Coping with Grief Part 1: How can I make sense of my grief?

Part 1: How can I make sense of my grief?

by Katy Woolf

Loss is a universal experience, and yet it is among one of life’s most challenging and painful experiences.  When we lose someone we love, we are faced not only with the pain of the loss itself, but also the struggle of understanding and making sense of our grief reaction and the impact of the loss on our emotional world. This can feel extremely confusing and unpredictable, especially when our experiences don’t fit with the expectations we may have for what grief ‘should’ look like. 

What happens when we grieve?

Whilst we all experience loss in our lives, there is no right or wrong way to grieve. We all grieve in different ways and no one way is more or less valid, better or worse, or more or less demonstrative of our love for our lost one. Just as the relationships we build are unique, so is the loss of those relationships. This can be influenced by a whole host of factors, including our past experiences, our relationships, our environment, support networks, our expectations of grief…. and this is all ‘OK’. It is often when we judge our grief as right or wrong that we run into trouble, because this adds an extra layer to our grief. Not only are we grieving, we are also now judging our grief, adding pain/guilt/shame into the mix. 

There are a number of theories out there as to the processes we tend to go through when mourning. Whilst they all speak about this slightly differently and use various terminology, essentially they all agree that we tend to move flexibly through a process of mourning, which eventually allows us to reach a place where we are able to ‘live with’ the loss and adopt new ways of being in the world, moving towards a ‘new normal’. Now we can see that moving through this process is a massive task for someone who has just lost a loved one, and pressure to move through this at a certain rate can in itself keep us stuck. We may find this pressure coming from a desire to move through the pain as quickly as possible, and it can be frustrating to find that this is taking time, and that the loss is still causing such on-going pain. On the other hand, when we do find that we are able to move through grief at a faster pace than we may have expected, and this can happen for any number of reasons, we can find ourselves feeling guilty about this, assuming that this must be ‘wrong’. 

It is important to know that grieving doesn’t always happen in a linear way, and we often experience a movement between ‘loss orientated’ and ‘restoration orientated’ responses (Stroebe & Schut, 1999). This bounce back and forth helps us to move between grief reactions such as crying, remembering the loved one and feelings of longing and yearning (loss-orientated) and learning new skills, taking on new roles and focusing on day to day tasks which move you towards a new future (restoration-orientated). This can be difficult and can make it feel that we are going backwards at times, or moving too quickly at times. However, this is a natural way to move through the grieving process, and perhaps we can see this as our brain’s way of allowing us to grieve, whilst also gently learning to live in our future world. This can help us to see that the ‘good days’ and the ‘bad days’ are OK, and are all part of our body’s attempts to expand around our grief, learning how to live alongside it.

So whilst we can see that there is no one way to grieve, and our grief reaction can change from moment to moment and day to day, we also know that there are times when this process can become interrupted, and we can find ourselves stuck in a ‘complex bereavement’ response. This is not to say that our grief is ‘wrong’ or that we have not ‘coped well enough’, it is just to say that at times, for a multitude of reasons, we might find we need a little extra support to guide us through our bereavement. 

In part 2 of the blog we will consider the multiple challenges of grief and the ways in which we can find ourselves struggling with this complex and confusing process. 

References

Stroebe, M., & Schut, H. (1999). The dual process model of coping with bereavement: Rationale and description.Death Studies, 23, 197-224.