Health & Wellness Articles

Good Grief

Turn Bad Times into Good Opportunities

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The pain and emotional turmoil that comes with the loss of someone or something important to us makes grieving one of the most difficult—and important—things any human experiences in life. And not just for the obvious reasons.

Yes, learning how to cope with significant loss and the feelings it generates is crucial to getting through the difficult times, but that’s only part of the story. The ways in which we cope with losses shape other important dimensions of our lives, like how much meaning and satisfaction we will find, and what kind of chronic problems we'll contend with. But whenever we try to avoid feelings we don’t want to have, we diminish our capacity to experience the feelings that make life worth living. And we set ourselves up for the kind of problems that come with using other things—like food and eating—to avoid the feelings we don’t want to have.

Learning how to properly grieve is one crucial way to learn how to open up more fully to all of your feelings, and therefore, to all the good experiences that life has to offer us.

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Letting yourself feel the painful or threatening feelings of grieving is difficult enough, even when you know how to handle them. And most people just don’t get many opportunities to practice using it. In fact, we get just the opposite—lots of pressure to “get over” what hurts us without letting our feelings cause trouble for us or anyone else.

In this article you’ll find some general information about the grieving process, along with some practical ways to work on turning the bad events into real opportunities for emotional growth and development.

The Elements of Grieving
Grieving is not really about handling losses at all—the fact that it helps us do that is just a welcome bonus. Grieving is about handling ourselves when we are facing difficult situations. Each stage of the grieving process involves things you need to do to provide yourself with the same open, compassionate, and supportive response you’d like to provide to others when something bad happens to them. Difficulties arise only when we somehow get stuck in one stage of the process.

Experts who study the grieving process have identified at least five major elements, commonly referred to as stages:
  • Denial or numbness. This can take many forms, ranging from actual disbelief to emotional shutdown, which make it appear as if you're not affected at all. Both are basic self-defense measures, designed to protect you from experiencing the full intensity of the loss all at once. Periods of denial and numbness may alternate with periods during which you acknowledge what happened, its implications, and the feelings that come with it.
     
  • Anger. At some point, everyone who experiences a loss is likely to get angry about it, even if it doesn't “make sense.” People who experience the death or disability of a loved one, for example, may get intensely angry at that person for abandoning them, or causing them pain and difficulty. Some may get angry with themselves for “allowing” something bad to happen, even when they had no control over it. This often helps you avoid being overwhelmed by debilitating feelings like helplessness and powerlessness.
     
  • Bargaining. This can also take many forms, including preoccupation with thoughts about what could have prevented the loss from happening, things that now will never be accomplished, or what can be done to minimize the consequences of the loss. All this thinking can keep powerful feelings at arm’s length when needed, and may also help draw lessons from the situation.
     
  • Depression. As the reality of the loss and its implications sets in, people may experience all the symptoms of depression. They may be unable to meet their normal day-to-day responsibilities, and may withdraw from normal social interactions. This temporary withdrawal of energy from external affairs may be necessary to have the time and opportunity to reorganize your emotional life to match your new reality.
     
  • Acceptance. At some point, you will be able to integrate what has happened, and all the feelings and reactions attached to it, into your “life-story,” allowing it to take its appropriate place alongside other significant experiences. This does not usually mean that you're “done” with this loss, and can move on as if it never happened. It simply means that it no longer dominates the mental and emotional landscape so much.
However you define the elements of grief—as tasks, stages, or behaviors—research makes it pretty clear that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to go through the process of grieving a loss, no set order in which these stages or elements will be experienced, and no “normal” timetable for moving through the process.

It’s also pretty clear that it doesn’t take a major loss such as a death, serious illness, or loss of an important relationship or object to set the grieving process in motion. Any significant change, including positive ones, like finishing school, getting a better job, having a child (or having one move out), or reaching your weight loss goal and suddenly realizing you’re not quite the same person you used to be. Every life change entails a loss of what used to be (or what might have been), and a transition into something new, and that often leaves us in the strange position of grieving for something we ourselves wanted to change.

Help Yourself through the Grieving Process
As mentioned earlier, the biggest problem people experience during the grieving process is getting "stuck” on a certain stage. This usually happens when your belief system tells you that a “good” person wouldn’t have the feelings or thoughts you’re having. "It’s not right," we tell ourselves, "to feel numb or detached after something terrible happens, to be angry at someone who died or got sick, to feel guilty about something we have no control over, or to get so depressed we can’t meet our responsibilities." Or we feel foolish for feeling sad about “losing” something we didn’t like very much to begin with. So, when we find ourselves having those feelings, we fight them, and in the process, we make the feelings stronger, make ourselves feel worse, and diminish our ability to cooperate with the natural process of integrating the loss into our lives.

There are a lot of things you can do to avoid this. Here’s a short list of time-tested ideas:
  1. Always remember this: There are no bad or wrong feelings. Everything you feel is exactly what you need to feel right now.
     
  2. If your feelings seem too overwhelming to allow you to function as you need to, try setting aside specific times every day to allow whatever feelings you have to come up. Once your feelings know you’re willing to have them, they’ll usually be quite happy to come and go quickly, a little bit at a time. It’s when you’re fighting them that things can get really bad.
     
  3. Let yourself express your feelings physically. Cry, shout or scream if you need to. Find something to pound on or break. Go sit in the closet if you need to get away from people. Emotions are designed to move you to do something, and if you leave out the "doing something" part, you’re not fully expressing the feeling. Just be sure there’s no one else on the receiving end who could be hurt—or who might be inclined to call the police because you’re acting a little strangely.
     
  4. Don’t try to talk or reason yourself out of your feelings. Instead, try to have a conversation with them, as if you were talking to someone else. Ask them where they’re coming from, what they’re about, and what they are trying to tell you. Keep a private journal where you have these conversations with your feelings that you never share with anyone else. That way, you won't have to worry about subconsciously censoring yourself.
     
  5. If possible, find others who have gone (or are going) through similar losses to help you feel less alone and confused about what’s going on.
     
  6. Recognize that times of grief are not the time to play superhero. You won’t be able to function at your best, so accept all the help you can get. Even if it doesn’t seem to really help much, it will make the people around you feel better, and that will take a lot of stress out of the situation.
     
  7. Find someone you trust to talk to about practical daily business. Give her permission to be honest with you when she thinks your feelings are clouding your decisions and judgments.
Remember that your positive and negative feelings are one "package." You can’t experience real joy if you can’t feel sorrow; nor can you find happiness if you’re busy running from sadness. The amount of pleasure and meaning you can get out of your relationships is directly proportional to your capacity to feel the pain of loneliness, just as you’ll never know of the pride in your accomplishments as long as you avoid the anxiety of taking risks or the shame of failing.

The philosopher Nietzsche said that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. That holds very true for grieving, but only if you let yourself work with—not against—all the feelings and thoughts come as a result.

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Member Comments

  • This is a very good article. I'm glad it is here. As I learned long long ago you do have to go through to get better. One thing I did learn is God is not the enemy, death is. And yes we need to grieve just don't stay stuck there.
  • This article is coming at just the right moment. My Dad died a year ago on April 18. I have been through all of the stages in this article. His death also made me realize I have been suffering from depression for many years. His death put me in a real tailspin. My wife and siblings helped me get through the funeral.

    My wife convince me I needed to get help. I have been on a medication for depression for five months and have felt the best I have ever felt in many years. This also lead me to be more motivated to get into better shape. My wife and I are both enrolled in a medically supervised weight loss program and are both using Sparkpeople. She is much more private about such things than I am but I have a need to talk or share about this stuff with others besides her. Thank you.
  • Exercise helps me deal with grief. The times I want to exercise least are when I need it the most. So I lace up my sneakers and Move!
  • KRIS_KROS
    Thank you for the article. However, I want to add that my problem with not "letting go" (whatever that means) of the grief of the death of a parent was actually because I was horrified by the ostracism I experienced right afterwards. In short order I was kicked out of my home (I had been the caregiver), all family members shut me out, and I ended up having to spend a night on the couch of a neighbor, then live with an ex boyfriend for a month until I could set up an apartment. I'd never been treated like that since I'd been bullied in 7th grade. It felt just the same. Eventually that was the aha moment. Literally 19 years later, I'm reading about scapegoating in toxic families. Well I can tell you exactly who the narcissist was that set me up for that fall. But all this time, I've been wondering what I did wrong, and the reason I couldn't ever honestly blame myself was, there was no reason for it, they just needed me to be the caregiver and then threw me away like a used tissue. That's the hurt that never healed all this time. I kept going for grief counseling over and over, it never worked. I needed "scapegoat of a narcissistic family" counseling, which is very different. Amazingly I tell the same stories again, only this time, it is being recognized for what it is instead of "just people grieving". I had given up on myself.
  • this is exactly what I have been looking for. I have been struggling a lot since the loss of my daughter. I know it is still going to take time, but this is what I needed to hear. Thank you.
  • Even though this was written several years ago, there is still a lot to learn from it. As well as so many stories in the replies. It's comforting to know we are not alone in the struggles we have when a devastating event occurs. And it makes it easier to reach out to others and not be reluctant to offer a strong shoulder.
  • Love this article!

    In 2008 I went through a pretty difficult divorce. I went through every single one of these steps. I had to treat my divorce like a death, and in a way it was a loss such as death. I had to rearrange my entire life, say goodbye to a family that I knew for 8 years and face the dating world again (scary stuff!).

    Today I am remarried and have a beautiful baby girl. My life is great and I know that the divorce was a good thing. But I often still have difficulty cooping with the lose of someone who I cared very much for and knew for 8 years. The hurt, the sadness, the anger.... it will hit me every once in a while. I often believed something was wrong with mentally. That after all these years I still grieve. But after reading this article and a few other peoples comments, I know I am not alone. Thank you for the article and for allowing myself to see I can still grieve.
  • On 2014-12-19 my dog, who was my baby, passed away suddenly due to a liver shunt. I knew he had been having liver issues but the ultrasound came up clear. I never expected him to die. I live in an isolated community and have limited contact with other people. He was my only companion and my "child". Today is his birthday, he would have been three today if he wasn't taken from me. I have a new puppy (I couldn't stand to live alone) but my heart still aches so bad. I have lost family members and friends in the past but this pain just won't stop. I'm definitely see myself in the "stages" and right now I'm in the depressed stage. Every day is so hard to get through. I just can't wait to be okay with everything. I've also been coping with the loss of three failed adoption placements. Two of which the babies are now in foster care until they age out at 18 (due to the rules in the community I live in). Losing my baby and having all this adoption stress has put me at the lowest point I've ever had in my life. I keep trying to think positive and I've made some plans for trips this summer (I'm a teacher) with my new puppy but it's just so hard to see through the pain.
  • its been 15 months, since i lost a friend in my life, not from death, but they just chose to go away from me. and i am still grieving that loss.
    mostly i feel because i never got closure.
    i feel betrayed and abandoned and blamed.
    i have good days, alot more good than i did before, but sometimes it just pops back into my mind and i start asking all those questions again.
    why.
    and wondering if i will ever know.
  • Thanks, I needed that.
  • My companion of 13 years died Monday morning. I appreciate having this article to read.
  • PAZWANCH
    My partner of 13 years passed away 01-27-13 unexpectedly. While he has been receiving treatments for cancer, the positive medical report he received in October 2012 did not suggest any additional problems. I am struggling with his passing and while our house was my haven the first several months, I now do not like to be there at all. In addition, I am eating massive quantities of food with no end in sight and I am just burying my feelings and numbing out. I feel as if it is definitely getting worse for me instead of better.
  • BAMAJAM
    This is a wonderful article by Dean Anderson---- Under the heading, Depression, it is stated that this is temporary in cases. There can be serious conditions of depression that do not go away. AND this can be tragic indeed for ALL family members. When it is stated that there is no "wrong" way to grieve, I disagree. The wrong way is to embrace depression for decades and longer--- even forever. I dislike the word, "closure" following the loss of a loved one--because closure never happens when love was (is) intense. However, when severe depression grips a life, it can mean the end of joy...the end of any quality to living. Without healing, the illness of depression following a death--- affects family members, especially children. There was an important comment on this subject that deserves emphasis and I will quote it again.
    "I feel like going through the loss made me absent in others' lives, and I am now rethinking it."
    --- My dear sister is forever "absent" in our family due to the illness of depression that sucked all joy from her life when her husband died. Her children grew up in a sad, dysfunctional home. Depression for her is not temporary, but chronic.--- and her family suffers the consequences. This is the wrong way to grieve.
    Please--- I hope others can be helped by my experience. Seek professional help to restore joy to life.
  • I really appreciated the fact that you put the line in about sometimes NOT being done with a loss. That CERTAINLY is the case in my life - I really miss 2 former employers (one loss through redundancy, on through a hasty resignation). Sadly there isn't a lot I can do about the former, I have tried to reapply at the latter without success in spite of leaving on good terms.

About The Author

Dean Anderson Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson has master's degrees in human services (behavioral psychology/stress management) and liberal studies. His interest in healthy living began at the age of 50 when he confronted his own morbid obesity and health issues. He joined SparkPeople and lost 150 pounds and regained his health. Dean has earned a personal training certification from ACE and received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant. See all of Dean's articles.

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