Since becoming a clinical mental health counselor, I have seen loss that I could have never imagined. From children losing parents too soon, to parents losing children, to friends losing friends to drug use and suicide. In seeing these things, but never experiencing them myself, I began to question my qualification to assist someone in the grieving process.
What I quickly discovered, though, was that it did not take trauma for me to know what real loss was. I have lost plenty in my life…romantic relationships, friendships, moments of childhood…I just did not know I was supposed to grieve them! Often we are not exposed to healthy grief, and therefore are left to wade through the sea of emotions that comes with loss all alone and very confused.
That is what I want to tackle today; whether you are like me and simply thought your losses were too small, or you have had overwhelming loss but are scared of the process, or whether you simply are just curious about this grief stuff, I want to provide a lantern with which to light your way through the darkness.
So, What is Grief?
I have done a little bit of research for concrete definitions of the word, but was ultimately unsatisfied with bits and pieces of each one, so I have come up with my own for the purpose of explanation:
Grief is your brain’s attempt to rationalize a loss that challenges life as you understand it.
I like this definition because it immediately moves things that we might not categorize as, “Necessary to grieve” into the same category as an earth-shattering loss. Because honestly, who has the right to tell you what you can and cannot grieve? Let’s take a look at some examples that might fall under the definition above:
- You are let go from your job – I have never met someone who woke up one morning and thought, “I hope my career ends today!” We all tend to make plans using our job as a spring-board to make those plans come true. It is not hard to imagine how your brain might struggle to wrap itself around the idea of you suddenly not having that job anymore.
- Someone leaving – I am leaving this one intentionally vague. This could mean anything from a friend moving away, to a break up, to a divorce, to simply “out-growing” a relationship. At one point in time, you allowed yourself to create a mental picture of the future, and someone was in it that may not be anymore. Even when you choose to let them go, this is hard.
- Losing a pet – Yes, they are just dogs/cats/birds/etc. But they are also your best friends. They have heard things you never tell anyone, they have seen you at your absolute lowest and chosen to hold you in the highest esteem anyway. We should all choose to be a little bit more like our furry friends in relationships. There is no shame in grieving them.
Why Grief Gets a Bad Rap
I once read a story about a team of scientists who were training a computer’s A.I. (artificial intelligence). They ran a series of experiments to test the computer’s ability to learn. One of those tests was the 1980’s computer game Tetris.
The computer was programmed to win, and found the best strategies, but as most of us have experienced, over time the pieces began to fall too fast. The pieces were stacked to the very top. Right as the last piece was about to materialize, signaling that the computer had lost, the computer paused the game. Forever.
Your brain reacts to powerful loss in a very similar way. Your brain is programmed to win the game it is playing, and when it registers a loss (pun not intended) it does whatever it can to not suffer. Think about the first “Stage of Grief“: Denial. Denial is the pause button. It is a self-defense mechanism designed to keep your brain from crashing before it is prepared to accept the loss! This is not ignorance, it’s actually a good thing.
How is ANY of This Good?!
Grief is a process. We tend to look at different ways of grieving as bad or good, but that definitely is NOT a balanced truth. Remember our definition of grief earlier? Your mind desperately wants to make sense of the loss you have just experienced, but it does not yet know how. The “Stages of Grief” are your brain’s attempt at this. Let’s take a quick look at those:
- Denial – Continuing to live as if the loss has not occurred at all.
- Anger – Typically in the form of blaming yourself or someone else for the loss.
- Bargaining – Attempting to wish away the loss by trying to make it fair.
- Depression – Allowing the loss to consume you emotionally.
- Acceptance – Recognizing the loss as meaningful, and choosing to move forward.
From the outside, there only seems to be one “good” stage here. But what each one of these represents is a puzzle piece, each with a different part of a whole picture imprinted on it. It takes picking up each puzzle piece, taking a good hard look at it, and then fitting them together for us to really come to a place of acceptance.
And even then, we will still carry the loss with us. Understanding it does not bring back what we lost. It simply gives us the option to let it strengthen us, or let it bring us down.
So Why Am I Stuck In My Grief?
In a word: Judgment. More specifically, self-judgment. We live in a logic-driven society, and often emotional topics like grief are considered shameful. We are told, “It’s time to move on” and expected to just make that happen.
Therein lies the problem. We cannot MAKE it happen. In fact, efforts to make it happen often lead to us skipping things our brain needs in order to comprehend the world in which you are now living.
- “It isn’t logical to deny that he’s gone. You have to accept it.”
- “Your anger is not going to get your job back.”
- “Beg and plead all you want, she’s still not coming back.”
- “Are you seriously still in bed? Over a pet?!”
These are very shameful comments, and the typical reaction of the griever is to try and shame themselves into responding to the loss purely logically. I have news for you guys though…your brain is not a purely logical organ, and treating as if it is will keep it from ever doing what it does best: Solving problems.
Good Grief…What Now?
So whether you are in the middle of grieving something painful, or you are realizing there is a need for grief, or perhaps you just love someone that is hurting right now, here are some things to remember about the grieving process:
- Judgments are the enemy – Allow yourself/others to explore the grief freely. We get stuck when we do not allow grief to happen naturally.
- Compassion is our ally – We are human. We break down. It is normal. Whatever happens in your mind, is exactly what your brain needs to happen to move forward. Show love to your inner critic.
- Patience is the challenge – Your mind needs time to process loss. It does not matter what else is going on in your life, there is no way to simply “Get over it.” Again, give yourself compassion for needing time.
- Meaning is the goal – Acceptance does not mean happiness, it means that the loss is meaningful to us. Sometimes it makes us stronger, sometimes it makes us appreciative. When we find meaning in even the darkest of moments, it becomes possible to see the light.
Have you found any meaning through your grief? What was that experience like? Leave your comment for others to learn from. Thank you for reading!