Grief & Loss
Grief happens when we experience the death of a loved one or pet. And grief also takes up residence in our bodies when we experience any type of loss. Grief can even visit when good things happen that change our lives. When we experience a change and we are forced let go of familiar patterns, our nervous system has to adjust and we experience conflicting and confusing emotions. Grief is an emotional experience, as well as a neurobiological event happening to the nervous system.
Unlike some popular philosophies, grief does not proceed in a predictable linear fashion, but rather evolves through a series of cycles that the body experiences at it’s own rhythm and pace. And everyone has a unique way to move through grief.
Disbelief: Most people experience disbelief first, because our bodies experience a sort of shock. People freeze up at the news of a death or impending loss. To support yourself or another, spend some time simply identifying feelings and notice what’s happening in your body. You’ll notice a lot of shifting and changing, so there will be a lot to take in as you learn to be a curious, compassionate observer of your body, mind and emotions.
Emotions: After the shock wears off, you’ll probably experience the emotions we commonly name sadness and grief as well as anger and resentment. Most people find that these two sets of emotions alternate for some time. And because they are so different, it can be confusing to feel loss and abandonment one minute, then irritation or frustration the next.
When loss happens, the nervous system is working constantly to adapt to a world with a new “geography” where the old familiar internal landmarks are forever changed. It’s like driving to what you thought was a familiar road to return home, only to find the road has been removed. Every time to drive “home” you have the confusion and frustration of having to find a new path.
Trying to change the story: Next people start to mentally try to change the past, or create an explanation that makes sense of it. “If only I had . . .” or “If he would have just . . .” or “They should have . . .” More complex emotions emerge during this phase, such as guilt, remorse, blame as our nervous system tries to find a way to outsmart the loss in order to avoid it.
Acceptance: Gradually people come to accept “what is” and start to move on. When this feeling of acceptance grows, the event turns into a part of our history, something that happened in our lives rather than a crisis of loss. It stops being a tragedy and becomes part of our life’s story. It has affected the course of our lives, but it no longer feels like a current event.
Acceptance feels very different than leaving the emotions and thoughts behind; different than burying our feelings. Many of us tell ourselves to “just get over it.” Instead, when we are finally ready to move on, the nervous systems has adapted successfully to the new conditions. Our minds and hearts have made meaning from the loss and are looking forward once again, naturally.
What Doesn't Work with Grief
- Replacing the pet, or the loved one with another cherished person
- Trying to out run grief by being busy
- Burying the pain of loss. It will come back when triggered by seemingly unrelated events. Trying to bury grief only blocks our ability to bond with others, to keep from triggering the pain of caring. And third, it takes enormous resources to bury these raw emotions.
- Thinking that time passing will be enough to heal grief. When grief is stuck, the sense of unfinished business mounts, like rocks in our back packs, dragging us down day by day, week by week, until it turns into depression.
- Getting medications for depression. Many people mistakenly confuse grief and depression. Depression occurs when the nervous system shuts down. Grief, on the other hand is an active, healthy process of healing and revising the nervous system. Stuck grief however can turn into depression.
- Keeping your thoughts and feelings bottled up. Once the funeral is over, many people expect that they should “just get over it” after a few weeks and then keep their sorrow to themselves. Sadly this does not work. Grief support groups help so that people can talk and talk until they are done talking.
What to Do to Support the Grief Process
The Life Review: It can be very helpful to do a life review, listing experiences and memories with the loved one or pet. Some people make a time line from the first memory to the last. Things to write about, draw or find photos for include:
- Happy memories in chronological order
- Things you have appreciated
- Things you wished you had said or done but did not, anything you feel guilty about
- Things that your loved one did that upset, disappointed or hurt you.
- Your regrets
You might use a large piece of paper with a life line, writing or drawing things above the line that where happy and pleasing and things below the line that were challenging or painful. One client found an old player piano role and used that to collage pictures, words and drawings that captured her life with her husband. Over the years she has looked at her scroll and with each year her feelings change, where she feels more joy and gratitude with every anniversary that passes. Her husband’s death has become a meaningful part of her history, not the tragedy it once was.
Sharing the Life Review: When you have completed the story of your relationship, it is time to share this record of your life experiences with your loved one with others. Do it as often as you need to until you feel complete. Let people know that you mostly want them to listen without correcting you or giving advice.
Saying Goodbye: Then at some point, that only you will know, you’ll feel ready to say good bye. And you can do this in a letter written in first person. It will bring up emotion. And in the final sentence, say “good bye.” When you’ve written it, share it with a trusted person or a therapist by reading it out loud. Be sure to choose someone who can support you in a loving, caring neutral manner, honoring the powerful process you have just completed.
If you’d like help processing grief, a psychotherapist trained in somatic methods can help you move through grief, particularly if it has gotten stuck. I am in a three year training program with Peter Levine in Trauma Healing. This method can smooth out the difficult journey through grief if you get stuck in a deep rut.
To work directly with your nervous system, read Eugene Gendlin’s book “Focusing” that gives you an easy to use tool for personal transformation. His research at the University of Chicago, led him to create a 6 steps steps that identify and change the way thoughts and emotions are held within the body. You can use this tool in just 10 minutes and feel results right away. You may notice less tension and stress in your body. And you may experience insights and understanding as your body releases energy bound up in old beliefs and makes room for self-awareness and inner wisdom.
Life After Loss
In the middle of a terrible loss, most people feel like they will never recover. They fear they will never have any energy to enthusiasm again. It helps to think of grief like surgery. You wouldn’t expect yourself to have heart surgery and be up and running again in a week or two. The same with grief. Only there is no scar to show, no indication that anything has changed. But if we could see a map of the heart, we would see it has a entirely different landscape, that is invisible to everyone. In any difficult transition, it’s helpful to remember that if we trust our bodies, feel the challenging feelings with love, the invisible wounds will close and heal.