In writing about the loss of a loved one, it’s difficult to find the right words to capture the enormity and depth of the pain involved. When someone we deeply love dies, grief takes over. The darkness can feel inescapable and never-ending.
Is it possible to find solace when faced with such despair?
Over the years I’ve worked with clients who have lost loved ones to illness, accidents, violence and suicide. Some were in shock when they came to see me, still under a veil of numbness and disbelief. Others had direct access to the unrelenting pain that had turned their world into the cruelest of nightmares.
When consumed by acute grief, it’s difficult to think clearly, to focus, to complete the simplest tasks. This is normal and unavoidable. On more than one occasion when speaking to a client who recently lost someone, I recognized that they looked at me in confusion, as if I was using another language.
Reflecting back on the first year after the death of her son, one mother told me that she could hear me talking during our early therapy sessions but that she couldn’t understand what my words meant.
“I knew what you were saying would be helpful someday, but my pain was so big then. There was no space left in me to hold onto anything but the pain I felt.”
The process of grieving: Finding your way back
And yet, over time, the desire to re-engage with life started to flicker again within these bereaved individuals. A flicker that would grow into a steady light — a light that wouldn’t undo their loss but rather, shined alongside it. And for some, the light would gradually grow larger than the pain that initially brought them to my office.
It can feel impossible for someone caught in the throes of grief to think that they will someday emerge from their pain. Grief narrows our vision until all we see is what has been taken from us. And yet, time and time again, these bereaved individuals slowly found a pathway that led them out of their intense pain.
So while my words may offer you little solace at this moment in time if you’re grieving a profound loss, I want you to know that for many of the grieving individuals I’ve worked with, life did go from unbearable to manageable to meaningful again.
What my grieving clients taught me (some information that may help)
1) There is not one “right” way to grieve
Following the death of a loved one, there is an acute phase of mourning. Intense sadness and thoughts about the deceased consume us. We ache to be with them again. There is no way to predict how long you might experience this intense level of pain. Some move in and out of intense pain, slowly reclaiming tiny moments of normalcy even while they struggle with the reality of their loss. In this way, grief is more like a spiral than a straight line.
But there is plenty of reason for hope.
In his book The Other Side of Sadness, grief researcher George A. Bonanno, Ph.D., describes the innate resiliency that exists in those who have lost someone they love. There is enormous pain. And, at some point, there is the drive to reengage in life. Grieving involves an oscillation between these two states of being — the experience of deep sorrow interspersed with moments of normalcy.
At first, you may not even notice these brief and fleeting moments of re-engagement. But over time, they grow and expand.
Grieving doesn’t mean “getting over the loss” or returning to “life as usual.” Grieving is intensely personal, perhaps the most personal of all human struggles. No one should imply that you aren’t grieving the “right way.” There is no timeline you must follow, no particular path, no set of milestones you must achieve. Sometimes just getting through the day is all you can do, and that’s all you need to expect of yourself. Resist the urge to let others (even well-meaning others) pressure you with “shoulds.”
My clients have taught me that the process of grieving involves the integration of the loss into their lives (rather than “moving past” the loss); holding onto the memory and essence of the deceased as they slowly re-engage in a life that holds meaning for them.
2) Feeling deeply alone
“No one can understand what I’m going through…unless they’ve been through it too.”
You might find that for a period of time you want to isolate. Being with others can feel too taxing at times, even when they are trying their best to be helpful. At some point, however, this can shift and you may start to notice an increased desire to be around others.
On the other hand, and keeping sight of the fact that there is absolutely no one-size-fits-all approach to surviving grief, some people may have an increased need to be with others. The company of friends and family can act like a lifejacket that keeps us afloat. In fact, the thought of being alone during this time may feel terrifying.
When actually in the presence of others, though, you might feel differently. Especially if you’ve lost a child. Parents who have lost children may feel inherently different from parents who have not. And, depending on how your child died, you might feel judged or imagine that others must be judging you. As one father shared, “When your child commits suicide, others are quick to blame the parents. They think, ‘If you were a good parent, this wouldn’t have happened.’ So I rarely share how my son died. I’ve learned that I need to protect myself by keeping that fact private.”
At times, others may make comments that they think are helpful but that make you feel worse, for example: “I don’t think I could survive what you’ve been through” or “You’ll be stronger after you get through this.” Most people genuinely want to say something helpful to bereaved friends and family, but they are at a loss for words. However, your only job is to take care of yourself: it’s not your job to determine whether they come from a well-meaning place. You may have to set boundaries with certain people to protect yourself.
3) Guilt and regret
One grieving husband shared: “The day my wife died, we had a major argument. I don’t even remember what the fight was about, but I hate that that was the last conversation I ever had with her.”
“I wish I had…”; “Why didn’t I…” “I shouldn’t have…” “I should have…” The finality of losing someone is staggering. It freezes in time the things you wish hadn’t happened. This is a common occurrence for anyone who has lost a loved one — reflecting on the past and wishing we did certain things differently.
Some of us end up tortured by regret. We can become imprisoned by thoughts about something we said or did (or didn’t say or do). Revisiting this can take on a punishing quality. If prolonged, self-torment can keep us stuck in the acute phases of grief. Integrating the loss in some meaningful way isn’t an option when we believe that punishment for past “sins” is justified.
You may not be ready (or able) to relinquish guilt or regret. But at some point, holding them up to the light so that a more balanced (and less judgmental) exploration can occur can help loosen the hold they have on you.
4) It feels like a betrayal to move forward
“The pain keeps my husband’s memory alive. I don’t want to forget about him!”
At some point our grief starts to lessen. We may find ourselves craving the food we once enjoyed; thoughts about spending time with a friend enter our mind; a feeling of contentment awakens as we breathe in the autumn air; an off-handed comment makes us smile (and maybe even laugh).
Doors are opening. This is the reentry into life — the vital healing energy that exists within us is breaking through. And in these moments of forward movement, we can feel the sudden need to pull ourselves back.
We begin to feel disloyal to the one we’ve lost. If we move foreword, we think we must be leaving him/her behind. We fear that our memories of our loved one will shrink with each forward step we take.
“How dare you feel happiness! You should be ashamed of yourself” is the critical voice that convinces us that the only way to honor the person we’ve lost is through suffering. This is guilt in action. Suffering, in this dynamic, is the solution to keeping the one you lost close by. Pain is equated with remembering. Our suffering can feel like the only connection we have left to our loved ones — to feel better is to sever this connection.
If this dynamic gets locked into place, it can keep us in acute grief for many years. This form of “complicated grief” (as it is called in the literature about grief) can be helped with counseling. Katherine Shear, MD has developed a treatment protocol to help those who are struggling with complicated grief.
The pain you’re feeling is an extension of the deep love you have for the person you lost.
Life feels ruthlessly cruel when someone we love is taken from us. Our grief is a way that we say goodbye. A way to remember and internalize his/her loving presence as we journey forward.
This is a process that unfolds. Time is needed. But not just time.
Along the way, there will be things you may find helpful. Facing your grief while holding the hand of someone you trust; talking about it; accessing support when needed. Finding others who have had similar losses (bereavement groups for those who have lost a spouse, child, a family member, for example). And above all, remembering to be kind to yourself.
(And some days nothing may feel helpful, and that’s normal too. Don’t force yourself to accept help during times when you need to be alone. Respect your own grieving process and how it needs to unfold.)
Know that you aren’t alone. Others have stood on the shaky, terrifying ground you currently stand on. With help and support, they’ve regained their footing. Try to remember this whenever your pain feels too big to carry. It takes courage to reach out when you are ready, and through your grief, to accept the helping hand of others.
Dr. Rich Nicastro
(If you have questions about grief counseling or if you feel that you could benefit from counseling to help with your own bereavement process, feel free to contact me.)
(Featured image courtesy of Frameangel @ FreeDigitalPhoto.net)