When we experience loss and grief we usually have no problem naming and understanding what is lost. We are able to report, “My child died”, “my spouse died”, “my parent died” or my family pet died. And sometimes it is, “my health is gone, I lost my job, I have lost a friendship, I have lost……..
However, when we first experience grief it can be very confusing. Some patients have explained it like a sharp knife to the heart, an inability to think straight and a fear of being in public. Usually people are shocked at how encompassing grief can be.
One of my clients described it as a river. The beginning of the experience is like multiple waterfalls, crashing into each other and impossible to traverse. He stated he curled like a fetus, went within and allowed the waterfall to cover his body. He said he was unsure how long it took him to feel a semblance of self. He knew he needed to get up and stretch. The grief was not gone but it transformed into a moving river that flowed with him wherever he went. Colors were not as rich and people’s voices seemed to come from a distance. He started to function more and more like he did before the loss. He explained he encountered boulders in the path of the river but he often seemed able to see them and prepare for the disturbance and the pain. But he was taken aback when a familiar smell or timber of a voice reminded him of his wife and he felt like he was again under the waterfall.
He explained how it surprised him when certain life events year after the loss sent him reeling. He reported that his son’s graduation, while exhilarating sent him back to bed for a weekend of sadness. He stated that walking his daughter down the aisle was so full of joy and pain because his wife was not by their side. And often he was again under the waterfall.
The loss may be a onetime event, but grief is not. Grief is in essence is a process of discovering one’s love, strength and resiliency.
It is important to have a person and/or a group to talk with during this process. It is paramount to feel the pain and welcome moments of relief that do seem to grow with time and an understanding that grief is a process that has become part of your being.
Many military members who lost their comrades in combat speak of a disgust that they are still alive. They often present with such survivors guilt and anger that the events of the loss need to be processed over and over again with varying scenarios before the soldier, airman, and/or marine can come to terms that all that could be done was done. Often at that time the progression of grief changes and becomes more manageable to start handling. We see this in other high risk helping professions such as police and firefighters.
As humans we have constructed many socially acceptable rituals to deal with loss. Some of my clients have found it helpful to read spiritual books, others report that journaling their thoughts and emotions eases the confusion. Over the years I have had many patients speak of meditation or prayer and practicing mindfulness to help be in the present.
As a therapist I see grief as an eloquent process of life. At worst it feels devastating and insurmountable and at best it is a teacher of self and life. Along with the behavioral rituals, verbally processing the feelings and thoughts associate with grief is helpful. Contingent with one-on-one therapy sessions, peer groups also seem to help; whether in a religious or secular context.
The main aspect of grief is that it is a journey; a process and if dealt with rather than run away from, grief is a powerful teacher. Grieving loss brings both emotional upheaval and self-awareness and there is no set time for all people to feel relief.