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.