Grief and Loss
“The wound is uncovered, so it can be worked with. Sometimes we do this consciously, but more often, life simply breaks us open”
Navigating Grief and Loss
Grief is a psychological, emotional and spiritual response to significant loss and the intensity of it can consume us. It includes the awakening of powerful emotions such as despair, anger, denial, depression and for many an onset of hopelessness. Other emotions which we will run into on our pathway through grief include feeling sad, shocked, numb, stressed, anxious and confused.
The grief that is experienced when a number of losses occur in a short space of time or consecutively – one after the other, can be profound. These consecutive losses can leave wounds that if left hidden, are carried around for months, years or even decades – just waiting to be healed.
It is the accumulation of this unacknowledged grief that can push many of us into moments of despair. Yet, it is in those moments of despair, where we will be given a choice, to either step away from the grief or to step into it and surrender. It is this point of surrender which enables us to lean into our suffering with courage and strength and it is the journey we embark on from this point that will become so crucial.
This act of leaning into our grief in this way, is vital because if we don’t, we are in danger of living somewhere in an abyss of the ‘in-between’. This is where we turn away from our grief and the pain of loss and at the same time refuse to open our hearts fully to the potential of genuine love. So, we feel everything, but nothing completely and we only scratch the surface of what it means to be alive. We numb ourselves, avoid and deny the depths of our feelings and our soul’s very calling.
Stages of Grief
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first proposed the five stages of grief in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. It is important to note that these stages are a framework for understanding the process of grief, but grief is actually a messy process, it is not linear, and it is different for everyone. When going through crisis, it is likely that our experiences of grief are going to vary greatly because of the wide range of losses that are experienced. We can’t place our losses and the process of grief into a specific category; however, I find these stages to be a helpful road map for those who want to understand their journey more fully. The original five stages are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Since then a sixth stage has been added which is finding meaning.
Denial: When we are in denial, we can feel paralyzed or experience a sense of numbness. This might have happened when we were told that we were entering lockdown, when the schools closed or when we realized we were not going to be able to see our friends and family again for an (unknown) period of time. Denial is an important protective mechanism as we move through the shock of loss. We are only letting in as much as we can handle at this point and this helps us to manage our emotions on an unconscious level.
Anger: We will encounter many forms of emotions, however, usually at the fore-front of these emotions is anger or irritability. There will be anger at the fact that we have had to suddenly put many aspects of our lives on hold, anger that we can’t visit loved ones who might get sick. We are angry that our children may not go to school and our freedom has been seized from us. We will be angry if we lose our loved ones before their time. Feeling angry is a natural part of the process and it is important to get to know it, just as we will talk about it in further sections of this book – we welcome all emotions including the emotions of anger – without judging them. It is usually this anger which is masking our underlying pain or sadness and the reality that a part of our life has been put on hold or has in fact, ended. Another form of anger may be anger towards a higher power which we perceive has abandoned us in a time of need, we are bitter that life can be so unfair and we may even want to push those we love away from us as we process our anger.
Bargaining: During this stage, we are desperate for things to go back to how they were before this crisis hit. We ask, ‘what if’ or ‘if only’. It is an attempt for us to bring order back to chaos because we don’t want to go through this pain and loss anymore. We may daydream about life before the lockdown, or before our loved ones became ill and passed away, we may wonder if there was anything we could have done to have kept them safe. We may question if there is another reality that exists, where this is not happening. We wonder about the future, when this is over – can we bring back the things and the people we have lost? Can we have our lives go back to normal again? This will be the lived experience for many, who seek to negotiate an alternative reality and fantasize about a different life – the one we had before or the one that will come when this crisis is over.
Depression: It is normal to experience depression as we move through our journey. We can go through a deep sense of emptiness and loneliness when we experience this unknown stage of our lives. This depression and sense of loneliness is a normal response to the losses we have encountered, it is part of the healing process and it will take time to move through. Depression is often diagnosed as an “illness” something to be treated through medication and “recover” from. As a result, we often try to avoid or move away from any discomfort we encounter. This may be with the use of medication or distracting ourselves from our pain and just like with anger, we need to embrace experiences of depression and accept them.
Acceptance: Acceptance is where we step into our new reality, we learn to live with it, to not try to change anything or to move back to how it was before. We start to feel better about the situation and move towards a gentler acceptance for the reality of our new life. We begin to consider how to move forward and what this new stage of our existence will bring for us. This doesn’t mean we will ever forget our loved ones who have passed away or the parts of our life that brought us so much joy in the past, but we can now take small steps forward into a new way of being.
To accept our situation means to bring awareness to our emotions, hold space for them and then welcome them into us with self-compassion. This enables us to relax into these emotions and enter a more expansive, peaceful space. So the letting go is a welcoming of everything and then finding the ability to move forward based on a more coherent and loving energy. In the next part we will go into more detail, the specific practices which can be used for working through experiences of loss and navigating the uncertainty that follows.
The well-mapped stages of grief are a beautiful resource to make sense of our experiences. Remember, they are not linear and not everyone will move through them in the same order, or even at all. The losses that have been experienced during this pandemic are multi-dimensional. Some will feel the impact
of their losses for the rest of their lives, other losses might be easier to accept and move on from. The important thing is that we recognize there are a variety of emotions that arise as we navigate the journey through loss and grief and our experiences will be different every day. We will speak about this in the following chapters, as it is crucial that we make space for these emotions and we don’t try to push them away.
Although it can sound counterintuitive to stay present with difficult emotions (we fear they might be too much to handle) it has been my experience that when we do this, the intensity of them lessens. I notice a huge shift in my ability to work through overpowering emotions when I can stay present with my pain and say “I don’t feel okay today, but that’s okay.”
Society, our friends and family want us to feel healthy and be happy, yet, there is nothing wrong with telling someone you’re having a bad day, that you’re struggling with your losses. You can do this without becoming a ‘victim’ to your pain. Remember that the pain of loss and grief is neither good, nor bad but it is a part of our human experience. Authentically listening to our emotions in this way, also teaches us the importance of vulnerability and being able to share our difficulties with each other. Telling someone else you’re struggling doesn’t mean anyone needs to fix or change anything, but there is so much value in sharing our stories with each other.
If you experiencing grief or the impact of loss, get in touch to explore how 1-1 coaching sessions can be supportive of you during this time.