How do we grieve well? And what does it mean to do that? Should I accept it and sit still in it, or push my way through? Are there techniques for grieving, or for fast-tracking it? If life feels empty for a time what can I do about that?
I’ve done a heck of a lot of grief counselling. I have learnt more from these many counselling conversations with grieving individuals, which have sometimes take place over the years, than I have from any theory, and today I draw on that experience and reflect on a few points, a few starters, for thinking about your own grief and how to navigate it.
When it comes to thinking about how we should grieve, people often get it wrong by going to extremes. They divide into opposing camps. One the one side is the Acceptance crowd. They talk a lot about Compassion, and seem to take offence when anybody suggests that you might need to push yourself. If a grieving person is being an arsehole then the people in this camp are quick to make excuses - “I guess that’s just their way of getting by.”
In the other extreme camp are the Resilience sorts who seem to think that loss is no different to a physical challenge at the gym. They usually see life as a trajectory that should always be onward and upward. To them grief is an interruption, an obstacle to real living. In reality they are ill-equipped to face the challenge and hide behind positive-thinking. As an experienced counsellor I can see in them all the subtle signs of fear, however they are adept at walling off their darker emotions. This does damage to their life, they become brittle and lack wisdom.
In both cases there is fear because of a failure to know how to grieve. This is a subset of a bigger problem: not knowing how to suffer. They lack knowledge, insight, skill. So they become passive in these opposite ways. In the first camp people become passive by giving into the grief, by wallowing, and in the second they become passive by dismissing and thereby running away from their emotional struggle. At best, however, both these camps offer insights, in the form of half-truths which need to be integrated. I will put it this way: to grieve well we have to balance both compassionate acceptance with resilience.
Grief involves our passive side and our active side. That is, loss happens to us. It is often out of our hands. We are helpless. The word 'passive' comes from the Latin, meaning "to suffer", "to undergo." We have to accept that as human beings we are vulnerable and cannot control many things. As people who love we will lose and suffer. We must learn how to undergo something which we don’t want and have no choice about. We have to accept the things we cannot change.
And we need the courage to change the things we can.
It is possible to do a good or bad job of both acceptance and change. Grief is a balancing act, between accepting things as they are, and pushing forward. There are no techniques to fast-track your grief, at least not in the way people usually hope. Often when somebody asks me for them they are really saying, “Give me a life-hack to remove this pain.” There are no such life-hacks, and The Verve were right when they said "the drugs don't work, they just make you worse." There is no way around the pain, there is only through it. The pain is worse, however, when we don't know how to bear it, or we lack the courage to do so. And this is the thing: you don't need any answers at first, to take an active stance toward your confusion and pain. When people grieve there is an emotional element and an intellectual element, as well as physical and social ones. You may be beset with questions and confusions; if you are active intellectually then you will try to work through these, to deepen your understanding by reflection, conversation, reading, and so on. At the emotional level you can learn to tolerate pain and confusion better and to self-soothe. Rather than give into anxiety and stay home you might push yourself to be more social when the time is right. And even though you don't feel like it, you might also push yourself to go for a walk and to buy some proper food to cook. You might follow your counsellor's orders to get a massage and take care of your exhausted body. You might make the effort to stop your negative self-talk and replace it whether something wiser and more compassionate.
Grief is a pendulum swing between passivity - suffering, exhaustion - and activity - seeking to move through the loss, to integrate it into your life so as to live well again. The cinema gives us stereotyped images of grief which are not true. According to the movies people who grieve are always sad. But in reality they are sad one moment and laughing the next. According to the movies people grieve intensely for a few months and then "move on." In reality grief can take weeks, months, and in fact often years, depending on the relationship and the nature of the death. If the person was significant to you then you will probably grieve for the rest of your life. And why should it be otherwise? After all a meaningful life is a narrative which holds faithfully the people and things that matter? And yet when people grieve they are often harassed by well-meaning but naïve friends and family who want them to hurry up and “move on.” There can be a selfishness in that, or more often a misguided empathy: others don’t want to tolerate your suffering, for it pains or at least discomforts them, and so they push you to "get over it." But grief is a season in life, and often you just have to live through it and integrate it into your broader, ongoing life. I often remind people of that song by The Byrds. “To everything there is a season.” A rich life includes grief, undergoes seasons of grief. It is a poor and empty life which lacks this sorrow. Of course the devastation will diminish in time and you will feel more connected with life - you will be motivated again and take pleasure in things. And when you think of the one you have lost you will remember the good times too, rather than remaining in the current blanket of dark sorrow. The healthy person is one who can experience both sorrow and joy. Each makes the other more authentic.
In conclusion, grief has a dual-nature, follows a dual-process, and requires a dual response: acceptance of what we cannot change (both the death, and in its impact within us), and the courage and determination to change what we can. Grief is a natural and acceptable part of a richer life. It reflects the rest of life, where we must always learn to accept our limits and to push toward our possibilities. It requires compassion, wisdom, tolerance, patience, and hard work.
Artwork: Margarita Georgiadis