#LessonLearned No. 5 : Grief
Updated: Feb 23
I’ve been writing and rewriting this one for months. Like learning failure and patience, there are times we think we've got things figured out, only to realize we know nothing at all. I have more experience with grief than I would like to admit, and though I have learned a tremendous amount about it this year, it’s in no way a subject I’ve mastered. In fact, this is one lesson I would like to STOP learning. Contrary to my nature, I have revealed personal bits of myself through the #LessonsLearned2020 posts, which I have done because if we don’t share what we learn, how can anyone else benefit? Some of the most important, cherished things I’ve come to understand, in fact came from other’s life experiences, their lessons learned, and I have been able to use those things to better understand myself. So, here are a few things about grief - yours and mine - that I’ve picked up along the way. What is grief? Suffering due to loss. Grief can be caused by ANY loss that is distressing, prolonged, extreme, etc. 2020 has been full of those losses, hasn’t it? Lost jobs, homes, safety; lost freedoms, interactions, social joys... lost people. Many of us have lost people, and the customs and norms we’re used to in commemorating life and death have been lost too. There have been lost dreams, opportunities, expectations... Sometimes we experience loss that makes us grieve, but we’re not able to express it properly, or our grief is stunted. It could be a sudden life change that requires us to alter our life course quickly and for a prolonged amount of time, without the ability to process and come to terms with the change; like an unplanned pregnancy or caring for an infirm family member. Or sudden personal illness, leaving life plans derailed. There are so many things other than death, that cause us grief. Many of those things may feel unacceptable or shameful to grieve over. One experiencing these situations and feelings might be labeled as depressed, when in actuality, they are really just facing a process they are unable to complete. I have clients who have fallen ill unexpectedly and the changes in life their illness now requires causes severe grief. I have friends who had plans for how life would turn out, but because of no fault of their own, those plans will likely never become realities, and they are left to grieve what will never be. Perhaps there is a collection of traumas and losses from throughout one’s life - even starting in childhood. We are told to “buck up,” get over it, and move on, hardening our exterior to become more resilient, to not allow our sadness to become our weakness. We are also told HOW to grieve. How we should feel, how we should open up, how we should rely on others, what we should say, what we shouldn’t say... everyone’s grief is different. It might take them decades to realize WHAT they are grieving and WHY, so patience is needed to figure out how to process it. This year, unlike any year before, has meant compound loss on a global scale. On top of each of our own personal losses and sadness, we have been crushed under the losses 2020 has brought. It’s like a closet door. A closet stuffed FULL of crap - our life crap. We’ve managed to get by this long by just stuffing in and wedging the door shut. 2020 has come to our room, invaded our privacy, and flung open that closet door, letting all of our garbage out to cover the floor. Thankfully we’re all neighbors, each with a closet that 2020 has opened the door to. No need to deny it, we know you have got one too. Has anyone ever told you that it’s totally normal for you to grieve, even though no one has died? Or if you even if you don’t know exactly why? Or if you’ve had good reason to grieve, did others tell you HOW you should do so? Or for how long? Did you perhaps do that to yourself?
"I don’t have time to grieve." "It feels selfish to feel so bad over this." "The process is taking too long."
Why? Grief is hard to understand, and takes a lot of energy. No one wants to grieve themselves, and it’s never easy to be in the trenches with someone who is - so we try to fix it. Worse than that, we try to deny it, refuse it, ignore it... true grief cannot be told to go away. When we DO try to brush it off, unexpressed grief has a lot of nasty ways of getting it’s point across. I found an interesting article about those who are grieving for prolonged periods, and autoimmune disease. (Link below) Basically, grief in the body is tantamount to illness or injury. I have personally been on an exhaustive search to understand the connection between bouts of intense grief and physical injury. For years, part of my own regiment for dealing with these bouts has been treating it with physical activity, but time and again I found myself seriously injured. This summer I decided to get certified in fitness training, in attempt to help others, and myself, to find a safe road through grief using fitness. I had been working for months with a brilliant trainer on perfect form and safe muscle re-education, and though I am stronger than I ever have been I STILL somehow managed tears in my torn rotator cuff... The reality is, the emotional, metal, and physical parts of ourselves cannot be separated; they all work together, or against each other. If we are hurt emotionally, we will suffer physically, just as if we’re hurt physically, this will affect us mentally or emotionally. They are all intrinsically linked. It is my personal / professional experience that grief is trauma in the body, and we need to care for ourselves as we would if we were battling illness. Nutritious foods, plenty of rest, hydration, gentle and consistent activity, kindness to yourself, time to heal... and who doesn’t benefit from a thoughtful friend to take care of them when they’re sick? Just like we can’t control WHEN an illness will completely resolve in us, neither can grief be controlled. It may come and go, it may not show up for a long time, or stay what feels like way too long; we may think we’ve beaten it only for it to return with a vengeance for another round - or a completely new case all together! Or, just maybe, it’s been there waiting, building, all along... and something like COVID or 2020 comes along and swings open the door to let it all out!
It’s ok. You’re normal. This is LITERALLY happening to everyone... My advice? The same as in my previous #LessonsLearned: breathe, be ok in whatever needs to happen, don’t give up, listen to your body, and try to understand what you’re going through to the best of your ability. (Sage advice I am passing along.) However, exercise caution. Do not be unreasonable about finding or demanding specific answers about your grief that you might not be able to find. Another article pointedly mentioned the negative effects of devalued grief. While it’s terrible to have someone else call into question your need to grieve, it’s the worst to do it to yourself. Sometimes just acknowledging all the losses you have faced and suffered can be a great source of relief. The ability to say to yourself: “It’s ok to feel this bad. It’s ok to mourn this, it’s ok to grieve...” is empowering and will help to free you from the bonds of the grief you’re feeling. Be your own safe place. Take some time today. Go for a hike, or sit on your favorite beach and watch the sunset alone. Then, step out into the hall and ask your neighbor how their closet is looking. Maybe you can help each other clean up the mess, but perhaps knowing someone else has crap to clean up can help. Go out, grab a coffee, take a walk, and talk about it... Links to helpful articles on grief: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/concussion-is-brain-injury/201805/brain-injury-grief-is-extraordinary-grief https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/autoimmune-disease-and-stress-is-there-a-link-2018071114230 https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/how-to-overcome-griefs-health-damaging-effects