Good Grief

As I wrote about earlier this week, helping others and expressing empathy releases the 'feel good' emotions that we need to thrive. Some of you might be wondering how talking about what scares us ... what makes us sad ... or what we have lost … helps us get to that 'feel good' state. Here's my simple truth ... a truth that I've acquired by being with grief in a particular kind of way since 2001. Grief is not an emotion. It is no more an emotion that giving birth. Grief is an 'all in’ state that tears us apart, shatters our assumptive world, makes us question everything, leaves us feeling exhausted, and completely alone. Grief often strikes when it's least expected. Our response is involuntary. We don’t get to choose how we grieve … just like we don’t get to choose how we give birth. No matter how much we try to manage our grief experience, we quickly learn who’s boss.

Grief gets complicated in part because our North American culture has promoted a fear of death and a bias towards resilience. Early on in what was a traumatic grief experience, I remember being acknowledged for being ‘so brave, so strong, so supportive’. I also remember being ‘hurried along’ by those trying to help … ‘Tracy wouldn’t want you to be this sad’ … or …  ‘you have so much life left to live’ … or … ‘at least she isn’t suffering anymore’. These consolations don’t help someone who is in deep grief. These platitudes only serve to make those witnessing the grief feel better so that we don’t have to witness someone else’s pain. Sadly, in our death phobic and grief illiterate society, we traumatize grievers into believing that what they are experiencing isn’t normal.

This blog offers healthy and healing practices to support each other in our collective losses and to normalize what you might be experiencing, given today’s uncertain and volatile environment, by busting some of the myths (and there are many) that encourage grievers to stay silent.

In my nearly 20-year exploration on the topic of death and grief, I am fully stepping into what feels like a vocational calling to share a different way for us to 'carry our grief and loss stories'. A way that is open, welcoming, humbling, and prepared. Here’s what I’ve come to know about some of the myths surrounding grief and loss and some recommended healthy and healing practices:

Myth #1: Grief is an emotion – this myth perpetuates a cognitive distortion that we can ‘feel our way’ out of the grief experience. If left unattended, which so much grief is, it can generate heightened anxiety and can lead to depression. We feel many things when we grieve – a range of emotions including anger, sadness, frustration, guilt, relief, despair … and over time, when we work through our grief, we can come to experience profound joy, deep love, hope, and empathy. By naming grief as an all body experience that impacts our cognitive, somatic (body), social, spiritual and moral lines, we normalize the ‘all in’ phenomena that many experience when living through grief.

A healthy and healing practice is to name the emotions that surface for you as you pause to consider how COVID-19 is affecting you in this moment. As you name the emotion, see where this emotion lives in your body, then place your hand on this location and breathe deeply to acknowledge it. Our bodies need to feel that we are listening, and one way to acknowledge our deeper wisdom is through breath and touch.

Myth #2: Grief is bad – this myth encourages supporters and grievers to avoid using the right language to explain what is unfolding. For instance, not using the word “she died” and instead using “we lost her” or “she went away”. We use softer and inaccurate language to inoculate ourselves against the inevitable. As Rachelle Bensoussan, one of my professors and the co-founder of Being Here, Human, is fond of saying “100% of us won’t make it out alive.” So yes, death is inevitable. But we often walk around blinding ourselves to this reality. In today’s environment, we can’t overlook this fact … the truth is everywhere … the numbers are staggering … death is staring us in the face. Truth is that grief is our body’s way of working through grief in a way that allow us to survive. Without grief, we would perish … or die of a broken heart. The gift of grief is that it allows us to process our new reality and grapple with big questions like “Who am I now without my loved one? In what ways can I honour their memory? What do I want to do with my life? How will I ever breathe again?”

A healthy and healing practice is to reflect on some of your underlying assumptions about grief and death. For instance, on a blank piece of paper trace a line. At the beginning enter your first remembered loss story and at the end of the line enter in your most recent one. In between the two, include any story of loss that has impacted you – remember that we can experience tangible losses such as the death of loved ones, our homeland, our homes, jobs, finances, pets … and intangible losses … relationships, identity, health, cognitive capacity, mobility, status, hopes, belonging – and as you review your loss history, what emotions surface for you? In what ways have you grieved these losses? Where do you feel these losses in your body? What might be a way for you to honour these losses? Reflect on these questions and write down your responses in a Grief Journal. Our words shape our worlds and can offer healing solutions during difficult days.

Myth #3: Grieve quickly – For those that now accept that grieving might actually be good for us, you might believe that doing it as quickly and efficiently as possible is the next best thing. Dr. Alan Wolfelt, another grief teacher and the creator of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, speaks to ‘dosing our grief’ so that we don’t get overwhelmed in the process. This is where understanding your coping styles can help you process your grief in a manner that is healthy for you. Consider that coping styles live on a continuum between intuitive and instrumental. You really don’t get to choose how you cope – another of those involuntary truths of what it means to be human. However, you can appreciate that some healthy ways of coping could include sharing your emotions with others, attending grief circles, and speaking about your loss. For others, their ways of coping might include researching grief theories, building something, creating projects, working out, or cleaning out their closet. The trick is to know and accept our various coping preferences and to not impose our way on others.

A healthy and healing practice it to reflect on your own coping style. Consider the following steps and jot down what comes to mind in your Grief Journal:

  • Step 1: Sit quietly for a few moments or take a walk in nature … alone.
  • Step 2: Breathe in deeply – deep belly breaths as you connect with your body.
  • Step 3: Express gratitude for this moment.
  • Step 4: Consider one of your losses (that you named in your loss history) and allow that story to affect you … get curious … play the detective … what did you do to cope with this loss …
  • Step 5: As you invite more loss stories into your life … you might notice a pattern on how you work through these situations. Chances are you have a dominant pattern … Intuitive or Instrumental … and for many of us, we live somewhere in between the two depending on where we are in life and how deeply this loss has affected us.

Myth #4: There is a right way to grieve – This myth has us thinking there is a one size fits all approach. Everyone grieves differently and we can see some general patterns or similarities that help us understand how to support ourselves and others when grieving. A few additional myths to debunk include seeing grief as a linear process – which it isn’t. We now know that psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ 1969 seminal work On Death and Dying was completely misunderstood by Western society’s need for a linear and staged model. Grief feels more like playing jazz … you see what sparks and depending on who’s hanging around, you might express it differently. It’s like being on a roller coaster and each time, when you think you’ve got it figured out, you experience another jaw dropping, heart stopping, wake up call. I have written about grief in two previous blogs that speak to a different way to grieve and finding meaning through the grief experience. The only right way to grieve, is your way.

A healthy and healing practice would be include not shaming yourself into silence. Ask for what you need. Teach people how to treat you. Trust your instincts. Reach out to trusted friends who will support you through this and listen to you. For those interested in learning more about how to companion others in their grief journey, please feel free to reach out as I have acquired an impressive list of resources and practices that I’m happy to share. Remember, the appropriate and normal response after a loved one dies or your life has been turned upside down, is grief.

Myth #5: If you need support, something is wrong – This myth has us confronting our grief alone and isolated. It propels the myth of ‘being brave, being strong, being stoic’ as a reward for grieving alone. One of the greatest life lessons after my sister Tracy died was to make meaning of my gut-wrenching loss. That inner journey brought me into scary places – the places that had me confronting shattered belief systems – and hope-filled experiences that restored my faith in humanity through my work with SchoolBOX. Wherever you are on the continuum between despair and grace, I invite you to be true, to you. There is no reward for speed on this journey through grief. There is no one way to grieve. There is no end point. The death of a person or of a belief that you held as truth will change you forever. And for the most part, per grief experts David Kessler and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, “the reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to be the same” .

A healthy and healing practice is to find people in your life that will be part of your healing team. The people in your life that will listen to you, respect your needs, and not provide advice without being asked. Chances are that is all you need. If you find that this is not sufficient, you can look to people like me and the SLSG’s Integral Coaches who are trained to companion people in their grief and loss journeys or seek the support of a mental health professional who has training in grief and loss.

I hope these words bring you comfort as you look to work through your grief in a healthy and healing manner. I would love to hear from you as your stories are one of the ways that inspire me to continue this work. You can contact me at DBL@sportlaw.ca.

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