We’re all experiencing some form of grief these days. As this pandemic progresses, more of us will brush shoulders with loss.
The death of someone you care about deeply can be so gut wrenching and annihilating that you may be left unable to imagine ever regaining your equilibrium. And if you’re there right now, just know you won’t be in that painful place forever.
I know, because that happened to me in early fall of 2017. That’s when I lost my partner of three years in a motorcycle wreck.
His death flattened me. For two weeks, I couldn’t eat. And for months after the accident, I barely slept, anxiety and exhaustion my constant companions. I came to believe that I’d never crawl out of the desolation.
But with proper care and attention, grief eases its heart-clenching grip. And, says grief expert Terri Daniel, embrace it fully and it can shake you alive and awake like nothing else.
“It’s an opening to a new world, a new self, higher awareness, spiritual growth — whatever you allow to come in,” says Daniel. “And it leads to greater peace in life.”
Daniel knows this firsthand. In 2006, she lost her 16-year-old son to metachromatic leukodystrophy, a rare metabolic disorder.
“It was a progressively degenerative disease. He went from being a perfectly normal kid to in a wheelchair, unable to speak or manage his own body in any way,” she says.
She offers these five strategies to help you cultivate a healthy relationship with grief.
1. Be with your grief.
Tending to grief requires us to be with it, in all its misery and messiness.
“We want to find a place where we can be present with it rather than be in resistance to it,” Daniel says. “It’s an old Buddhist teaching of sitting with uncertainty, sitting with discomfort. And that’s the real tool we need for being with grief.”
It’s not easy. But doing so is key to embarking on the “tasks of grieving,” which span the entire grieving process.
Psychologist William Worden developed the concept, which involves four main tasks: acceptance of the loss, processing that loss, adjusting to life without the deceased person and finding ways to maintain an enduring connection with your loved one as you continue your life.
Daniel suggests thinking of the tasks of grieving as you do other recurring tasks in life. You face the discomfort and do the work because a healthy mourning process demands our presence.
The tasks differ from the “stages of grief” made famous by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. She described the denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance that a person goes through when facing their own death.
One thing is certain: Sidestepping grief isn’t an option. Numbing the pain with work, alcohol or other drugs only delays the inevitable, says Sonya Lott, a Philadelphia-based psychologist.
“We have to move through it, or it will continue to show up in insidious ways in every aspect of our being: physically, cognitively, emotionally, spiritually,” says Lott.
2. Grief is a lifelong journey.
The acute pain will subside, but the pain of loss never fully leaves us. It finds us at unexpected moments.
When you’re in the throes of acute grief, this may sound untenable. But Daniel says, given time and space, grief matures into an old, comfortable friend.
It has been more than 13 years since Daniel lost her son. And when a wave of sadness hits her shore, she embraces it.
“I like to say, ‘Hello, grief. … I don’t want you to be here, but I’m going to make friends with you because I can’t get rid of you. So come on in and sit with me, and I will be your friend,’ ” Daniel says. “That’s how you heal. That’s how it strengthens you.”
3. Grief needs expression.
Paint, sculpt, throw clay, dance, bake, journal — whatever feels right. And reach out to trusted friends or family members who get it.
“One of the things a grieving person needs more than anything else is to tell their story and be heard,” she says.
Many people benefit from support groups or time with a grief counselor.
If after a year, you still feel stuck, you could be moving into complicated grief. While regular grief doesn’t usually require therapeutic intervention, that changes with complicated grief, says Lott.
She specializes in treating the condition, also known as prolonged grief disorder. Lott says it’s diagnosed when a person experiences acute grief that interferes with their daily functioning more than a year after the death. A host of factors puts people at risk for complicated grief, Lott says. Among them are multiple losses within a short period, preexisting mental health conditions and unexpected deaths.
For that there’s an evidence-based treatment called complicated grief therapy. You’ll have to find someone like Lott who specializes in this, and it involves between 16 and 20 therapy sessions.
If you need help finding a therapist, there’s a Life Kit for that too.
4. Healthy grieving involves pingponging between loss and restoration.
The journey through grief is not linear.
“So you’re sad, you’re crying, you can’t get out of bed. You’re angry. That’s loss,” Daniel says. “Then you get out of bed and you go write in your journal and take a walk in nature — that’s restoration. Back and forth, back and forth. As long as you’re moving between those two focuses all the time and you’re not stagnant, you’re gonna be fine.”
Eventually, you’ll find yourself residing mostly in restoration, which is healthy but also sometimes brings its own challenges.
“There’s so much guilt that comes with that,” she says. “We feel that holding on to our pain keeps us connected to our loved one, and it’s not true.”
Instead, Daniel and other grief experts urge you to find a positive way of remaining connected. Doing so is one of those important tasks of healing. For some, it’s as simple as framing a favorite photo or planting a tree. For others, it’s getting a tattoo. Or in the case of Daniel, adopting her son Danny’s first name as her last.
5. Grief can break you open to a new you — if you let it.
In early grief, the change to your life is unwelcome. But grief is supposed to change you, Daniel says.
And for many of us, the healing period brings new passions and sometimes an entirely new direction in life. You may find yourself starting a charity, volunteering or going back to school.
For me, it has been to better understand profound grief so that I can continue healing and, when possible, help others through it.
“The term that we use in counseling is ‘meaning-making,’ ” Daniel says. “You make meaning out of your life.”