Where There’s Life and Loss, There’s Grief

A hiker overlooks the sunset. Text "Not all classrooms have four walls" appears on the graphic.

You feel like Humpty Dumpty. You’ve fallen off the wall and you know all the king’s horses and all the king’s men are never going to be able to put you back together again.

- Joyce Landorf

Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice in Wonderland, “I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” One of the most common questions grievers ask is, “When will things get back to normal?” Unfortunately, after a loss, there is no longer a way to return to the way things were; a significant piece has been removed from your life.

A grieving person was once asked, “Do you choose to wake up every day and grieve?”

Their reply was, “No, I wake up every day and know a part of me is missing.”

What am I?

I’m so high you can’t get over me.

I’m so low you can’t get under me.

So wide you can’t get around me.

You must go through my door.

The answer: I am ‘Grief’

The four major tasks of grief are:

(1) Accept the reality of the loss/change.

(2) Experience the pain of the loss/change.

(3) Adjust to the new environment.

(4) Reinvest in the new reality.

Basic Principles of Accepting Reality:

  • Life can be tough: the sooner you understand that life is not always fair or easy, the better you will be able to accept things that are out of your control.

  • Some things cannot be changed: Try to agree or at least admit there are some things you cannot change. This can help you focus on the things you can change.

  • It is what it is: The idea that you can accept certain unchangeable things and balance those things with what you can change will help you get through the moment.

  • You may not always agree of like it: Of course, we like things to work out the way we want them to. That is human nature; that is not always possible.

The following quote from Vicki Harrison describe the process of grief so well:

“Grief is like the ocean; it comes on in waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm and sometimes overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.”

Grief can feel like driving through dense fog with no direction and no end in sight.

Pain becomes bearable when we are able to trust that it won’t last forever - not when we pretend it doesn’t exist. Helen Keller wrote. “The only way to the other side is through.” If you are reading these lessons regularly, you will have noticed I am a fan of Calvin and Hobbs. Calvin states, “Denial springs eternal. It’s not denial. I’m just very selective about the reality I accept.” Denial is really evasion from a new reality. Avoidance is the idea that a person will not deal with a situation. Grief avoidance is a defense mechanism that keeps one from getting in touch with his or her true and honest feeling.

Johnny Cash writes: “There’s no way around grief and loss. You can dodge all you want, but sooner or later you must have to go through it and hopefully, come out the other side. The world you find there will never be the same as the world you left.”

Fifteen years ago, following the death of my wife, Suzanne, along with the deaths of four other extended family members over a period of 14 months, I undertook a significant change in my career path. I began studying with Dr. Alan Wolfelt at The Centre for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado. These studies lead to a certification as a Grief and Loss Educator and a Life Transition Coach. In 2012, I added a certification from The American Pet Loss Association as a Grief Educator working with people who had suffered significant pet loss. For the last twelve years, I have been working with and coaching people who have experienced significant losses in their lives to help them successfully process various life changes and transitions.

What is grief? The following statement is borrowed from an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. “Grief is a thing we all have in common, but it looks different on everyone. It isn’t just death we have to grieve. It’s life. It’s loss. It’s change. And we wonder why it has to suck so much sometimes; why does it have to hurt so bad. The thing to remember is that it can turn on a dime. That’s how you survive, by remembering that one day, somehow impossibly, it won’t feel this way; it won’t hurt so much. The really crappy thing; the very worst part of grief is that you can’t control it. The very worst part is that the minute you think you’re past it, it starts all over again. And always, every time, it takes your breath away.”

Grief is not linear. It’s not a slow progression forward toward healing. It’s a zigzag, a terrible back and forth from devastated to okay until finally there are more okay patches and fewer devastated ones. Grief is more like a journey. It may be a rocky road full of unexpected detours, but it is a trek we all must take as we encounter various losses in our lives. Harold Ivan Smith writes, “I am again a traveler, wandering through a landscape for which Fodor has no guidebook-a land called Grief.”

Pain becomes bearable when we are able to trust that it won’t last forever - not when we pretend it doesn’t exist.

Most people think of the grieving process as something experienced only after the death of a loved one. But we grieve for many reasons. Experiencing loss is a normal part of living and grief is a normal human response to loss. The following are just a few examples of significant losses in our daily lives which may cause some varying degrees of grief:

  • When people move, they experience the loss of home, friends, co-workers, neighbors and sometimes extended family.

  • When a job is lost, whether through a firing or a lay-off, people often feel a deep sense of loss in terms of work relationships, finances and self-esteem.

  • When people retire, they experience the loss of work relationships, as well as changes in daily routines.

  • When age or illness restricts what people can do physically, they grieve the loss of physical ability or mobility.

  • When children start school, grow up, leave home, or get married, parents often experience loss because their role as a parent changes.

  • When parents are confronted by unexpected events with their adult children, such as dropping out of school, being arrested, getting divorced, coming out, etc.-they experience grief.

  • When people are hospitalized or moved into a long-term care facility, they are thrust into strange surroundings and experience the loss of their regular routines.

  • When people lose a home or belongings because of fire or flooding, they experience grief over material loss as well as sentimental value of missed items.

  • When a couple becomes divorced or separated, they experience the loss of relationships, a common past, and dreams of the future.

What grief is and is not:

Grief is normal, natural and healthy.

Grief is a process.

Grief is part of life’s critical transitions.

Grief is the price we pay for loving someone or something.

Grief is an emotional response to a significant loss.

Grief makes us emotionally vulnerable; we are easily offended, hurt, and irritated.

Grief is as personal and unique as your fingerprint and is not open to comparison.

Grief is not time-limited.

Grief is not always understood by others.

On Tuesday, April 18, 2017, Gregory Katz of the Associated Press wrote a wonderful article about Prince Harry’s grief and rage after losing his mother, Princess Diana when he was 12. Harry revealed in an interview with The Daily Telegraph, he was in emotional turmoil for 20 years, filling him with grief and rage he could only manage after he sought out counselling. The Prince shared he had nearly suffered multiple breakdowns since his mother’s death. He described a long, painful process of refusing to face his sense of loss, by ‘sticking his head in the sand’ that only came to an end when he sought out professional counselling to cope with the pressures and unhappiness. He said the long suppression of his grief eventually led to two years of total chaos. Further, he said he was pretending that life was great until he started counselling and faced his problems head-on. He continued, “All of a sudden, all of this grief that I had never processed started to come to the forefront and I was like, there is actually a lot of stuff here that I need to deal with.”

Grief is not linear. It’s not a slow progression forward toward healing.

An old Turkish proverb reminds us: “He who conceals his grief finds no remedy for it.” Letting yourself express the emotions, can help to not get overwhelmed. The following are just some of the emotional symptoms of grief: denial, sadness, anger, guilt, regret, helplessness, numbness, yearning, relief, loneliness, anxiety, obsession. Feelings and emotions are necessary for human survival; feelings have one ambition in life-to be felt. Mister Rogers wrote, “Anything that’s human is mentionable. And anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”

Grief shared is grief diminished. One of the major factors in healing well is talking about your loss. Mourning brings healing. But healing also requires the support and understanding of those around you as you embrace the pain of your loss. What you may need now are caring, non-judgmental people to companion you on this journey, a few solid shoulders to cry on and a handful of pairs of listening ears can make all the difference in the world. Sharing your pain with others won’t make it disappear, bit it will, over time, make it more bearable.

What kind of support do you need? Receiving support doesn’t mean we are weak, or needy. It just means that the road ahead is unknown because we have not traveled on it yet. If we’re willing to accept support, we can avoid a great number of potholes and traffic jams that we would otherwise encounter. Melanie Griffith recently acknowledged she goes to AA up to three times a day to stay clean and sober. Support does not always have to come from people. It can be found in nature, drives in the car, music, anything that helps you do whatever you want in your life.

Keanu Reeves adds, “Grief changes shape, but it never ends. People have a misconception that you can deal with it and say, ‘It’s gone. And I’m better.’ They’re wrong.” Some of the most widespread beliefs about grief and mourning are largely myths, new scientific findings are showing. And researchers warn that these myths can increase the mourner’s distress by holding them to false expectations. Here are just a few common misconceptions about grief:

  • Grief and mourning are the same experience.

  • Time heals all wounds.

  • Tears expressing grief are only a sign of weakness.

One of the most common myths and misconceptions about grief is that grief and mourning are the same experience. Dr. Alan Wolfelt describes this best. Grief is our internal response to loss. Mourning is external; Grief gone public. A person can grieve for an extended period and still not heal.

How long does grief last?

Time doesn’t always heal our sorrow. It begins to teach us how to live with the pain. Grief takes as long as it takes and is as personal as your fingerprint. It’s a common myth that after a period of one year, everything will be okay. Remember to honor the space between no longer and not yet. You are in transition. Say to yourself, “I may not be there yet. But I’m closer that I was yesterday.”

Rose Kennedy adds, “It has been said, ‘Time heals all wounds.’ I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue, and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.”

Is crying is a form of strength or weakness?

Noted author Leo Buscaglia wrote of a four-year-old boy who lived next door to an elderly gentleman who had recently lost his wife. One day the child saw the man sitting on his porch in a rocking chair, and noticed he was crying. The little boy walked over to the man’s porch, made his way up the steps and sat next to the man. Without saying a word, he just sat there. Later, when his mother asked him what he had said to the neighbor, the little boy answered, “Nothing, I just helped him cry.”

Crying has been described as how your body speaks when your mouth can’t explain the pain you feel.

There was a study done where a control group of one hundred people were divided into two groups. Fifty watched a very funny, tears of laughter movie and the other fifty watched a very sad and tears of compassion type movie. At the end of the movies, researchers collected the ‘happy tears’ and the ‘sad tears’ with eye droppers. They found that the happy tears are made up of brine-salt water and not a great deal else. The sad tears were found to contain the very same chemicals that are found in tumors, ulcers and others such lumps and bumps and sicknesses throughout the body. The test concluded that the body, when crying in sadness is literally flushing out toxic-like chemicals that accumulate and are a part of the sadness/heartache experience.

Grief shared is grief diminished.

Let’s briefly review our last month topic, managing personal change. Let’s look first at asked-for change. “American screenwriter Sidney Howard writes, “One half of knowing what you want is knowing what you must give up before you get it.” John Maxwell adds, “Change always costs you something. As you consider how to make changes needed to improve and grow, it is important to measure the cost of change compared to the cost of the status quo. You need to pause and have to do your homework. That often makes the difference between change equals growth and change equals grief.”

M.J. Ryan writes, “Unasked-for change always represents a death of some sort-the death of a career, for instance, or the death of parenthood or of an early retirement. It is the death of your expectations for the future. Whatever you are going through right now and whatever change this means to you, there’s always a sense of loss of control. With change that comes from the outside, we aren’t in charge of what’s happening, and that can be very uncomfortable. Any change creates ‘change pain.’

When you understand that what you’re experiencing is grief, you can be gentle with yourself as you go through the transition process.”

As you go through life, there are also what we call ‘Developmental Transitions.’ Even when you gain something, you may give up things you like.

  • Childhood to adulthood

  • Starting school

  • Ending school

  • Marriage

  • Mid-life transitions

  • Empty nest

  • Retirement

Ben Keckler tells this wonderful story: “Our two granddaughters were born within a couple of weeks of each other. As they began the process of transitioning from crawling to walking, I would watch them co-ordinate their next move-putting one foot forward. I’d watch them wobble and fall and try again. I could sense their uncertainty and fear, their inability to trust themselves. Yet, they trusted the process. These days they walk, they run, they fall, they get up, they have a bruise here and a scrape there.” Always remember this, as painful as it is, ‘Grief ‘is a process and we must trust this process if we are to heal. Grieving is often described as taking a series of baby steps as you transition from the way things were to an unfamiliar and challenging future. Action is the antidote to despair.”

If you can’t fly, then run.

If you can’t run, then walk.

If you can’t walk, then crawl.

But by all means, keep moving.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Doug Manning writes, “Grieving is as natural as crying when you are hurt, sleeping when you are tired, eating when you are hungry, or sneezing when your nose itches. You deserve it and you must have it. If you had major surgery, no one would pressure you to run a marathon the next week. Grief is a major wound. It does not heal overnight.”

Alan Wolfelt writes about the importance of having realistic expectations during the grief process:

  • Grief will take longer than most people think.

  • Grief takes more energy than we ever imagine.

  • Grief will probably hurt more before it hurts less.

  • You will naturally grieve, but probably have to make a conscious effort to mourn.

  • You need to feel it to heal it.

  • Grief involves many changes and develops continually.

  • Grief is unpredictable and does not progress in an orderly, stage-like fashion.

  • Sometimes grief makes one feel crazy, confused or disoriented.

  • You don’t ‘get over’ grief; you learn to live with it.

  • You will not always feel this bad.

The main block to healing from loss is the thought we shouldn’t be where we are, that we should already be further along in our growth than we perceive ourselves to be. Let these expectations go. Therese Rando writes. “Many people fail to allow themselves to do what they have to do in their grief because they think there is something wrong with them.” Remember, you are not going crazy. You are grieving. There’s a difference. Give yourself permission to grieve!

Food for Thought

Did you used to think that grief and mourning were the same thing? If so, how has this new conception affected you?

How do you feel about your capacity to go slow and be patient with yourself in your journey through grief?

Do you ever miss yourself? The person you were before life changed everything?

In order to heal, you may need to reach out to others to help you with your grief. Do you believe this to be true?

Choose one quote every day or perhaps one or two every week if you like. How do these quotes speak to you? What applications do you see in your life? Share your chosen quotes with a family member, a friend, a business colleague. Create a ‘quote of the day’ club at work.

Grief comes in like waves from the ocean. Sometimes when you least expect it,

a huge wave comes along and pulls your feet right out from under you.

- Alan Wolfelt

No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.

- C.S. Lewis

There are days when you should just give in, put your pajamas back on, and read comic books in bed with the covers up until the world looks more encouraging.

- Calvin & Hobbs

If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. That is the lesson, and that lesson alone will save you a lot of grief.

- Oprah Winfrey

Grief is a defined deep mental anguish over a loss or a deep sorrow; to be sorrowful. To mourn or to be distressed.

- Joyce Meyer

There is no grief like the grief that does not speak.

- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

You are going to heal, and it is going to hurt.

- Jane Marie Young

Birds sing after a storm; why shouldn’t people feel as free to delight in whatever remains to them.

- Rose Kennedy

Often when you think you’re at the end of something. You’re at the beginning of something else.

- Fred Rogers

Tragedies don’t go away by denial.

- Alexandra Stoddard

Grief makes one hour ten.

- William Shakespeare

You never know how strong you are, until being strong is your only choice.

- Bob Marley

People must be given the opportunity to hurt out loud. Lady Bird Johnson

Grief is just love with no place to go.

- Jamie Anderson

One of the realities of grief and loss is that the rest of the world seems to keep on going forward, while we feel like we have been stopped in out tracks.

- Alan Wolfelt

Grief is a choppy two steps forward, one step back experience.

- Therese Rando

We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it in the full.

- Marcel Proust

Life is a balance between what we can control and what we cannot. I am learning to live between effort and surrender.

- Danielle Orner

Being must be felt. It can’t be thought.

- Eckhart Tolle

Until you surrender the need to know why things happened to you as they did, you will hold on to your wounds with intense emotional fire.

- Caroline Myss

A day of worry is more exhausting than a day of work.

- John Lubbock

Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.

- Erma Bombeck

There’s no problem so awful that you can’t add some guilt to it and make it even worse.

- Calvin & Hobbes

Next Lesson: Your Planet Time is Limited

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