Every time I have sat across from someone experiencing grief, the question of the “right way” to grieve comes up. Is it as simple as seven steps? Can I force myself through the steps to make myself “get better” faster? How do I move on with my life? Will I always feel this way? These questions and hopes are entirely normal for a variety of reasons.
First and foremost, it is important to note that grief is not only experienced in response to death. We grieve loss, which comes in many shapes and sizes. We grieve the loss of spouses in divorce and loss of partners in break-ups, loss of children we never met outside the womb, loss of a job or steady income, loss of future plans, loss of health, loss of friendships, and so much more. We even grieve losses not yet experienced.
Sometimes people do not even recognize they are grieving because their experience does not involve death and it can come as a surprise when they realize what in fact is going on. Saying goodbye to most things in life is difficult; hence, grief plays a larger than expected role in everyday life. It is a reminder of something or someone we have deeply loved, valued, and cared about and that is no longer present in the same way as in the past.
Truth be told, there is no right way to grieve. Though the Seven Stages of Grief normalized the types of emotions involved in grief, it has unfortunately led people to believe that grief is linear and that there is one right way.
This concept proposes that we experience grief step-by-step, starting with shock/denial, then pain/guilt, anger/bargaining, depression, “the turn,” “working through,” and then finally acceptance/hope. It also supposes we must go through these stages in said order or we will not have completed the grieving process.
In reality, grief comes in waves and looks different for everyone and there is no right way of walking through it. You may immediately experience a wave of depression and apathy and then later experience shock and anger.
Eventually, there is a stage of acceptance, but grief is not something that happens for six months and then is never returned to. It is an ongoing process and something that is learned to be incorporated into life rather than left behind.
Another question I often receive is really more of a desire – can I make myself feel better faster? The short answer is no. The reason behind this desire is simply because grief is hard and uncomfortable.
Humans are wired to avoid pain, so no wonder when we are experiencing grief, arguably the deepest kind of human pain, we are desperate for any kind of relief. This leads to the hope that there is a type of cure-all or a quick way of moving through grief.
In one of my favorite books on grief, A Grace Disguised, the author states, “The quickest way for anyone to reach the sun and the light of day is not to run west, chasing after the setting sun, but to head east, plunging into the darkness until one comes to the sunrise.”
One cannot avoid the pain of grief; in doing so, it will only crop up at a later date in arguably a more unhealthy way. Instead, the best way to move through grief is to face it, head-on, and let yourself feel fully all of the emotions. That is the “quickest” way to reach the sun again.
“Moving on” is another common concept often discussed in the context of grief. So often we develop an idea that one day we will go back to feeling the same or “normal” again, similar to the concept of “forgive and forget.” Neither grief nor forgiveness works quite like that.
We do not move on from the memories of the people. We don’t complete the grieving process and never return to it. Rather, we learn how to incorporate the experience into our stories and move on with whatever we were grieving. When we lose a loved one, there will be new and different reminders of that loss for many years to come.
Pictures, watching their favorite TV show, coming across a gift from them, holidays, family gatherings, or even a song on the radio, will all serve as reminders at unexpected moments. It is okay to cry or ache for their hug when you remember them.
It is not a sign you have failed the grieving process. Instead, it is a sign of honoring the loss you experienced and honoring the emotions held regarding that loss. The pain will become less sharp, but that doesn’t mean you will forget it.
This leads to a final common question: “Will I feel this way forever?” Yes and no. When it comes to emotions, the average emotion will pass after seven seconds. They repeat when we return to them and stew on them. All that to say, feelings are fleeting. Grief, however, is not.
When we feel pain, we not only want the pain to stop, but we tend to want to go back to feeling entirely normal. In grief, we tone muscles we never knew we had and never wanted to discover. We learn new coping skills, make self-discoveries, and often develop meaningful connections while we walk through it.
It’s like adding dye to a glass of water. Initially, the dye is super concentrated, just as our pain is. But with time and some stirring, it combines with the water and its potency fades. The water is still a slightly different color, but the dye has become one with the water.
One day you’ll wake up and the first thing on your mind won’t be your loss, but that doesn’t mean it will be as though the loss never occurred. Rather, the loss has been absorbed into your life story.
To answer the big question, what is grief supposed to look like, it is supposed to look like what you need it to be. If you need to sit in sadness for a significant period of time, allow it. If you need to express your anger at the felt injustice of the situation, by all means, don’t hold it in!
If you sit in denial over how your life is changing, sit in it. And if you need help managing the big emotions that come with grief, reach out to friends, family, and/or a therapist. And remember, God is always ready to hear our emotions, just like He did with Job and David.
“Candles on the Water”, Courtesy of Mike Labrum, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Lone Tree in a Graveyard”, Courtesy of Ashim D’Silva, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Despairing but not lost”, Courtesy of whoislimos, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Leaf on the Pavement”, Courtesy of John Noonan, Unsplash.com, CC0 License