The Vicissitudes of Grief: A Personal Path of Pain and Discovery
Written by Jessica A. Jaramillo, MS, LPC. Interim Crisis Coordinator and Clinical Supervisor at the Counseling CenterMar 20, 2023
Today’s blog isn’t exactly a perky topic, but it is one that has touched or will touch the lives of many of us, and that is the indelible presence of grief.
Four months ago, my sister died. She was 31 years old, young, and full of life. As cliche as it may sound, she was truly vibrant and brimming with plans for a future that did not exist. This event was as inexplicable as it was sudden. It felt as unexpected as a never-ending night after a lifetime of sunshine; ultimately, it made me revisit everything I thought I knew about grief, myself, and how I understood life. Now, without going too much into the endless depths and philosophical aspects of life—which I could write entire books about without definitive answers—I do want to explore how to navigate loss as an almost preordained part of being alive.
As I type these words and ponder upon the concept of loss the weight of its meaning, it feels undeniably heavy; not as crushing as it did that first night… yet still loaded, still raw. There’s a surreal quality to her permanent absence that refuses to loosen its grip (and understandably so). A pain that is hard to embrace can sometimes only be taken in small doses—a glimpse of the abyss rather than the unfathomable gaze into what feels like perpetual darkness. Yet, if I’m honest with myself, I know it won’t always be this hard; today I can breathe in a way that was unimaginable four months ago when all I could do was gasp for air. The depth of my grief fluctuates day to day, moment to moment, sometimes all-encompassing and sometimes imperceptible. I’ve come to realize what I somehow already knew: how with the slow tender passing of time, the frequency and intensity gently abates. But before tomorrow comes, how do I endure today? Those moments when it feels hard to hold what is, and the sorrow seeps through the joys that persist, how do I grasp both? Honoring the pain of that which is deeply loved and lost, and relishing in all that is still beautiful and true. Therein lies part of my unsolicited journey of grief and self-discovery.
I think back on all my years of working as therapist, almost 15 years of intermittently holding space for whenever grief visited the therapy room. An unwanted companion (nevertheless an inescapable one), grief does not limit itself to the confines of death alone; it is ever-present in the relentless absence of anything cherished. A job, a friendship, a breakup, a transition in life, the decline of health, youth, an ideal, a plan, money, or status… although these experiences will vary in emotional attachment, impact, or duration, at the core of it stands a shade of grief. It is a constant in life, an inexorable trait of our shared humanity and a testament of our capacity to love, care, hope and dream; and learning how to compassionately move through these events can make a difference between processing the unavoidable pain or getting trapped in the suffering.
So, if you’re in the trenches with me, first and foremost, I’m sorry. I know this can feel like an invitation to a club you never hoped to be in. Having said that, here are a few tips that have helped me personally and professionally, and that can hopefully help you keep your head afloat during these difficult times:
Let’s Start by Normalizing
What happens when we grieve? Most of us are familiar the model developed by Kubler-Ross on the five stages of grieving (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), and although this is not the only model of grief, it is the one that most people relate to. What is often left out of the conversation is that this process is messy and nonlinear. You may cycle through it quickly, slowly, repeatedly, and in no particular order. You may feel an overwhelming lot of emotions, or be completely numb and detached. You may swing from absolute shock and horror to indifference, or disbelief. You may cry incessantly or feel unable to shed a tear. The bottom line is that there is no “right way” to grieve, and this holds true for yourself and those around you. Try to abstain from judging your grief or from thinking it should look a certain way. Most of us have some pre-determined idea of what we think grief should look like, but reality is much more complex than that, so allow it to exist without the judgement that you’re somehow doing it wrong.
It is also important to mention that grief can come with a myriad of physical symptoms such as mental fogginess, sleep disturbances, difficulties with memory or concentration, fatigue, bodily pains and aches, decreased appetite, restlessness, etc. Practice self-compassion if you notice yourself struggling with any of these and know that this too will subside with time. Overall, be kind to yourself and don’t compare your experience to others. Everyone’s journey with grief looks different, it’s a personal experience that will be ever changing, and that’s okay.
It Doesn’t Have to Be a Lonely Path
Grief can feel lonely, but it doesn’t have to be isolating. There is almost no scenario where isolation makes a difficult moment better rather than worse. Although it is true that not all people will be able to fully comprehend or relate to the unique experience of our loss (even for those that have gone through a similar ordeal) this does not mean that we need to suffer through our struggles in solitude. Identify safe spaces or people that you feel comfortable sharing your grief with, including mental health professionals. If you can, join bereavement groups with people that are going through similar experiences and can help normalize the process and bring a sense of community, and continue to engage in social activities even if it’s for small periods of time.
Sit With Your Feelings!
This one can be tricky, as we may not even realize the ways in which we’re interacting with our emotional reactions. So, what exactly does it mean to “sit with our feelings”? The first step to process an emotion is recognizing that it’s there. Take a pause, notice it, name it, drop any secondary thoughts around it. Pay attention to what’s happening—are you holding on tightly, or pushing away that which is uncomfortable, scary, or distressing? We often don’t know how to allow our primary emotions to exist and fluctuate naturally. In the realm of grief, this may look like holding onto our pain because we believe it reflects the immensity our love for this person. Maybe we ascribe to the belief that feeling happy is not allowed when grieving and it creates shame or guilt when it happens, or perhaps, we believe that if we let go of our grief we will soon forget our loved one entirely. On the flip side, we could also be actively pushing away our pain or emotions, avoiding any reminders of the loss, distressing memories, or forcing ourselves to “be okay”. Instead, acknowledge the pain as it comes, avoid judging the experience with thoughts of what it “should” be, and give yourself permission to let exist in its naturally shifting nature.
Take Care of Your Body to Take Care of Your Mind
Body and mind—we know they’re intrinsically connected, each one simultaneously impacting the other and so forth. One crucial piece during this time is making sure we take care of our bodies as best as we can to help us cope and emotionally regulate without adding to the distress. In other words, get enough sleep, exercise if and when you can, eat in a balanced way, and make it a point include at least one enjoyable activity a day, even if it’s small.
Make Lemonade Out of Lemons
Nothing takes away the pain of a significant loss, but two things can be true at the same time. Grief can sometimes help us find meaning or value in things we overlooked before. It can help us find connection in places where it didn’t exist or had faded, or help us discover a sense of purpose and drive that can redefine our views and priorities in life. We can find meaning in pain without negating the difficult aspects of it.
Create a Ritual
Finding ways to honor our loved ones is a beautiful means to keep our connection with them. Processing and moving through our grief do not imply forgetting. In fact, research suggests that engaging in habits and rituals that continue feeding our feeling of connection is much more beneficial than some of the proverbial advice such as “trying to move on”. So do something that makes sense for you, your loved one, or the relationship you had with them. Some examples of this can be planting a tree that symbolizes them, contributing your time or donating to a related cause, creating a memory box with their things, writing to them or talking to them, making finding ways to include their essence in important events, places, etc.
Sometimes It Becomes Impairing and Debilitating
With all this said, it is important to mention that although grief is an entirely normal and healthy response, there is such a thing as a Prolonged Grief Disorder. If you have reason to suspect you may be struggling to move past intense distress and sorrow even when a significant amount of time has gone by—with no changes in intensity, feeling stuck with no relief—or if grief continues to greatly impact your social, work, or personal life for prolonged periods of time, then it may be advisable to reach out for professional help.
If you’re in this journey with me, I hope this can help in at least a small way, if only to know and remember your experience is valid and doesn’t look the same for everyone. Give yourself compassion, patience, and time; be soft and kind to your wounds and pain, as they already hurt. Enjoy the now, wherever you can, it doesn’t contradict your grief, and remember to breathe—tomorrow will be a different day.