation reflects your intention to heal. Commitment to good self-care also reflects healing intention, and this means getting enough rest, sleep and recognizing that you will likely have limited energy as you grieve, so adjust your schedule accordingly. Good self-care also includes: eating a nourishing diet, exercising, paying attention to how you are breathing and remember to breath deeply, relax and comfort yourself. There are other constructive ways to deal with grief. Almost any activity can help: journal writing, cooking, a walk in nature, building model airplanes. The key is connecting the "outward expression to your inner experience." It is always important to keep in mind that there is no map to get us through the desert. We find our own way; we choose our own course; and we take as much time as we need to find our way through.
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How we approach and release the stress related to a death or other loss matters to our mental and physical health. And, we have choices about the ways we cope. The list is as varied as the people on the planet. On the one hand, we have options that fall towards the negative end of the spectrum: becoming aggressive, violent or abusive, driving the car too fast or dangerously, over or under-eating, overspending, over-using alcohol, abusing drugs. On the other hand, more positive ways to cope include: listening to music, reading, journal writing, cooking or baking, going for a scenic drive, playing a game or playing with a pet, escaping into nature, straightening things up around the house, taking a hot bath, making home repairs, meditating or praying, talking to close and trusted friends. One choice we have is to incorporate exercise into our lives as a way to take care of ourselves in our grief and physically release accumulated stress. Not necessarily intense, sweat-it-out, physical exertion - althought that's "out there" and may be very helpful for some people - but perhaps gentle exercise is an option; exercise that can instill a sense of calm and connection to what is important to you. Some ideas are as simple and accessible as deep breathing exercises, basic stretching, yoga or walking.
The important point is to recognize that the health benefits of even gentle exericse when you are grieving are wide-ranging and extend beyond the time of the activity. When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, chemicals that interact with the same neuron receptors in your brain as the ones to which some pain medicines bind. The result is that you experience a reduced perception of pain and positive feelings in your body are triggered - all naturally. Regular exercise truly is "a friend" to those with a grieving heart. It has proven to reduce stress, anxiety and feelings of depression and improve sleep and energy levels. It's not a panacea, and certainly can feel undoable in the midst of raw grief, but for many it is one of several effective ways to help cope with loss and provides a sense of control, equilibrium and reprieve at a time when your world often feels chaotic and overwhelming. (Of course, make sure your medical professional clears you to pursue new levels of activity).
*T. Holmes, R. Rahe, 1967
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Self-compassion in the Midst of Grief
"In caring for yourself with passion, you are celbrating life as a human being who has been touched by grief and has come to recognize that the preciousness of life is a superb opportunity for celebration."
Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
The cultivation of compassion is a practice at the heart of many philosophies, spiritual practices and religious traditions. Some consider it to be the basis for the Golden Rule. It is universally regarded as a high virtue and fundamental to happiness. Compassion is empathy with action. It couples an emotional response to suffering with an active response to lessen, or eliminate, it. Compassion is both powerul and gentle, and encompasses all the best qualities within human beings.
Why is compassion important in the midst of grief? The answer is that compassion toward inward, or self-compassion, is exactly what is needed in bereavement. When our suffering is great and our grief emotions affect us at every level of our being, we have special needs that require our attention and active nurturing.
Practicing self-compassion focuses our readiness to give comfort, love, concern and caring inward - on the self - with passion. With self-acceptance. With commitment to self-care and self-kindness as a way of "creating the conditions that allow you to integrate the death of someone loved into your heart and soul" (Wolfelt). With our self-compassionate actions we take important steps toward alleviating our personal suffering and embracing our future as a person who has been touched and transformed by grief.
Please take time to reflect on what self-compassion means to you. What are your unique emotional needs, physical needs, social, spiritual, cognitive needs? For most people, grieving is stressful. It is a long, hard, intentional journey to the core of who you are and back again. During this time it is not uncommon to feel fatigued, lonely, and to be confused by many questions with no apparent answers. Pausing to recognize the need to acknowledge your feelings for what they are; to give yourself permission to rest; to nourish your body with a healthy diet; to focus on the here and now and simply be; to call a friend and meet for coffee; to creat spiritual meaning through meditation or engagement in an activity that feeds your soul; are all ways to care for yourself. If you are able to practice self-compassion, you will find that you are better able to tolerate the spiral of your grief, heal your broken heart, and reconstruct a life that is filled with both personal meaning and value.
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When our heart is breaking, why should we care about language and labels? They're just words, right? Well, actually, it matters because language shapes our behavior, our perceptions and our expectations. In the words of Rita Mae Brown, "Language exerts hidden power, like the moon and the tides." There are a few words, strung together, that are particularly unhelpful when describing grief & grieving, but they still wield power and they have for many years. The phrase I am referring to is the one based on the original research of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: "the five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance."
Since Kubler-Ross wrote On Death and Dying in 1969, and well-intentioned people applied her research to grieving, our understanding of bereavement has come a long way. People who companion and counsel the bereaved have listened carefully to their stories and have learned that grief is anything but "stage-like." Although, at this time, some say "the stages" have been misunderstood and "were never meant to tuck messy emotions into neat packages" (Elisabeth Kubler-Ross & David Kessler), the word "stage" implies otherwise. It makes it sound like a linear experience with clear delineations between the emotions. "Stages" implies a steady progression, and that our reactions should change, more or less predictably, in an order, from denial to anger to bargaining to depression to acceptance; and then we're done; no repeats; "graduation."
In fact, these emotions and responses do come up, but often within the span of about 10 minutes. Grieving in stages is not what happens at all, and to have that expectation and to perpetuate it is terribly destructive. Expectations set standards. If we measure ourselves against an unrealistic standard we can cause ourselves even more pain when we don't measure up, when we don't fit into this popular framework. What we need is more accurate language to describe the journey, to reshape the way we think about grief & grieving - personally, in our families, in our workplaces and communities, and culturally.
What might replace "the stages"? Tough question because grief is so unique. Every journey is different. Seven billion people on the planet, seven billion journeys. Perhaps that's why the stage-language caught on and stayed put. It made a very complex process, one that most people don't think about before they're in it, simple. But, it just isn't. Some people describe their journey through grief as a rollercoaster. Some talk about waves, dimensions or "gotcha moments." C.S. Lewis enlisted the image of a "spiral" to symbolize his grief journey. He writes in A Grief Observed, "For in grief nothing 'stays put.' One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral? But a spiral, am I going up or down it" (p. 69-70). Great questions because many people do wonder: Where am I now? I don't recognize this territory. I don't even recognize myself.
Grief is a bewildering place to be, but it is also completely natural, and the last thing we need is someone or some model telling us "how to do it" and if we don't do it that way, implying that we're doing it wrong and don't measure up. What we do need is supportive people in our lives. We need to be able to tell our story, to remember, to cry and laugh, to take care of ourselves along the way, to set our intention to heal and to chart our own course and find our own words that accurately and authentically convey our experience.
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When someone we love has died we often feel as though the bottom has dropped out of our lives, the rug has been pulled out from under us, or as though things are turned upside down. It’s an exhausting place to be – angry, worn out, and fed up. The situation can feel overwhelming, especially because the person we leaned on in tough times is the very person who is not with us to help us cope. Is there some shift in our perspective that might help us adapt to this unwelcome change, this loss from a death that has so many layers to it that each day another aspect of the loss hits us in the face with a hurricane force wind and we are filled with cycles of emotions that send our heads spinning and wondering if we will ever recognize ourselves again.
A possible place to start is to get more familiar with the idea that suffering is a part of life; that this doesn’t mean that we did something wrong, but that it comes with the territory of loving, of becoming emotionally attached to things, ideas, to people and then losing them. It comes when we hold on tightly to things that change and fight to keep what matters to us when life unfolds differently. If we could recognize that we can feel our sadness, and every other reaction we have to loss, and still maintain a certainty that our feelings shift and soften over time, would this provide us a sense of relief that we will not always feel this badly; that at some point we will laugh again; we will see beauty in life again; and at some point in time we will remember where we parked the car and where we put our keys. Our grief, like everything else, changes. Perhaps the scary thing is thinking that it won’t. But it will. It is not permanent exactly as it is today. Nothing is.
Knowing this, what would it be like to relax into the full complexity of our grief, to allow it to ebb & flow with non-judgmental self-acceptance, with gentleness and patience and to trust in impermanence?
One thing that might happen is that there would be less resistance and therefore less pressure. The lid could come off when it needs to and we could react authentically, becoming intimate with how lousy we feel, how disappointed we are, and how much we hate the situation as it is. But in naming that, we can deal with it. We can find an expression for the pain, for feeling disgusting, abandoned, or guilty, and we can let these responses move through us rather than festering in us. In the discharging of the emotions, their intensity diminishes and we develop a more honest and direct relationship with ourselves. Less pretending. More authenticity.
Which is the essential point. We get in touch with who we really are when grief stops us in our tracks, when life as we knew it, and enjoyed it, falls apart. The challenge is to fully feel our emotions without allowing them to be our future identity, to relax with the pain and to know that it will pass, and to know we have the choice not only to survive, but to engage fully in the reconstruction of our identity, our life, and the community of the living.
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When someone we love has died it obviously affects us individually, but it also impacts our family members, our friends, and other social relationships with which we are connected. It’s a tricky dynamic because everyone involved is dealing with their own reactions to loss and trying to figure out how to renegotiate some sense of equilibrium in the social system in which they play a part. Very often, the composition of many of these relationships is mixed gender and as a result sometimes gender is perceived to be the underlying factor that differentiates the external expression of the pain we are feeling. On the one hand, it is not uncommon for women to raise the concern that male family members have not cried or have not talked about their feelings related to the death and to interpret this behavior as “avoidant,” reflecting “denial,” or state that this brings up feelings of abandonment. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for men to state that they are coping with a death perhaps with a fishing pole and time set aside each week to spend by the water, in a quiet spot, thinking first, fishing second. The reverse is also true. Women report traveling to fly fishing streams and casting thousands of times – linking the action to the expression and movement of their grief and men report finding solace and healing in attending three hour lunches on a weekly basis, talking, sharing feelings and receiving comfort from being in the presence of fellow travelers in their grief. What these examples show is that expressions of grief transcend gender and that we might be worrying needlessly or becoming agitated (women about men and men with women) if we project our grieving style onto others we care about. As universal as loss is, grieving is uniquely and wholly personal.
To help us open up our minds to the possibilities, we might consider grieving styles to exist on a continuum (Martin and Doka, 2000) with one end representing more emotional expressions of grief (e.g., crying and talking about one’s experience) and the other end representing more action oriented expressions of grief (e.g., working on art, poetry, or music, building furniture or a garden, quilting, or cooking). The important point is that any behavior or activity can promote healing if it is consciously linked to expressing our response to loss. If we use this perspective we can move away from gender-based stereotypes (women do it this way, men do it that way); we can become more accepting of our different grieving styles, perhaps creating more space for and honoring our diversity; and we can integrate a myriad of factors into our understanding of the wide range of grieving behaviors that both men and women create and use to heal their broken hearts. Some of these factors that influence what we gravitate toward are our personality type, socialization experiences, personal strengths, sources of meaning, and cultural background. If we can think in these broader terms, perhaps we can cultivate new ideas and approaches for ourselves that address our own healing in ways that we hadn’t thought about before.
In other words, neither gender has the monopoly on efficient and effective forms of expressing and healing their grief. Both men and women can experience grief that is prolonged and negatively impacts functioning in important spheres of living. It is equally true that both genders have the capacity to access meaningful ways to express their pain, adapt to their new reality, and reconstruct their identities and lives. We begin with opening our minds to the numerous options to outwardly express our inner experience and we allow these to help us to navigate our individual pathway through our grief.
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On these pages, back in December, I explored ways of coping with holiday celebrations and possible transformational uses of traditions and symbols of the season to help us with grieving the absence of our loved one, or any loss that assaults our self-identity, during this emotionally laden and stressful time of year. This exploration continues as we enter the new year. We flip the page of the calendar and suddenly another new reality hits us on new levels; it’s a new year without our loved one, our job or our life as we had known it. What does that mean for us emotionally, physically, for our minds & our hearts, for our new normal way of being, of interacting, in the world? “Time marches on” is the old cliché, but we know, from our personal grief experience, that we often don’t keep step with the clock. “Moving on” is not necessarily the best way to describe the process we undergo: we change; we adapt to and integrate our losses.
We do look forward, and in our own unique time, we revise our hopes for our futures, with awareness that life as we knew it is no longer available to us. But “moving on” - with the implication that we leave a relationship, a job we loved, a body free of disease behind us – is not so accurate. We cannot un-experience the experience of our loss. We will see our futures through the lenses of both life and loss and that changes who we are now, how we see the world and decisions related to who we will become; decisions for the coming year and beyond.
This is a common time of year to have that gentle conversation with yourself about what’s important, what’s meaningful to you now and how that impacts your decisions for future directions of your life. As others look ahead to the new year and commit to new year’s resolutions that are all too quickly discarded because of unrealistic goals, discouragement with setbacks and lack of support, it is possible for you to look ahead and decide to seek and engage in a therapeutic process through the counseling programs described on this website, and allow professional guidance to be helpful to you as you explore the big and maybe even the smaller questions of your life, adapt to change that surrounds you and integrate your personal discoveries into who you will become.
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