“Good Grief”, Part 1

It seems as though almost everyone I know with is coping with some kinds of fresh loss these days. Just last week, the mothers of two different close friends died, and many of us in South Wasco County are mourning the loss of beloved community members who have recently passed away also.

So while “grief” is far too large a topic to cover in a couple of paragraphs, it seemed worth addressing some of the questions that people often have about grief: about what it is, and how to cope with our own and others’. Since grief is such a big topic, I plan to dedicate this and next month’s column both to addressing it.

What is “grief”?

Although the word “grief” is commonly associated with the tearful experience and expression of sadness, grief is about more than sad tears…and for some people, doesn’t even include them. In fact, grief could be said to be the entire process –short-term and long-term—of emotionally adapting to the death of a loved one, or to any major loss. The physical and emotional experiences of grief can include sadness and tearfulness, yes, but may also (or instead) involve anger, irritability, remorse, feelings of blame, fatigue, loneliness, a sense of disconnection from others, anxiety, guilt, feelings of numbness, loss of pleasure, loss of appetite, physical aches and pains, feeling “crazy”, insomnia, and other experiences.

“What is the right way to grieve?”

Just as the emotions of grief are many and varied, the process of grieving is also a very personal, individual one. More expressive, extroverted people may be easily moved to tears and may be eager to talk about and express their grief, while more introverted persons may withdraw socially, not want to talk about their feelings, and will prefer to explore and express their feelings in private. Some people need time off from work to cope; some cope better initially by the stability, distraction and social contact provided by work and other normal routines.

The fact is, despite all the opinions around about what is and isn’t the “right way” to grieve (and what it means for someone to be “doing well” or “not doing well”), there is no one-size-fits-all “best way” to grieve. How each person experiences, expresses, and adapts to loss depends on many factors, including personality and coping style, life experience, faith, family and social supports, the nature of the loss, the number of other losses that may have occurred recently or at the same time, and whether or not the person experiencing loss was already suffering from depression or other illness. What is true for everyone, however, is that the grieving process takes time.

So how long does in normally take to grieve?

Just as the experiences and process of grieving are individual, there is no “normal” timetable for grieving. Some people start to feel better in a few weeks or months. For others, the grieving process is measured in years. When grieving people who are worried about “what’s normal” ask me how long to expect their acute grief to last, I sometimes say “I don’t know, but my experience is that it usually lasts longer than however long the griever decides is ‘normal’, so it would probably be good to expect that so that you won’t worry when your grieving outlasts your timetable!”

Healing happens gradually. Just as a physical wound can’t be forced to heal, the healing of the emotional “wound” of loss can be supported, but not hurried. The important thing is to respect and allow yourself and others to grieve in your and their own ways, recognizing that healing is a natural process which will naturally unfold if we don’t get in the way with our ideas and judgments about how it “should” go.

(Next month: Good Grief, Part II: the “stages of grief,” and how to support your own and others’ grieving)