Grief: The Silent Struggle
This time of year is beautiful; the air is crisp and the trees paint the streets with hues of yellow and orange. Although I know that Colorado will provide many more summer-like days, a part of me grieves the loss of the long summer days. Much like the weather in the beautiful state of Colorado, nothing in life ever stays the same. Change is the only constant in our lives.
Whether it’s a career change or an evolving relationship, change is a natural part of life that all of us struggle with at one point or another. Change is something that everyone deals with in many different ways. Although some have the ability to embrace change, for many, change provokes emotions that aren’t as positive.
An inevitable companion to change is feelings of grief. Many focus on grief in the sense of the feelings associated with the death of a loved one, but grief can be evoked or complicated by many other losses as well: the loss of a dream, the loss of a relationship, the loss of innocence, or the loss of an identity. Grief is a universal experience that is understated and often dismissed by our society.
Major changes, whether good or bad, often result in symptoms of grief. For example, when a person becomes a parent, the transition is often labeled as a positive change. But the parent may experience feelings of loss over a multitude of things: the loss of the identity they had before they had children, the loss of a career, or the loss of a dream of having a good nights sleep. Additionally, when a relationship dissolves, many experience symptoms of grief as well. Not only did the person lose the relationship with their significant other, but they also lost the dream of the future they had once hoped for. These experiences are not typically thought of experiences of grief, but are often very characteristic of the grief process.
What does normal grief look like?
As I stated previously, grief is a very personal and unique experience. No one experience of grief, whether it’s over a death or a dream, is right or wrong. When a person grieves, he or she may experience physical, emotional, social, and spiritual symptoms. Emotional symptoms often range from feelings sadness, anger, numbness, or shame to feelings of guilt, relief and fear. Physical symptoms can present as trouble sleeping, nausea, change in weight or appetite, or restlessness. Social symptoms of grief can cause people to feel dependent or withdrawn and often grief can be accompanied with feelings of lowered self-esteem and other relational difficulties. Some people seek the companionship of others to help them through the tough time, while others seek solitude and cut off communication to those whom they were previously close with. Experiences of loss often shake our spiritual realm as well. Loss of faith or anger is a common experience for those who are grieving. Although this generally happens with the death of a loved one, it can also happen with other losses as well. For example, when someone isn’t able to achieve a dream that they had worked towards, he or she may experience questions regarding their belief system. If a couple has tried for many years to become pregnant and have been unsuccessful, the grief over the loss of the future they had dreamed of may cause them to question the spirituality they had once relied on.
So, what do you do if you’re grieving?
First and foremost, be gentle with yourself and remind yourself that you have the right to grieve and experience the emotions associated with the loss, whether it’s a loss of a dream or a loved one. It may take time to face the reality of your loss. You may replay it over and over again in your head or deny the experience for an extended period of time. When you lose a relationship with someone, it’s very common to often remember memories or replay your last moments together while you are grieving.
Secondly, it’s important to embrace the pain of the loss. Although it is natural for human beings to be pain avoidant, it is essential to address the pain that you are experiencing and not completely avoid it. Distracting yourself can be helpful in compartmentalizing, but be sure to spend time dealing with and being present with the pain as well. Contrary to popular belief, it is okay to feel a range of emotions and being strong doesn’t have to mean that you deny any pain that you are experiencing. It takes serious strength and courage to face the emotion and walk through it instead of trying to jump over it.
Finally, it is important to remember, memorialize (if appropriate) and develop a new sense of identity. Take time to replay and talk about your experiences as often as you need to in a safe way and memorialize what you have lost. Often, with loss, we are faced with the task of developing a new sense of identity without the dream, the relationship, the role, the career, or the person- whatever it may be. Who are you now and how do you want the experience of the loss to shape who you will become? These are all things that are important to address when grieving. Keep in mind, these suggestions are not linear and are often experienced and re-experienced multiple times throughout the grief process.
Much like the falling leaves on the trees outside, it is inevitable that we will experience loss in some form throughout our lives. Remember that loss doesn’t have to mean a death; it can look many different ways and can have lasting impacts on many levels. Allow yourself to feel the emotions associated with your loss and be compassionate with yourself and the process of grief. Grief takes time and often never truly ends. There will always be reminders of the loss and anniversaries to cope with. A therapist can be a safe companion to accompany you through your grief journey. Whether you decide to seek professional help or turn to the comfort of a loved one, allow yourself to be supported and cared for throughout this time.
References and Additional Resources:
"Understanding Your Grief" by Alan Wolfelt
"Companioning the Bereaved" by Alan Wolfelt