Good Grief

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.