Let’s talk about grief

special to the Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center, September 2017

By Billie Wade

Billie Wade, writer

Grief, despite its proliferation in human life, is a taboo subject. We don’t like to see other people hurting, so we ply each other with platitudes of hope. Grief has a bad reputation, at least when it lasts more than a predetermined period. We appear strong as we handle the whirlwind of initial responsibilities. After that, we’re expected to bounce back, buck up, get over it, and get on with our life. Bereaved people are perceived to be in a state of weakness.

Within days of the loss, we are expected to be back in the full swing of life as we begin our adjustment to a “new “normal. Friends and family members no longer stop by or call to check on us or invite us to coffee or dinner. We no longer hear the words, “Let me know if you just need to talk.” They observe, “She’s so strong. Her husband passed away a month ago, she’s returned to work, and she’s looking great!” “Well, you know, his wife was sick for a long time. He’s probably relieved.” “She’s so vibrant and savvy. She’ll have a new job in no time.”

People referring to grief typically are talking about the loss of a loved one, but grief encompasses so much more. Other losses may be just as devastating, and wreak as much havoc in our lives. Grief can happen in minute quantities that we may not notice consciously. Some losses may be almost imperceptible and bind to existing losses, forming a tangled ball of grief. I grieved the loss of my auburn-brown hair as it gave way to mixed gray, which in reality was the grieving of the loss of my youth and an acknowledgment of years of hard experiences and choices.

Grief in everyday life can’t be overlooked or de-emphasized, but it can be over-simplified. Various “experts” have laid out identifiable phases of grief: shock, numbness, denial, bargaining, anger, depression, sadness, and acceptance, characterized by a host of predictable and observable signs and symptoms. Cut-and-dried stages, while useful for research and treatment protocols, fall short of capturing individual experience and rob the griever of valuable support, insight, and transformation. An undercurrent of deeper meaning flows in spite of the phase. The woman grieving the loss of her job may be grappling with issues of identity, trust, faith, shame, and fear of an uncertain financial future. The man grieving the loss of his wife or partner may be battling overwhelming feelings of guilt, regret, the loss of partnership, and lack of direction. People grieving the loss of a pet may be feeling the emptiness of the companionship and no longer caring for another living being.

When we reach the “destination” of acceptance, we supposedly are healed and ready to move on with life. But, we humans don’t neatly fit into prescribed categories, and grief is rarely precise and tidy. We may ping-pong among the various phases, we may feel several simultaneously, or we may skip some entirely. The gamut of attendant feelings and the manner in which each person traverses them are as unique as fingerprints.

Acceptance means seeing a situation as it is, and knowing that it, and the people involved, won’t change. We need time and support to adjust to our new normal. Grief catapults us into previously unknown territory and requires a new language. Acceptance is a process that unfolds as we face each new day. We may integrate acceptance into our lives, several times. Or, we may bounce off acceptance like a force field. For instance, we may feel anger, sadness, and acceptance all at the same time. We may find ourselves at different points of the grief continuum in multiple situations.

Every experience of grief differs from its predecessor. My sister, my mother, and my partner died within a thirteen month period, my mother and partner ten weeks apart. I grieve each of them differently, but no less intensely, as they each played a different role in my life. I love them all for different, but no less important, reasons. Their lives brought value to mine in unique ways.

We need to be wary when someone tries to stuff us into a phase, or ridicules or discounts us about where we are in our grief. We feel what we feel when we feel it. Several years ago I grieved my father as he suffocated over a two-year period from lung cancer, emphysema, and asthma. Therapists and counselors call this “anticipatory grief.” A friend of mine was adamant that I couldn’t grieve my father ahead of his passing. He couldn’t understand that I was grieving the relationship that I could never establish with my father, in addition to watching him die slowly. I had been grieving the physical and emotional absence of my father my whole life, and those feelings intensified with his impending death. I appeared stoic at my father’s visitation, which my friend deemed inappropriate. He subsequently ended our relationship because I was “doing it wrong.”

The grief I have experienced was in addition to and different from the bouts of depression and anxiety I live with on a daily basis. I benefitted from honoring the directives of my body—eating and sleeping when I needed to rather than trying to adhere to a rigid schedule, maintaining my social support system and continuing with professional counseling. I learned what was right for me. For awhile, I needed a specific time to go to bed and to get up in the mornings. That schedule gave me a sense of control when everything else felt out of control. I took naps when I needed to without setting the alarm.

Grief is a universally human process. All grieving deserves respect and compassion, from ourselves as well as from others, no matter how insignificant it may seem.

Billie Wade is a gregarious introvert whose primary interests are writing, lifelong learning, personal development, and how we all are affected by life’s vagaries. Issues facing black people, women, the LGBTQ community, and aging adults are of particular concern to her. She enjoys open-hearted dialogue with diverse people. The opinions expressed here are her own.

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