In the past couple of years I have watched several friends grieve the death of a loved one. For two of those friends, the loss has been a child, and I can’t even imagine their pain. They are teaching me so much about grief as they share their process and wide range of emotions.
Until recently I always attached the word grief to death. When someone we love passes away we grieve. But now, as I navigate my own painful life change—the breakdown of my marriage, and family, I’m realizing that grief isn’t just a consequence of loss to death; it is a consequence of loss under any circumstance (tweet that.)
I realized this when a friend recommended I listen to a podcast hosted by Rob Bell, in which he interviews David Kessler, a renowned expert on grieving. I listened because all matters of the heart and mind interest me, not because I attached my current situation to the topic of grief.
To my surprise, Kessler talked more about the loss of a loved one due to relationship breakdown than to death. And slowly it was revealed to me that grief is as much about mourning the living as it is about mourning the dead. The podcast met me in a place of need and gave language to what I was feeling.
Before listening to the podcast I hadn’t considered that my mixed emotions of anger, sadness, guilt, and denial were all typical stages of the grief process. I was trying to navigate the changes in my life as though rowing a boat without oars. I even thought I might be a little bit crazy.
So when Kessler identified these emotions as normal grief-driven responses to divorce, I had a stop-me-in-my-tracks a-hah moment. Everything I was feeling was a normal part of grief.
Now that I know this, I am giving myself permission to grieve. I’m grieving the loss of my husband and the life we built over 13 years; the loss of a family unit; the loss of always having my children at home with me; the loss of life as I have known it. Giving myself permission to be broken hearted, despite the fact that I am as much to blame for the break-up as my husband, is a big part of making it through to the other side. After all, we can’t heal what we don’t feel (tweet that!)
In allowing myself to feel each loss that comes with a marriage break-up, I’m also learning some of the lessons that come with the complexities of grief:
It helps to share
In his podcast David Kessler says, “Grief must be witnessed.” I see that. It’s so hard to watch the people around us continue with normal everyday life when we are experiencing loss. Right now it hurts for me to see families, to think of Christmastime — a very family focused holiday. If we are able to talk about our pain with someone, we invite them in as a witness. In a way, the sharing becomes a validation of our emotions.
Grief is personal
“The thing you are feeling is the thing you are feeling. It has nothing to do with another person’s grief.” ~ Rob Bell
I have to admit that when I first considered I may be experiencing grief, I felt guilty. I immediately compared my situation with that of my friends who have experienced great loss, and to my mind the loss of a spouse due to divorce pales in comparison next to the death of a child. But we can’t do that. If we deny our need to feel because someone else’s need is greater than our own, we also deny ourselves the opportunity to heal.
Grief is a non-judgement zone (tweet that!) I have a right to feel what I feel, no matter how big or small in the eyes of the rest of the world.
“We are cruel to ourselves in grief.” ~ David Kessler
If there’s ever a time to be kind to ourselves it’s during times of loss and grief. This is when we need to listen to our bodies; rest when we need to rest and feel what we need to feel without judgement over whether it is right or wrong. This is the time when we need to talk to ourselves as we would talk to a best friend who is in pain. It’s a time to be open, soft and gentle with ourselves. And for those used to hurtling through life at a hectic place, it’s not easy. In grief we must find and adapt to a new norm, and leaning in to what we need along the way is a big part of being able to do that.
There is no quick fix
I have always believed that to overcome any kind of difficulty in life we need to go through the pain rather than side-step around it. Denial only gets us so far; after a while it will come back to haunt us. Unfortunately this type of thinking goes against the grain of our western society, which advocates a quick fix and has more of a “get over it” mentality.
From everything I’ve seen and felt about grief, there is no quick fix. In fact, the quickest way through the pain is always to face and feel it. Looking for a way out only prolongs the pain in the long run.
Writing brings relief
I truly believe that writing during times of grief is one of the most powerful ways we can heal. In the new year author Dana Schwartz will be leading a course on writing through grief here at The Gift of Writing. In the meantime I’d like to give you a sneak peek of that course with today’s writing challenge.
Write your vision of what life was supposed to be
At first glance you may have resistance to this question. Why put yourself through the pain of imagining how great things could have been? But Dana explains it this way:
“There’s a cathartic element to allowing yourself a moment of, say, magical thinking—almost like allowing yourself this one last glimpse of what should have been, what you wish had been. And so later, when enough time has passed, you can let that story go. The point definitely is not to hold onto this alternative reality but to honour the vision of it before parting ways with it.”
Give it a go and let us know how you do. We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!