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It’s disorienting enough to suddenly find yourself in the world without your person, but if you have never experienced deep grief, navigating those depths is probably adding to your sense of disorientation.  Our society is not very good at grief, so we often feel unprepared to deal with it when we find ourselves thrown into it.

To help you navigate, I want to give you a few touchstones.  It won’t feel like enough, but it will give you a little bit of context for what you’re going through. The truth is, every grief experience is as unique as the relationship or situation that launched it, and there is no right or wrong way to do it.  You are actually the expert on the subject of your own grief experience, not me.  But I do want to provide you with a few concepts that might help buoy you up when you feel like you’re drowning.

Even though we don’t see grief portrayed or reflected well in our death-denying culture, it is absolutely an inherent part of the human experience.  Change is a constant in life, and every change includes the loss of something.  People have always loved and lost. In that way, you are not alone, although I know grief can feel very isolating.

We associate grief with sadness, but it is oh so much more exquisitely complex than that.  First of all, it’s not just an emotional reaction.  A significant loss impacts us physically, psychologically, socially and spiritually.  Even within the emotional experience, we may feel shock, confusion, disorientation, anger, guilt, relief, nostalgia, serenity, hope, inspiration, resistance, acceptance, trepidation, creativity, fear and compassion, plus an endless list of emotions we can’t even find words for in our limited language.  We experience not only the emotions that come up in reaction to the loss, but those that come up in reactions to our reactions.  For example, we might feel a sense of relief and then feel guilty for feeling relieved.  It’s complicated, and that’s normal.

Since we tend to be uncomfortable sitting with something so complex, people often want to know what they have to do to “get over” it, and ask how long it’s going to last. The goal of grief is actually not to “get over” the loss, but to integrate it into your identity in a way that allows you to re-engage with your own life in a meaningful way.  It is not getting “back to normal,” because that “normal” no longer exists.  It’s adapting to a new bio-psycho-social-spiritual way of being in the world.  It’s recreating your sense of identity and your sense of meaning and your picture of your future. It’s a lot of fucking work.  And it takes time.

In the beginning, we may feel consumed by grief.  Our brains are trying to make sense of the world without our person in it.  Slowly, we begin to take in the reality of the loss, gather an understanding of what that relationship meant to us and what the loss of the relationship means to us, and adapt to the absence of the missing person.  Our brains are literally reorganizing our mental maps of the world around this new absence.  As we adapt to this new reality, we start to grow around our grief.  The loss is no longer all consuming, but rather something we can integrate into our identities and carry with us as we move forward in life (which is different from “moving on”).

This process is not about severing the connection with the person who died (or the situation that came to an end, or the pet that ran away…), it’s about re-organizing the relationship so that the bond continues in their absence.  This “continuing bond” is not a tight grip on the past, it’s something that grows and changes as we grow and change.  We can engage with the parts that help us live well, and we have the freedom to release the parts that hold us back.

This is a lot.  Your attention span is probably not at its best. For now let me implore you to give yourself a lot of grace.  Resisting grief, wishing it would go away, rushing yourself through it…these things don’t work.  Let yourself grieve in your own way. Let yourself feel how you feel. Other people will want to support you, but they may not know how.  Even if they do, you will also need to be a good companion to yourself.  (Read more about self-companionship here.)  Take your time.  Be kind to yourself.  It may be hard to imagine now, but you will be okay.  Trust yourself:  you know how to heal.

Navigating Grief

April 12, 2023