I’ve noticed that the subject of death comes up often, talking with people, both professionally and personally. Quite a few people I know have lost a family member in the last year and many others still feel the pain of losses that may have happened years ago.
There is a lot of information published on grief. We all will feel or be exposed to feelings of grief and loss, at some point in our lives. Our reactions to death & loss are complex emotionally and may include deep sadness, anger, denial, optimism, fear, and/or excitement — every person’s experience of grief is different. And an individual’s experience of grief is likely to change over time or from situation to situation.
When people think of grief, they often think of death. In our culture, death is often seen as the greatest possible loss. But grief can also come about at the loss of a relationship, a job, a dream, a hope.
For many people, grief is a hard emotion to have and it sometimes seems to stay with us for longer than we expect. Grief is one of those emotions that people generally don’t like to feel. Our culture also has a way of expecting people to quickly “get over” their grief. Even the sadness that comes with grief is sometimes not accepted in our culture.
A colleague of mine tells this story:
“I had spent the night in the hospital with my mother, who was dying. After she finally transitioned, I was sitting in the room, crying, when a nurse came up to me, patted me on the shoulder, and said ‘don’t cry.’ I thought if ever there was a time my tears should be accepted, this was then.”
Whenever she tells this story, she notes that “if it’s not ok to cry then, when would it be ok for me to cry?” Certainly that nurse had only the best intentions, yet a part of her message was that tears and grief are not welcome.
We sometimes have ways of telling ourselves not to grieve as well. A part of us is against our own grief. If we feel anger, we may feel guilty or ashamed for having anger. If we are in despair, we may fear we will never come out of it. And, of course, others, seeing our despair, may fear for us as well and try to pull or push us out of our experience.
There is often an expectation that grief fit into our timeline – we believe or tell ourselves we should be able to move through or get over our grief in a short or fixed period of time. We say we have cried and grieved enough. Now, we should stop. It has been 2 weeks or 2 months, 2 years or even 20 years.
I believe the key to the grief process is to allow it to have its own time and space. When the feelings arise, it is important to accept and not judge ourselves or try to rush the process. It is important to have a safe place to let yourself move through the stages of grief. And to know that grief is a part of life, not “just a reaction” to death and loss to be gotten over. Grief brings a deep and needed immersion in memories, attachments and connections to people, pets, places, future hopes and dreams that have been lost. Grief also brings a withdrawal from everyday concerns that help us to heal, re-orient and restore ourselves over time.
No one wants to grieve or necessarily knows how to, but it is our encounter with the unknown in the grieving process that often brings the seeds of new life.