Grief demands expression. The only way to get through it is to go through it – to experience the pain of grief and process it in safe, healthy ways.
I’m lucky to have an amazing writing partner. Her name is Emily and she’s a talented writer. She’s also a grief counselor. Emily’s mother passed away when she was in high school and the tenderness she feels for those who are grieving is apparent in every word she writes. It’s a privilege to publish her words on Be Brave today.
Tell me a little bit about grief. What is it and how is it different from sadness or depression?
Grief is a natural response to loss; it is a universal experience but also an individual one; no two people grieve alike and there is no right way to grieve. Grief affects the mind, body, and the spirit. It alters our worldviews, and knows no timetable. People grieve at their own paces, and it is not a linear process. Common emotional experiences of grief include shock, anger, sadness, fear, and guilt (though that’s just scratching the surface). Common physical experiences include fatigue, weight loss or gain, disrupted sleep, and an empty, hollow feeling in the stomach (again, those are just a few examples).
Grief can look like depression, especially when it persists, but there are distinctions between the two. For example, a bereaved individual may express guilt over certain aspects of their loss, whereas someone who is clinically depressed may have generalized feelings of guilt. A griever may experience intense sadness, which they attribute to their recent loss, whereas a depressed individual may feel a sense of chronic hopelessness, for which they can’t identify a specific cause. Bereaved individuals who suspect they may be depressed should see a counselor, who can help them make that determination. Anyone struggling with depressed feelings should speak with doctor or counselor who can help them find the right treatment.
Is there any evidence that men and women grieve differently? Or is grief a similar process for all of us, or a unique process for all of us? What can you tell me about that?
Contemporary grief literature points to an intuitive style and an instrumental style. Intuitive grievers process their grief in the emotional realm – by expressing their feelings, crying, and talking openly about their loss. They often benefit from bereavement support groups and telling the story of their loss. Instrumental grievers, on the other hand, process their grief in the thinking realm – by problem-solving and planning, channeling their feelings into activities, often physical ones, seeking comfort in the act of doing and staying busy. Most people are very much a blend of the two styles and exist somewhere on the continuum. In my experience as a grief therapist, working with adults and children, I saw more males who fit into the instrumental style and more women that were intuitive grievers. However, I saw plenty of exceptions to that, and people’s grief is as unique as their personalities.
It’s common for boys and men to want to “soldier through” their emotions without acknowledging them. What are some of the effects of ignoring your grief and what value is there in acknowledging it?
Instrumental grievers – who are, in my experience, commonly, but certainly not always men – tend to value being in control of their emotions and may be misunderstood by those around them as being “fine” when, really, they are struggling. I think males in our society are conditioned from a young age to be “stoic” and “strong,” and these ingrained messages can significantly impact how they grieve.
Speaking from personal experience, when my mother died from cancer, my brother – a teenager at the time – felt that he had to contain his emotions. He barely ever spoke about his feelings while my mom was sick and after she died, and no one questioned it much. “He’s always been a man of few words,” they’d say to justify it. But the truth is, he wasn’t coping with it at all, and avoiding grief will not make it disappear; it only makes it worse. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote:
There is no grief like the grief that does not speak.
Grief demands expression. The only way to get through it is to go through it – to experience the pain of grief and process it in safe, healthy ways. For some, that means therapy, but not everyone who grieves will need grief therapy. For others, it means accepting support from those around them and learning – often through trial and error – how to navigate this unchartered territory, finding coping skills along the way.
We’ve all heard the quote, “Time heals all wounds,” but with grief, time does not work alone; healing from a loss takes effort, too – it’s arduous work facing the emotions and practical concerns that come with such a drastic life change. But when we allow ourselves to feel the weight and the depth of our grief, we also make room for happiness to return to our lives, eventually. If we don’t deal with our grief, it just gets bigger, taking up every inch of space within us. My brother could only ignore his grief for so long, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. At some point, he was bound to break down and he did, finally opening up about his profound grief, which opened up his ability to recover.
You’ve mentioned you felt shame about your grief and I have a cousin who felt the same way, but I imagine that will come as a surprise to some people. Can you talk me a little bit about why people would feel ashamed to be grieving? And how can this shame impact their healing process? Do other people unknowingly contribute to this shame?
Shame can be a normal part of grief. For me, I think it stemmed from being an adolescent and wanting to be just like my friends, but none of them had suffered a loss like mine. In fact, I truly felt as though I was only young person in the world who had ever lost a mother. That’s how grief can feel – starkly isolating. We all want to feel understood, and when you’re grieving, it can seem like no one gets it, even those closest to you. Even within one’s own family, everyone is experiencing the same loss differently. I also had many regrets about the time during which my mom was sick, and I felt deeply ashamed about not having spent enough time with her.
We live in a society where people feel pressure to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and get on with their lives shortly after a loss. Grief can feel like a “taboo” subject, not to be freely discussed, because it makes others uncomfortable. I felt a lot of shame when people in my life expressed concern (and even frustration) over how long I’d been grieving, wondering why I wasn’t over it yet. Their feelings came from a well-meaning place – they hated to see me hurting. But from my perspective, they were trying to rush my grief, and in doing so, minimizing my mother’s life and her role in my life. It was difficult to explain that I would never be “over” my grief, because they interpreted this as: she will never stop being sad, and that was not the truth.
Grief is a lifelong process, but it’s continually changing, and not always so intense. As author Vicki Harrison writes:
Grief is like the ocean, it comes in waves-ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.
It took me a long time to learn how to stay afloat, but once I acknowledged my loss (instead of hiding from it), and experienced my pain (instead of masking it), I began living again. The more books I read about other ‘motherless’ daughters, and the more people I met who were bereaved, the less ashamed I felt. My grief became normalized.
One of the hardest parts of grief is how helpless everyone touched by it feels. When a parent has a child who is grieving, what would you want them to do to support their child and help them heal? What tools or advice can you give them?
Parents tend to want to protect their children from the reality of death and the pain of grief. But the fact is, loss is a reality for some children, and children do grieve, in their own ways. Bereaved kids may behave normally much of the time, playing with toys or doing other activities, but that doesn’t mean they’re unaffected; kids can’t handle the intense emotions of grief all the time, so they naturally take grief breaks. Children often don’t know how to articulate their feelings of grief, and that’s why it’s important for parents to give them the language, and explain that it’s okay to feel sad (mad, confused, etc.), and to express this, through words and tears. Kids may worry about burdening their parents and making them more upset (especially if this is a loss for which the parent is grieving heavily), so it’s important that parents provide their children with appropriate reassurance.
It’s helpful to stick to a routine, as much as possible, as this gives children a sense of security. Parents should invite children to ask questions and respond as best they can, even if that means admitting they don’t have all the answers. The most important thing is that children know their parents will continue to be there for them. It’s also important to communicate with the adults in children’s lives (teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, etc.) to inform them of the loss so they can be better attuned to the child’s needs and check in about his or her coping. If parents feel their children are in need of extra support, they should consider grief counseling or bereavement groups led by a clinician specializing in child/adolescent grief. For young children, a Certified Child-Centered Play Therapist is recommended.
What thoughts do you have for a young man who is grieving himself due to the loss of a friend or loved one? What would you want him to know? What would you want him to do to help himself heal?
I would say this: be gentle with yourself, take good care of yourself, get help if you need it, and remember that no one should have to go through grief alone.
We bereaved are not alone. We belong to the largest company in the world – the company of those who have known suffering. When it seems our sorrow is too great to be borne, let us think of the great family of the heavy-hearted into which our grief has given us entrance, and inevitably, we will feel about us their arms, their sympathy, their understanding. –Helen Keller
Here are a few of Emily’s suggestions for finding grief support in your area:
- Contact your local hospice organizations, as they often offer individual and/or group bereavement support. Many offer support free of charge.
- Request a referral from your primary care doctor.
- Call your insurance company or do online research to find a list of therapists specializing in grief who accept your insurance plan (or that accept private pay). Psychologytoday.com is one website that provides such information.
Legacy Hospice Services, (2007). Finding Your Grief Style. The Bereavement Companion.
Wolfelt, A.D., (1988) Death and Grief: A Guide For Clergy, Accelerated Development, Inc. Publishers.
Emily Page Hatch, M.A., is a freelance writer, therapist, and mother. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Babble, The Huffington Post, The HerStories Project, Modern Loss, and other publications. You can connect with Emily on Twitter @EmilyPageH and at www.emilypagehatch.com.