A few patients have recently asked to write about grief. Grief is a complex response to loss, often associated with the death of a loved one– but it can also be triggered by other significant life changes or events. It is a universal human experience. When we lose someone or something that holds great meaning to us, grief can be profound.
It manifests in a range of emotional, psychological, and physical responses, reflecting the depth of our connection to what has been lost. We sometimes feel sadness, anger, guilt, confusion, emptiness, despair, or numbness. We often feel grief in our bodies, and we become fatigued, lose our hunger, cannot sleep, grow restless, physically hurt, and feel the sun no longer shines as brightly as it once did. Grief often feels it will never end.
When we are grieving– a person, a relationship, anything– it is a deeply uncomfortable experience. And as with most uncomfortable experiences, we seek ways to end the pain, to feel a different way. But the depth of our grief is the inverse of the strength of our love. We only really feel loss at things that hold meaning to us. Since the wold is constantly changing, the things we love will be changing, and their loss is inevitable– thus so is grief.
How can we respond to grief? How can we think about the pain of loss, in a way that does not seem so all-encompassing? How do we “move on?”
First, we need to ask ourselves the right questions– and I do not think that moving on is actually the goal. In fact, the first step is probably to not push the grief away at all but instead to just acknowledge its presence and realize that we can sit with the pain. The pain will not last forever, but while it is here, it’s ok. There is not really a problem with feeling grief, and simply accepting it for what it is, in the moment, is the first step– perhaps the most important. Because everything is constantly changing, this feeling will change too; perhaps not quickly, perhaps not in the ways we expect, but it will change. Sit with the reality of it for now.
Second, heavy burdens are easier carried together. Every culture in the world has public ways of mourning, of involving the community in loss. If it feels like grief is more than can be carried alone– perhaps that is because it is. The antidote for isolation is community, and we humans are social animals. We are built to share the burden.
Humans are also wired to care. When we see someone suffering, our instinct is to help. The funny thing is that most of us are much better at offering help than accepting it. So when we are grieving, we need to accept the help that is offered. Be with the people that are willing to be with you. Do not suffer alone.
Lastly, we need to be careful about how we define our goals. Often we want to “move past this.” The meaning behind this sentiment is not wanting to feel this way anymore, wanting to bury the feelings and no longer be troubled by them. Instead, perhaps we would do better to think about assimilating the loss into our sense of who we are. Rather than seeking to push these feelings away, we can instead think about welcoming the feelings as long as they are present. As the feelings fade and change (which they will), we can simply acknowledge their lessening. The goal, if that’s even the right word, is to simply accept and make peace with the reality in which we find ourselves, rather than to change it.
In trying to move past grief, to find a way out of our difficulty, we often inadvertently make it worse. Perhaps instead we should think about how to learn to make peace with our new reality. We do this by engaging our family and community in our sense of loss, in not bearing our loss alone. We do this by recognizing that things change, and our grief will too. We do not need to usher it out of our lives– it will eventually leave on its own accord.
Lastly, we can recognize that the lingering sadness that comes from loss is directly related to the depth of our love; that it remains is not a failure on our part, but a testament to the connection we had.