I have not encountered an emotion more powerful than grief. Some would argue, or hope, that love is more powerful. Maybe. But no other emotion has knocked me around like grief has. I can’t recall being doubled over and writhing in love. I learned a lot from my most profound experience of grief. My thought is, if one can stand in the face of grief, invite it in, sit with it, feel it and allow it to move through until the next wave hits and then do it all over again, one can deal with any of the other emotions. The problem is, our culture teaches us and our natural propensity to move away from pain reinforces the inclination to withdraw from grief.
Imagine a funeral. In this case, I’ll call the surviving spouse “widow.” It could be “widower,” it doesn’t matter. As people are approaching the beginning of the receiving line, the question is asked, “How is she doing?” If the widow is abiding by the unspoken desires of our culture – swallowing her pain, keeping a stiff upper lip, managing her tears and, perhaps, comforting others – the reply is, “She’s doing well.” This is code for, “It’s ok to approach, she is not likely to trigger your suppressed grief.” If, on the other hand, she is fully present with her emotion, tearfully allowing herself to express it, unapologetically showing her grief, the answer would be, “She’s having a hard time,” code for, “Be prepared to confront your own emotion.”
Grief is like a yawn, when someone shows you theirs you almost always have to deal with your own. When we encounter someone who is grieving, especially if they have the audacity to actually speak of it, what gets triggered in us is our own, unprocessed grief. We don’t have to have lost someone to death to experience grief. Grief is a healthy human response to the loss of a relationship or friendship, the loss of a career or valued job, the loss of a valued possession, the loss of a pet. Note that the common denominator in each case is “loss” of something important to us.
Loss is a highly subjective experience. No one gets to legitimately judge what one person describes as loss as worthy or unworthy of a grief response or the intensity or duration of that response. Each of us has experienced losses throughout our lives. The degree to which we acknowledge the loss, feel the grief associated with it and allow that grief to process will determine how much residual energy remains. I imagine it like a vat into which unprocessed grief is deposited. It hides out in the body, maybe disguising itself as a physical symptom – neck, back, jaw, feet, head or any pain. Or it could manifest as an emotional issue, depression or anxiety. We may wonder why we tear up at a movie or TV commercial. It isn’t that the medium is so powerful, it’s that the stimulus caught us off guard and triggered the vat of unprocessed grief and gave us opportunity to release some. Rather than resorting to the common reaction of feeling embarrassed, averting our gaze, quickly drying our tears and swallowing the emotion, that is the time to breath deeply, to lean in, to notice what is happening in our body, to let whatever is coming up move.
In reality, grief comes in waves. Typically, the first waves come crashing down, hard. They seem to come at frequent intervals, barely giving us a chance to catch our breath until the next onslaught. Shock may mitigate the early expressions of grief but we can’t count on that to last. At some point, we will be laid bare against, what feels like, a relentless assault. As time passes, the waves won’t seem as large and they will come at less frequent intervals. There will be the occasional rogue wave of grief that seems to come out of nowhere, usually in response to some internal or external trigger, that lays us out in a way that we hoped we were finished with. This can go on for years.
I’ve heard it said many times, “There is no right way to grieve.” That is probably true. But I will suggest that there is a wrong way to grieve. Humans have the capacity to suppress emotion. We can deny or minimize it. We can medicate it with alcohol, drugs, TV, sex, or any number of compulsive behaviors. We can keep ourselves too busy to give it a chance to surface. We can sell ourselves short by convincing ourselves that we have “handled it,” “moved past it” or “dealt with it.”
We don’t get to handle, move past or deal with grief. Once it enters our lives, it becomes a part of us. It becomes interwoven into the fabric of our being. It becomes a thing that may reappear without warning. Fortunately, we, as humans, are fully capable of adjusting to the loss(es). We are quite capable of feeling the pain and letting it move. Being present with it, talking about it and feeling it in our bodies are all necessary components of grieving in the “right” way. Time, awareness and breath seem to help us learn to manage it.
I have learned a lot since grief entered my life. While I don’t welcome the next wave, I, also, don’t fear it. It is never too late to take on the processing of grief. The most effective tools that I have used are of the energetic variety. If emotion is energy and energy wants to move, it makes sense that the most effective way to move through grief is to utilize tools that address it’s energetic component.
Finding and sitting with someone with training and experience can facilitate the process of moving through. I offer grief counseling, including Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) both in-person and remotely. Contact me with any questions.