From Heartache to Healing: Embrace Healthy GriefSep 06, 2023
So many people I know are processing grief and loss right now. Whether it’s a death in the family, illness, separation, or another type of loss, grief seems ever-present. It also seems like many of us are stumbling through it instead of being intentional about how we process it. And it makes sense. The emotions are so intense. It’s hard to know what to do with them. But there are some methods for moving difficult emotions through our bodies that can help us deal with grief in our hearts and minds.
What Grief Looks Like
You may have heard of the 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. But there are other models to describe how people process grief like the 4 phases: shock and numbness, yearning and searching, despair and disorganization, and reorganization and recovery. Or the 7 stages model: shock and denial, pain and guilt, anger and bargaining, depression and loneliness, the upward turn, reconstruction and working through, acceptance and hope.
Grief can be deceiving because it doesn’t always look like sadness. It can present as anger, disbelief, fear, guilt, regret, or even apathy. Grief can cause physical symptoms like fatigue, weight gain or loss, insomnia, and physical pain. It can interfere with your behavior, making it hard to focus, remember, or make decisions.
Types of Grief
We use the word grief as if it’s just one thing, someone being sad after a loss. But it’s more complicated than that. Between grieving for things that are coming or not recognizing grief when we feel it, there are several types of grief.
Anticipatory grief – when you know a loss is coming and you start grieving before it happens. It can be helpful, but it can also distract you from being present.
Abbreviated grief – when you’ve done a lot of emotional labor in anticipation of the grief, you can sometimes experience abbreviated grief.
Delayed grief – sometimes the shock is too great or you’re so busy dealing with the aftermath of the loss that you don’t feel the emotions right away. They hit you days, weeks, or months later. Your body just can’t process the emotions in real time.
Inhibited grief – If you don’t recognize your emotions as grief or you don’t know how to process it, you might repress your feelings instead. But they come out somehow, often as physical symptoms like anxiety, panic attacks, or insomnia.
Cumulative grief – when you’re working through multiple losses at the same time, like many of us are since the pandemic started, grief gets more complex and difficult to process.
Collective grief – communities can grieve collectively. (Think what happens after a mass shooting.) When there’s a major event that shifts what’s “normal” for a community, like a natural disaster, massive violence, or a pandemic, it can be hard for the community to decide how to move forward or to imagine a future where everyone is present.
Complications of Grief
Complicated grief involves extreme symptoms that interfere with daily life over a prolonged period. In can stem from any of the types of grief listed above, and can include any of the following:
Absent grief – not showing outward signs of grief, whether it’s because you’re really private or because you are numb.
Ambiguous loss – when you don’t have closure or someone is alive but out of reach. For example, if your loved one is missing or incarcerated or has dementia or Alzheimer's, those would be considered ambiguous losses.
Disfranchised grief – when your community or society signals that your grief isn’t valid, that can be isolating. When it feels like your circle doesn’t want to talk about your miscarriage or your loved one’s suicide or drug overdose, it can feel like they put their own comfort ahead of your intense emotion.
Traumatic grief – processing loss and trauma at the same time from a loss that happens under unpredictable circumstances like violence, accidents, and natural disasters. You may need treatment for PTSD along with grief.
Strategies to Have a Healthy Relationship With Grief
Once you recognize that you are grieving, intentionally being with and expressing your grief can make a difference for how you experience the process. Holding it in might feel safer in the moment, but planning times and places to let it out can bring relief and bonding with your support network. Here are some strategies to have a healthy relationship with grief.
Be with your grief. Sit with the discomfort instead of resisting it. Being with your grief, however it manifests, is how you work through it. When we ignore our emotions, they find other ways to get our attention – like making us sick or showing up as an outburst. Be easy with yourself. Allow yourself to feel what you feel at your own pace.
Express your grief. In InterPlay, we call this exformation. It’s a way of getting those emotions that feel trapped in our bodies out. Whether that’s by dancing, screaming, creating art, or some other expression, getting what you’re feeling out of your body makes space for you to feel and rest. If you can do it in community, that’s even better because some emotions are just too much for one person. But the community has space to hold them all.
Remember it’s a journey. Anybody who gives you a timeline for grief is making it up. The size of your loss, how sudden it was, if it was traumatic, if you pre-grieved – all those things and more factor into how deep and long your grieving process will be. And just because it gets easier with time for some folks, doesn’t mean it ever goes away. You may still have triggers that remind you of the loss. But if you can process your grief, then the reminders might be bittersweet instead of traumatic.
Grieving is not linear. Grief involves sadness and restoration, lows, highs, and in-betweens. It’s okay to laugh and feel happiness and joy in the midst of your grief. And it’s okay to be sad when happy things remind you of what you’ve lost.
Grief can change you. It can change the direction of your life, introduce you to new people, ignite a new passion. While we think of grief as shutting down, it might open you up to new possibilities. You might not like the way you get there, but you might like where you end up.
We’ve all grieved someone or something. Think of a time when you’ve experienced grief. Were you intentional about how you moved through it? Or did you just do what came next and eventually move past it? Can you make a plan or put together some ideas now that can help you the next time you are grieving?
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