Grief is an emotion that is well known but little understood.
Today’s post is designed to give you both insight into this important emotion and, should you find yourself in its “grip”, hopefully give you some suggestions for mastering your grief as a strategic tool.
Grief is an important emotion because its purpose is…
- to focus our attention on what we have lost,
- prepare us to effectively deal with that loss, and
- allow us to grow beyond the loss and get on with our lives.
- Grief is the emotion we experience when we experience a significant loss.
- The message of grief is that we have sustained a significant loss and that we need to withdraw from others so that we can heal.
- Grief, as an emotion, hurts.
Grief and Pain
The experience of grief can involve..
- tears that seem to come on their own
- a sense of emptiness inside
- an inability to function normally because we are consumed by a sense of unresolvable loss
Other feelings which can go along with grief
Two significant Grief myths
- It is important to be “strong” (whatever this means) in the face of grief
- Moving on with your life means forgetting about your loss
So, let’s dive in..
If you never experience grief, I hope it is because you have never experienced a significant (however, you define this) loss. If so, I am thrilled for you.
It is, however, more likely that you will experience such a loss in your lifetime and you have at least two ways to approach the grief that accompanies the loss.
The unhealthy way… suppress the feelings, power through it, and keep going. This denial is equivalent to looking at the growing red spot on your skin, ignoring it because you don’t want to know more about it or don’t believe in skin cancer, and, down the road, having to deal with your cancer when it finally reaches a point where you can no longer avoid it.
The healthy way.. mastering the grief by validating it and working through it including experiencing the pain and the “symptoms” associated with the pain.
A few years ago, a close family friend “lost” his wife after some 40 years of marriage. They were high school sweethearts, got married and spent their whole adult life together as a couple.
When his wife died, he felt as if an important part of him had been wrenched away leaving a void which could not be filled.
He was right (almost).
An important part of him had been wrenched away and there was a void. However, while he would never be able to replace his wife of 40 years (nor would he want to), he would learn to heal the void.
While he expected to miss (grieve for) his wife, he was blindsided and totally (but intermittently) immobilized by pain, tears and irreconcilable emotion.
There are at least two important elements to understanding the pain of grief.
I. The pain he experienced happened because of, and was a direct reflection of, his incredible 40 years of marriage.
In other words, the amount of pleasure he experienced in his marriage (however, he would define this term and what it included) was the “cause” of the pain he experienced when his wife died.
If the marriage had not been a source of pleasure, the ending, or loss, of that relationship would not have been that painful.
So, one important question he had to address (directly or indirectly) at some point was…
Do the benefits (love, companionship, etc) he gained from the marriage outweigh the cost (pain) he experienced when his wife died?
Or, to put it another way..
If he was given the choice to go back in time and not marry his future wife, would he do it in order to avoid the pain he felt when she died?
When he was ready, he acknowledged that the upside (benefits) of his marriage far outweighed the relatively minimal downside (his pain) and he wouldn’t change anything.
Note: Some people do choose not to get involved in a serious relationship in order to avoid having to experience this pain. While it has consequences, this is a valid choice.
II. His ability to relive, revisit and relish the memories of his wife and the 40 years he considers himself both blessed and very fortunate to have been able to spend with her could not happen until he experienced and worked through his pain.
This is an often overlooked component of the pain of grief and, by the way, is an argument for listening to, validating, and mastering grief.
Denying the pain of one’s grief does not eliminate the pain. It may mute the degree of discomfort you experience with your guilt.
What happens it this.
Every time he tried to revisit a fond memory, he would get a jolt of pain. Our friend would cry uncontrollably when these memories came up.
And, they seemed to come up almost spontaneously and unconnected to anything that was going on with him in the moment.
Mastering grief as a strategic emotion…
The message of grief is that you have experienced a significant loss. Grief prepares you to withdraw and begin healing.
You master your grief when you take all the time you need to validate the emotion and all the experiences that accompany the emotion. You withdraw as much as you can from your regular activities so you can experience the pain. You avoid judging yourself and your actions (like crying, feeling weak and vulnerable, etc) and treat yourself with the same compassion as you would a close friend going through his (or her) grief.
As I explained to our friend, when you allow yourself to experience both the pain and the memories, you validate the loss, the emotion, and your willingness to grow through it.
What happens, over time, is that the pain subsides and you are able to enjoy your memories. The pain may be experienced as sadness at the loss but the happiness which accompanies the memories far outweighs the sadness.
In addition, over time, the emptiness gives way to an acknowledgement that the relationship was deep, satisfying and real and that the memories which retrieve that relationship can never be lost. The person may be gone, the experiences are not.
As you master your grief and grow though it, you will find that you are increasingly ready to reengage with the world and maybe even consider new relationships.
I recall a story told to me by a deeply religious friend.
His wife contracted cancer. She didn’t want to do radiation or chemo so he and his wife changed their diets and lifestyle together until the cancer eventually took her.
He grieved for his wife for several years and didn’t date.
One night he had a dream in which his wife appeared to him and told him that she was safe with God and it was time for him to move on and begin dating.
He took her advice, started dating and eventually remarried.
Now, whether you believe that his wife actually spoke to him in his dreams or his dreams reflected his own growth and he was “talking” to himself is not critical. The focus of the dream was that he had reached a point in his growth where he was able to both enjoy fond memories of his deceased wife and begin to form new ones with his new wife.
He never forgot his first wife and is currently happily married.
Our friend followed a similar course of action and returned to a very fulfilling life.
This is mastering one’s grief.