“I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history . . .”
― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
We are stunned, once again, by an extreme act of violence, and impacted beyond measure by the grief and loss involved. Those families affected most directly, the families of the victims, will of course feel this grief and loss most acutely.
But even those of us more removed from the events can re-experience our own history of loss in some measure, a history we thought for sure we were past. At times like these, it is helpful to be reminded of the nature and course of grief and of a few things we can do to help it along:
1. Grief is very personal. Everyone is different, so you will experience the thoughts and feelings connected with the loss of a loved one in your own, unique way. The advice of the experts and the wisdom of friends might speak to you, or they might not. Use what works, ignore what doesn’t, and be strong in your insistence on experiencing your grief in your own manner.
2. Grief can be very tiring, both mentally and physically. So it’s important, whether you’ve just lost a loved one or whether someone else’s loss has triggered memories of an earlier grief, to take special care of yourself for a while. Cut back on your responsibilities where you can, be sure to get enough sleep, engage in more activities that bring you joy, and surround yourself with people who can support you through this difficult time.
3. We tend to experience grief in stages. The five most common stages are: Denial/Isolation, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Note that these are not the kind of stages that progress neatly from one to another, but the kind that overlap and skip around. And they can each (or all) reappear in some fashion when a current loss reminds us of an earlier one.
4. Grief doesn’t follow a calendar or clock. Going through the stages of grief takes as long as it takes. People in your life, largely in an attempt to be helpful, will say things like “you should be over this by now,” or “didn’t that happen a long time ago?” In the face of these well-meaning, but decidedly inaccurate, sentiments you have to remember that everyone’s experience of grief and loss is unique (see #1), and so no one else can tell you how and when you should be over it.
Actually, it is likely you will never really get all the way “over” it, as the memories of your loved one, while bringing you joy and comfort, will also likely spark feelings of sadness at times, even when you are many years past their death and have largely entered the “acceptance” stage of grief. This can happen most vividly when a new loss, perhaps even one experienced by someone else, reminds you of an earlier one.
5. Feelings of grief and loss, like other strong feelings, have a beginning, a middle and an end. And you can, and will, get through them in one piece. In order to do this, however, you must first be truly mindful of your feelings. This means first taking the time to sit with them, name them, and accept that they are what they are, and then bravely wading into them with the belief that you can and will bear them. The simple, but sometimes hard, truth is that you can’t take a shortcut here; the only way to get to the other end of a feeling is to allow yourself to feel it.
Most of us find that, with lots of time and a good support system, we are eventually able to integrate our loss, even a very profound one, into the ongoing story of our life and move forward to brighter things, carrying the memories of this important person with us as we grow, change and go about the business of living. This is the natural course of grief if we allow it to flow.
But there is additional redemption possible here. Because our experience, or re-experience, of our own grief can help us empathize with others when they suffer a loss, and can bring us together as a community in a powerful way when something really horrible happens. In this way, experiences of grief and loss are a part of the fabric of being human, and have the power, ultimately, to uplift and transform.
What about you? Do you sometimes find yourself re-experiencing grief you thought you’d left behind? If you’re comfortable telling us about your experience, you are encouraged to leave a comment below.