There is a lot of information about grief these days and people are often concerned that they, or a loved one is not doing it right. But there is no right way, there is only your way.
I often say this to people who are in shock after the loss of a spouse, a child, a parent or anyone they were extremely close to. They worry about going through the “stages” in the correct order. Forget the so-called stages of grief. They were designed to make people aware of the multiple emotions that grief entails, which is good, but we are beyond that model. We know that there is no prescribed order of emotional steps, there are just a lot of emotions to feel. Sometimes they happen all at once, and sometimes they are contradictory. There can be no right way to do it, or we would all have failed by now. But it does help to try and feel your feelings.
It’s also fine if you feel nothing. People often feel numb in their grief and that is a perfectly healthy response. I tell people to try and feel the numbness. Get to know it. Learn to describe it in detail. And when the sadness / anger / confusion / you name it comes, try to feel that too.
When people ask, how long should I grieve? or How long should I let them grieve? I say, Do not give yourself a time limit. It could take a long time before you feel back to normal. You may never feel what you once thought of as normal again. For most people, the first six months is the hardest part. For others it’s just the beginning. The six month mark seems to present a shift, in a lot of people, but there are no rules. It certainly will not be the end of feeling like you’ve been turned inside out like a sweatshirt, your soft inside exposed to the world. That feeling will come, in bursts and unexpectedly, for years to come.
Anniversaries hit most people hard. Holidays too. It is good to give yourself a lot of permission and leeway during these times and better not to burden yourself with a lot of plans or obligations. But again there are no rules. I tell people to do what feels right and comfortable.
Ask for support and accept whatever comes. You can’t get through major grief without a ton of support. Well, you can, but it’s much harder. Let people come and clean your house or do your dishes for you. Let them cook, and run your errands. Let them take your kids off your hands so you can have some time alone. Let yourself be nurtured so you can nurture your grief.
Grief likes attention. The more attention you give it, the easier it will be on you. The more you ignore it, the more havoc it will wreak on your physical, mental and emotional well-being. But as always, there is no right way, there’s only your way, but it does help to feel your feelings.
Of course there are times when you have to ignore your feelings. You have to go to work. You have to take care of other people. You have to try and have fun or do things that you know will make you feel a little bit better and that’s fine too. As long as you aren’t taking a lot of drugs or drinking to avoid your feelings. It’s very important to try to make time to feel the feelings. Not necessarily when they come up, because that can be anytime, but it is good to make time for yourself to just be. For adults, it’s better not to put that off too long. For kids it’s fine to put off really feeling the emotions of grief until they are old enough to cope with them which may be many years, but it’s okay for anyone to put it off until they feel ready.
Some people really don’t like to feel sadness. They are afraid it will take them down a creepy dark tunnel that they will be lost in forever. I have felt that way. Afraid the sadness would overtake me. When grief is overwhelming, usually in the first year, it can feel as though it might consume you. That if you give in, it will only get bigger. The truth is the opposite. Most people can handle as much emotion as they are ready for and they will naturally feel just that much. So, for example, in the beginning a person might feel numb because they are in shock, which is perfectly normal. They are not ready to feel anything. They need time to adjust to the world that has changed drastically and they can’t handle feeling emotions. That’s perfect. Later on, feelings will start to come up. It might be sadness or it might not. Sometimes people worry when they don’t cry for a long time. Perfectly normal. Some people do better when they stay busy or surround themselves with strangers, or spend a lot of time alone. All of these things are fine. There is no right way. But it is better to avoid drugs that will make it harder to feel your feelings. Of course there is no shame in taking drugs if you need them to cope with daily life. Just be aware that part of what they do is suppress the emotions that you have every right to be feeling.
Some people feel shame. I’m not sure why grief elicits feelings of shame but it does for most of us. Maybe it’s just that our culture is so obsessed with happiness, health and wealth that we feel ashamed to be anything else.
How does one go about feeling their feelings? I think the best way is to spend some time alone, in a place you feel comfortable and supported and get quiet. You don’t have to do anything fancy. Sit down, or lie down and relax. When you are grieving, the emotions are close to the surface. You don’t have to dig to feel them. Just relax and ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now?” and stay with whatever it is. If it’s nothing, no feelings, that’s fine. Try to feel the nothing. Or the numbness. With practice, more feelings will come up. And if you find yourself crying uncontrollably, let that happen. Let yourself feel angry. Get angry at the person who died or whoever you blame even if it’s yourself. Feel the feelings and they will pass. Know that it is all fine. You can’t cry forever. And you won’t feel angry or guilty forever either. Eventually you will dry your eyes.
What about kids? People ask me about kids because I was still young when I had my first grief experience. The best thing you can do for your kids is feel your feelings. If you do that, they will feel it. Even if they never see you cry, they will see that you are taking care of yourself and that is the best way to take care of them. Let them see you nurture yourself. You are teaching them to do the same. Don’t try to be strong for them, try to be yourself. Angry, sad, useless, hurt, guilty, ashamed, whatever it is, let them see you being honest. If you try to push your grief aside, or ignore it, they will do the same. Talk to them openly about their feelings and allow them to see some of yours. Don’t tell them anything that you don’t believe yourself. Have conversations about their feelings, about the person who died, even if it hurts. Talk about how the person died even if you think they can’t handle it. If you can handle the truth, they can handle it. Let grief be normal. Let them know that everything they are feeling is okay to feel.
Kids grieve differently than adults. Again, they will only feel as much as they can handle. For many kids, that is very little. Parents worry about their kids being in denial when someone dies. A child may not want to talk about it at all, or be around people who are talking about it. Totally fine. Let them ignore their feeling as much as they want to. As long as you’re feeling your feelings sometimes, they will feel whatever they can manage. Kids will often act out, get angry, do things that are uncharacteristic, change friends or drop things they used to be interested in. Let them. Just be there for them, and be there for yourself and they will be okay. Everyone will be okay.
Grief counseling is a great thing for anyone, but especially for kids. It didn’t exist when my mother died but my best friend had lost her mother too and it was very comforting to have someone I could talk to, outside of my immediate family, who knew what it was like. Someone who would just listen, and not worry about me.
People are afraid of not being able to handle it. Not being able to cope. But the vast majority of people who lose someone they were very close to can cope. You might need support, or you might not. If you need help, get it. If your kids need help, get it. There is no shame in needing someone to talk to or someone to help you find the tools to cope with grief. There are grief counselors in most places these days, people who have been through it and want to help. Like me. Find them or find a group or figure it out on your own. There is no right way. But it does help to feel your feelings.