Grief and Grieving
For my brother
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I have no pictures hanging on the walls or falling off my wallet. But on the fifth anniversary of my little brother's death, I wanted to look at his face again. So I pulled his out of the drawer. I cried again. I still don't understand his death. I still miss him and hear his laughter in my head. I dream of him occasionally as my brain continues to process one of the most heart-wrenching experiences a human being endures – the loss of a truly loved one. It's even worse when loss comes unexpectedly and prematurely. It feels much easier now. My days feel normal. Often, I remember him with a smile on my face and enjoy stories about him. It wasn't like this right after he died. Then, I was dying, too, a slow and excruciatingly painful death that never killed me. I could barely breathe, eat, or sleep. I wanted to fold the fabric of space and build a bridge to the past to prevent the present.
A whole human life holds the joys and sadness, the gains and losses, the beginnings and endings. But somehow, we put the sad, challenging, and painful parts out of our minds and claim entitlement to happiness and havingness. We become adept at wanting and accumulating, while our capacity to cope with the worst experiences remains underdeveloped. Still, what goes up, goes down. Beginnings beget endings. Having something predisposes us to lose it. It would be wise of us to know what to expect and what to do with ourselves when the time comes.
Sometimes I wonder if our inability to imagine endings and loss adequately prevents us from appreciating and enjoying to the fullest what's in front of us while it's ours. Others say that our fear of loss and avoidance of pain keeps us from fully allowing joy, loving hugely, and accomplishing great things.
Losses could be of different types but still painful in their own way, confusing, frustrating, leaving us lost, disoriented, smaller, vulnerable, and sadder. We even grieve endings we've chosen ourselves, like ending an intimate relationship or a friendship.
It's what we do with the experience, how we treat it, process it, and the meaning we derive from it that makes all the difference in who we become.
What to expect
We are supposed to grieve losses. Just like we are supposed to eat when hungry, rejoice with newlyweds, and congratulate parents for their newborns. Not all losses are created equal therefore, not all grief feels the same. But grief is always necessary to process any loss.
We are not supposed to minimize the loss or ignore how we feel about it. No one earns extra brownie points for toughing it out and stuffing it down. We don't sweep it under the rug. We also don't take our frustration on others. We don't distract or intoxicate ourselves to oblivion.
We go through five distinct "moods" of grief. I don't want to call them "stages" like others do because they don't appear sequentially and often go back and forth. We go through denial and disbelief first. Then, we mix in some anger and frustration. Depending on the type of loss, we may try to bargain, negotiate, and plead our case. Inevitably we feel sad, even depressed. Eventually, we settle down in acceptance. Just because we've accepted something, it does not mean we immediately forget the sadness. Sometimes, anger reappears as more questions or new facts surface. Then we do it over again until we re-accept. It may take a week, a month, a year.
It takes however long it takes, but it should not take forever.
If you find yourself unable to digest a loss, you may identify with your position (the victim). It sounds strange, but there are benefits to this. You may get attention, sympathy, support, connection, recognition, etc. Those are potent medicines, possibly addictive to some. Victimhood absolves responsibility for your part in the story, but it makes the story stickier and prolongs the pain. It consumes energy to maintain the status quo instead of recovering and rebuilding. Therefore, the future will look like the present.
Other times, you can't get over a loss because of guilt, which turns a normal grieving process into self-blame and self-doubt. It will cause you to dwell on "what ifs" and "could haves." Guilt may keep you in denial. It may turn the anger inward and deepen the depression.
Anger traps many who don't realize they can resolve it through forgiveness – toward themselves or someone else. Forgiving cleans the windshield and puts things in the rearview mirror. You don't forget, but you choose to keep moving forward. It allows you to learn from your actions and the actions of others, to properly appraise what has happened, put it in the correct context, and derive the most meaning from it. In turn, the anger goes away, replaced by understanding and compassion.
You might still be sad, though. That's a good thing. The amount of sadness should match the level of importance of the loss. If you don't feel sad, you didn't care to begin with. You have nothing to grieve.
Types of grief
Anticipatory grief. Sometimes we start worrying and grieving in anticipation of a loss. I look at my little Lulu Bell and can't help thinking that someday she won't be with me. She's still six years old, yet I am already anticipating the pain of her loss. It may seem silly, but I hope this anticipatory reaction will make it easier later when it actually happens. Or perhaps, this is a case of a "coward dying a thousand deaths." I really do not know. But if the loss of your job, relationship, or a terminally ill loved one looms imminent, you may find yourself in the same position. Hope goes away, and grief sneaks in.
Disenfranchised grief. When a person feels stigmatized, expects to be judged, or society to minimize the importance of someone or something, the loss cannot be openly mourned and talked about. This complicates the grieving process by limiting the availability of healing options. It happens to women experiencing miscarriage or having to undergo an abortion. Imagine the loss of an unrecognized or hidden relationship, the loss of an absent parent when one was hoping to reconnect eventually, an adoption that doesn't go through, the loss of years of life to neglect or abuse. Society tends to stigmatize suicide, loss of cognitive function, addiction, incarceration. So, loss associated with one of these likely results in disenfranchised grief.
What to do about grief
Allow for the process to do its thing. Cry when you feel like it. Sit with the anger. Be honest with yourself. Contemplate the importance of what you've had and lost. Give yourself a break for being broken.
Seek support from your friends and family. Lean on the people who care about you. Let them take care of you. Spent meaningful time together face-to-face. Sometimes people want to help but don't know how. Be honest about your needs and let them know how to help. Sometimes you need a shoulder to cry on. Other times you may need a place to live, a bowl of soup, or help with your children. If people ask, "how can I help," tell them. This is not a time to worry about imposing. If they don't want to help, they won't offer.
Put it in writing. Journal about your thoughts and feelings. Write down your questions. Write about your loss in whatever form feels natural to you – a poem, a sketch, stream of consciousness, a story. Writing is great unburdening. It turns the ambiguity of thoughts and feelings into words, taking them out of your head and depositing them on paper, making them real, acknowledged, and seen.
Talk to a professional. I've walked many people through grief in my practice. It's always a unique experience for everyone, and yet, it follows the laws of grieving just the same. Professionals come in handy when you feel the grip of disenfranchised grief, and there's no one you can talk to about it. They can also help take up the load, so your friends and family get a break, or when they don't know what to do or say.
Find time for fun. It may be the last thing on your mind, but keep your hobbies, your hikes, your outings with friends, your trip plans, etc. It helps you stay connected with life in the present. Gives your mind a break from the heaviness. Consider it a form of self-care.
Keep your routines. Routines stabilize life. Keep going to the gym, walk your dog, make your morning coffee, clean your house, etc.
Take good care of your health. You should always, but especially in times of grief. Exercise, eat healthy, sleep, get bodywork, do yoga, meditate. As your body feels better, your mind will too. You need all the happy chemistry you can get to cope with the depression of grief.
Rituals. We have retirement parties, house warmings, baby showers, funerals, and Bat Mitzvahs for a reason. Rituals mark time. They close one chapter in life and open another. If your loss does not come with a closure ritual like a funeral, create your own. Have a memorial for your loss, remember and account for the good times and how it has served you, helped you, improved your life, etc., and symbolically bury it, close the book, say goodbye.
In Bulgaria, my mom will gather friends and family and visit my brother's grave, sharing stories in remembrance, a drink, and a few bites. They’ll bring flowers, clear the weeds, and wash the headstone. Bulgarians talk to the departed, telling them about life, what they've missed, ask questions, and seek guidance. It's how they process life and death, and how they cope with loss. In California, I'll write on my brother's Facebook page, telling him that I love him. I'll look at his picture and cry a few times. Then, again, life will take its normal rhythm.
As it always does.
As it should.
I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most;
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
Alfred Lord Tennyson
If you want to read the whole "In Memoriam A.H.H," one person's way of processing the loss of a best friend, go Here.
A few days ago, I read the "Slow Motion Suicide in San Francisco" article by Michael Shellenberger, an award-winning writer, about the homeless and addiction situations in San Francisco.
The city is carrying out a bizarre medical experiment in which they are helping homeless drug addicts use drugs. 'It's handing a loaded gun to a suicidal person.
It disturbs me to know what's happening there. Do you live in San Francisco? What is your take on the situation?
Completely unrelated but hilarious. How would you feel if you came to this on your “exercise trail?” I busted out laughing. The best part - it’s not at the end!
Thanks for reading. If you find yourself in need to talk to someone, to vent, to figure things out, to process, to get motivated, or to plan, hit me up. You can find what I do at www.valentinapetrovaconsulting.com
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