Monday, March 17, 2014

Bereavement: Doing The Work of Grief

[Reviewed and updated May 27, 2024]

If I think of the real work of grief as doing whatever I can to keep my heart open, to feel and to face every stitch of both pain and love, without somehow abandoning myself in the process, well – that’s “work” I can get behind. That’s work I understand. ~ Megan Devine

A reader writes: It has been a year and 3 months since my best friend died. I think I've moved thru alot of the intensity of my grief and now what I feel left with is something similar to the wreckage after a train wreck. I feel so removed from the person I used to be. I am not old self. I kinda expected that, but I feel so unmoved by life right now. Nothing seems to thrill fact everything seems to be a struggle to do.
I have moments of feeling energetic and ok...but alot of this crappola too. I wonder if my mind is stuck in "negative" I pushing the grief too hard still, expecting myself to be free of it? Is it realistic to expect to feel joy and happiness and zest for life now...or do I need to cultivate that? My body feels like it has been beaten up, my mind feels like I'm missing a few screws. I am a mess..not sure where to start...not sure I have the energy to start. My body aches, I have headaches, weird stomach balance somewhat. My muscles have never been so tense. I feel like i could collapse and at times that would be a welcome rest. I'm just feeling really crappy and now that alot of the dust has settled...I feel huge saddness and depression that my dearest friend died. I feel shell shocked. I don't know what I need. Is it normal to feel this way? How do I pick up and move on?

My response: My first reaction to your message is that it’s such a poignant and accurate description of the physical, emotional, and spiritual effects of grief. I especially appreciate your use of the term, shell shocked. I can think of no better analogy than that. When we lose someone we love so dearly, it does feel as if the entire landscape of our life has been destroyed completely – as if someone dropped a bomb in our midst, and everything familiar, everything we thought we knew for certain, believed in, and took for granted, is now in shambles. It is so unexpected, so unfamiliar, so overwhelming that it can take weeks and months and even years for us to get our bearings, find ourselves once again, and begin rebuilding our lives.

You said I wonder if my mind is stuck in "negative" mode.. am I pushing the grief too hard still, expecting myself to be free of it? Is it realistic to expect to feel joy and happiness and zest for life now...or do I need to cultivate that? . . . Is it normal to feel this way? How do I pick up and move on?

I think the worst thing we can do in grief is to try to wait it out, or wait for something outside ourselves to happen. Grief is something that we can learn to manage – we need not sit passively in the face of it, just waiting for time to pass. The passage of time alone does nothing to heal our wounded souls. It is what we do with the time that makes the difference.

You are now 15 months into your grief journey, and I’d like to ask you some questions.

What is the state of your physical health? When did you last see your primary care physician for a complete check-up? While grief can affect us physically, and many physical symptoms occur normally in grief, it is extremely important to rule out any medical conditions that may be causing the symptoms you describe (i.e., no energy, “body aches, headaches, weird stomach stuff,” etc.) How is your appetite? When you do sit down to eat, are you intentionally eating nutritious foods, even if only in small amounts? Do you make sure that you’re drinking enough water every day? Are you getting enough rest? What about physical exercise? Do you have a regular exercise routine?

Are you doing anything to nourish your soul – such as using nature, prayer, meditation, imagination, guided imagery, music, artartistic activities, readingpoetryphotography, works of art?

Are you learning all you can about what is normal (and to be expected) in grief, and what you can do to manage it? Have you read any of the dozens of wonderful books recommended by others whose loved ones have died?

Are you keeping a journal?

You see, my friend, it is when denial falls away, when you begin to recognize and experience most intensely all the reactions to your loss, that the real work of mourning begins. In ways that are personal and unique to you alone, you will gradually integrate your loss into the framework of your life, as you slowly give up the reality that included the physical presence of your loved one.

If you’ve ever worked out on a regular basis, you know that it requires a great deal of time, effort and commitment – but when done consistently over time, it produces physical, emotional, mental and spiritual benefits. So it is with grief work. Doing the work of mourning takes enormous energy. It is both emotionally and physically exhausting and may well be the hardest work you will ever do, but it can also produce tremendous healing and growth.

Much as you may want to forego this labor, whatever issues you don’t address will lie there, waiting to be resolved. When feelings are expressed outwardly, they can be released. When they’re held onto, they just fester and keep on hurting.

Grief work can be done through private activities such as exercisingreading and writing, and with others through talking, participating in bereavement counseling or finding support in a group. It is an active rather than a passive process, not only of coming to terms with your loss, but also of finding meaning in it as well, so both the painful experience of your loved one’s death and your life without that person will count for something.

Suggestions for coping with the work of mourning:
  • Believe that there is both a purpose and an end to the work that you must do, and trust that you’ll find your way through this grief.
  • Take responsibility for doing your own grief work. The decisions you make, the feelings you feel, the tears you cry belong to you alone, and no one else can do your mourning for you.
  • Take time out and time off whenever you need to do so. It is both healthy and necessary to take a break! Your grief will be waiting when you return. 
  • Ask for help when you need it, from others who understand the grief recovery process, or who are working through losses of their own.
  • Take all the time you need. Grief work will take more time and effort than you ever thought possible, but you will make it through this.
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