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Wellbeing and grief

11 Mar 2022 / Wellbeing Print

What dreams may come

Grief isn’t just about death – it’s about the loss and change we experience when the life we had is gone, and there’s a new one in its place. Niamh Fitzpatrick brings us through the grieving process.

When we think about grief, we tend to instinctively focus on bereavement, but it’s important to know that grief is not solely about death. Grief is about loss and change. It’s what we experience when the life we had is gone and there’s a new one in its place, or when the life we hoped for has not happened and may never come to pass.

So, while we expect to experience grief upon the death of a loved one, many people don’t consider that we also grieve for losses in our life that don’t involve bereavement – such as the end of a relationship, failure to achieve a career goal, a life-changing accident or medical diagnosis, infertility, the ebbing away of a loved one’s ability to recognise us when dementia takes hold, retirement from a career or hobby, the empty nest … the list is long and varied.

Thinking even of the past two years, the pandemic has been a time characterised by significant loss – whether that’s been loss of loved ones, businesses and jobs, rites of passage, connection, choice, peace of mind, or a sense of security in what we thought we knew about the fundamentals of life.

We can see, then, that grief is something we all encounter as part of the human experience – but how can we cope when we encounter loss in life? Are there things we can do to navigate grief? Although there’s no magic bullet to take away the pain of loss, there are ways in which we can help ourselves when grieving, and understanding is the starting point.

Understanding grief

What grief is not: grief is not about stages (a popular myth), nor about a linear journey (it’s not a forward motion). It’s not about getting over it, moving on, or trying to find closure; it’s not about an end-date. Grief is not about doing well, getting it right, or feeling better. Nor is it about being strong or resilient. And it’s definitely not about just feeling sad.

What grief is: grief is about learning to live with loss, learning to carry the pain of missing someone you love, or living a life you don’t want. Initially, grief is just about survival, getting through those early days, weeks and months after loss.

Then it can be about lurching from one state to another and back again; so you might feel one day as though you’re able to carry the pain of loss, and the next day you might feel just as you did on day one. It’s all normal, you’re not doing it wrong, this is what grief feels like and, indeed, there is no wrong.

In time, grief is about growing your life around your loss and, across time, building a new life around your grief (Tonkin’s theory). Some days, the life we’ve built reduces down and the loss sits centre-stage again. We might expect this on the big days, such as anniversaries or Christmas, but it also occurs on the ordinary days too.

The key here is to know that we can build our life around loss. We don’t remain stuck in those early feelings. We can, in time, find the balance between remembering and living. There’s great hope in this – and when you’re grieving, hope is everything.

It’s helpful to know, too, that you may shift between a loss-orientation and a restoration-orientation (Stroebe and Schut’s ‘dual process model’). With a loss-orientation, the focus and feelings are around the loss in your life, confronting the loss head-on and leaning into it.

Restoration-orientation is where you begin to do ordinary tasks again, restoring some of your old life into the mix, the rebuilding of everyday life after loss. Both orientations play a part in helping you learn to live with loss.

It’s useful to consider JW Worden’s ‘four tasks of mourning’, which can also have relevance for losses in life that are not as a result of death:

  1. To accept the loss,
  2. To process your feelings of loss,
  3. To adjust to life without the person you love, and
  4. To invest in a new life, including new ways to connect with the person you miss.

Indeed, understanding grief is also about considering these words from author Megan Devine: “Some things in life cannot be fixed, they can only be carried.”

It’s important to know, too, that grief is a whole-person experience; there is not one aspect of ourselves that is not affected by grief. We know, for example, that loss and grief can result in changes on all levels:

  • Physically – appetite, sleep, energy, immune system,
  • Cognitively – concentration, forgetfulness, absent mindedness,
  • Emotionally – shock, sadness, anger, guilt, loneliness, anxiety, resentment and more,
  • Socially – withdrawing, isolating, or not wanting to be alone,
  • Behaviourally – uncharacteristic decision-making and behaviours, and
  • Spiritually – wondering ‘what’s the meaning of it all?’

Outlining this sense of what to expect with grief can prevent us from inadvertently adding layers of judgement or expectation to what we experience. Grief is hard work as it is – we certainly don’t need to make it any harder.

Navigating grief

Know that your feelings are normal: whatever you feel, accept and validate those feelings – ‘I can understand how I can feel this way’. No judgement. No expectations to feel a certain way. ‘An abnormal response to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour’ (Viktor Frankl).

Feel your feelings: acknowledge your feelings – don’t try to ignore them, run from them, or mask them. Although it’s painful, lean into your feelings and let them come. You won’t get stuck in them – they need to be expressed when you’re ready to do so.

You might cry, you might get angry; you might talk it out, or run it out; you might sing or write about how you feel. It doesn’t matter how you do it, just that you allow those feeling to exist and that you give them a voice of expression.

Allow for differences: we live differently, we love differently, we grieve differently. Allow for those differences, and don’t expect those around you to look, sound, or feel exactly as you do when you’re all grieving.

Grief is not a competition – there are no awards for who hurts more or who grieves ‘best’, and it doesn’t mean that someone loves more or hurts more if they appear different in their grief. We need to live and let live in how we grieve. Do what feels right for you in how you grieve, and let others do the same.

‘Chunk it down’: it can be quite overwhelming trying to come to terms with the enormity of loss, contemplating your whole life without a loved one or without the plans you held so dear, so it’s useful to ‘chunk things down’ and not try to take everything all on board at once.

That can mean taking things one day at a time, looking at the time ahead of you in small chunks, and dealing with each chunk one at a time. Think of just putting one foot in front of the other – that’s good enough sometimes.

Name it: if you can’t sleep or if your mood is shifting a lot, name it: for example, “My mind and body are trying to make sense of this awful loss.” Mind your body, so that it can mind you:

  • Sleep and rest,
  • Nutrition and hydration,
  • Fresh air and movement, and
  • Connection.

Gather support: let people help you as you navigate loss. People often want to help – they can feel helpless in the face of your pain, so the giving and receiving of support can bring benefit to all parties. In time, you will find your own way to learn to carry your loss, and you’ll be yourself again (or rather, a new version of yourself).

But, for now, it’s okay to take that help. Think about who is offering you help or support that you have not yet accepted, and consider whether it might be time to do so. It’s also okay not to accept all help – just go with that you need. And indeed, it’s okay to ask for what you need if you know what that is.

Engage with professional help if needed: for many people, bereavement and life losses will not require professional help; however, for some people, a qualified and experienced ear can be hugely beneficial when it comes to finding your way through these times. There is no shame in this – it’s a strength to recognise when to look for help, guidance, and support to navigate loss and grief.

Children grieve too

Whether through death, divorce, loss of friendships, loss of the life they had (during this pandemic, for example), children feel loss just as we do. It might not look like grief – it can look different to what you might imagine (acting out, etc).

As a parent or guardian, it’s about keeping them informed and involved in an age-appropriate way, dealing with each child as an individual, giving them space to express their feelings, allowing them to continue to do normal things, such as play with their friends even in the face of bereavement, role modelling that it’s okay to have feelings, creating a space for questions, and it’s about reassurance that they will be okay.

Consider what might be on the other side of awful: I don’t mention this in terms of grief, because we don’t come out the other side of that – that’s not what it’s about. Instead, we talk about learning to live with grief and loss. In surviving loss, we can find the following:

  • Clarity – in surviving, you get to know who you are, what you’re made of and capable of, and also who your friends are,
  • Perspective – you also get to know now what really matters in life, and you can sift through the noise and cut straight to what’s important, because you have that perspective,
  • Freedom – having survived the loss of your loved one or the loss of the life you had, you can find that you don’t need to be liked, or to please people. You may even be able to say ‘no’ without guilt. You have, essentially, handled much worse than someone not liking you or approving of you, and that can result in you feeling more at peace and freer now than you have ever done before.

Supporting others’ grief

“When you cannot look on the bright side, I will sit with you in the dark” (anon).

Supporting someone grieving means being there in whatever way is right for your relationship with them and for their needs as they grieve; creating a space that allows them to feel their pain, without judgement or expectation to ‘hurry up’.

You might be physically there with them; you might go with them to the grave; you might do practical tasks for them, such as food shopping or collecting children; you might sit and listen as they share their authentic feelings.

Grief hurts. It will hurt. You will be okay. But don’t pathologise grief – your feelings are normal; they are a human response to loss. We can feel helpless when we’re grieving, but there are things you can do to mind yourself, as outlined above. And in doing some of these things, you can be an active participant in your grief, and this can be a great help in navigating this toughest of times in your life. 

Look it up


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Niamh Fitzpatrick
Niamh Fitzpatrick is the author of Tell Me the Truth About Loss.