Grief is a peculiar emotion
It can encompass so many feelings — at the same time
My vision blurred. A feeling of intense sadness washed over me as I felt my whole body blushing. I squirmed in discomfort but couldn’t stop the pools of salty water swelling in my eyes and then overflowing down over my cheeks, soaking into my pink top.
Mortified that I’d started crying in front of a client, I reached for the tissue box. My client glanced at me — causing me further embarrassment.
But then a miracle happened…
My client had been telling me about his experiences over the previous 8 months:
- His wife had died after a 7-year struggle with cancer.
- His 4 children, ranging in age from 7 to 14, seemed to have gone off the rails.
- The company he worked for referred him to me because of his failing work performance.
- His manager knew about my client’s bereavement and said the company had tried various ways to help him but that none had been successful.
- Sending him to me was a last-ditch effort to assist him in getting his life back on track — and prevent him from losing his job.
So no pressure!
[At the bottom of this post are two podcasts about grief. I mention
this story in the first interview. I didn’t have all the facts mentioned in this
post to hand when I did the podcast. You’ll still get the key elements of
the story from the interview, which includes other case studies about grief.
The second podcast goes into more depth about the types of grieving,
and gives some useful, and enlightening examples]
The client was an immigrant, and his wife’s sister and her husband were the only relatives he had in New Zealand. He told me his oldest girl had just started menstruating, and he didn’t know what to do or say to her. On top of this, although normally a diligent student, the same daughter had recently played truant. The oldest boy was similarly ‘hooking’ school and had gotten into trouble for misbehaviour.
As the man related his story, he became increasingly anxious, blaming himself for everything that was going wrong with his family dynamics.
He hadn’t talked to any of the children about their mother’s illness or death. He worried he’d become too emotional and make matters worse. Thus, he’d tried to be steady as a rock and be strong for his family.
As he communicated the details of this tragedy, I felt such deep sadness for the whole family that I started crying. Then my client began weeping — for the first time since his wife’s death. It truly was a miracle — because it was the beginning of his healing.
We both sobbed for several minutes
Then we talked about how unhealthy it is to keep emotions inside. He hadn’t expected his children to ‘be strong’ as well. He’d expected them to be upset and to cry. But they had exhibited no signs of grief. He hadn’t connected the behavioural problems he’d mentioned earlier with his children mourning their mum.
“What might you be teaching your children by being strong and not showing emotion?” I asked him gently.
Given the opportunity to pause and think about it, he said he was:
- Probably teaching them they shouldn’t show emotion either.
- Maybe he was showing them he didn’t care about his wife — their mother that much, anyway. Although nothing could have been further from the truth.
- Communicating that adults don’t cry, even though they may be upset.
We chatted about how children, especially, learn by example rather than from what they’re told. We had a deep conversation about grief, his own experiences, and those his children might be having.
End of the session
He went home to talk to his kids about their mother; about how much he’d loved her and missed her, and how distraught he’d been when she died. He wanted to enrol his sister-in-law, to talk to his older daughter about her periods and ‘womanly’ things.
This post isn’t just about grieving someone we love
Or about the emotions we feel in relation to their passing. The problem with that narrow definition is that we may not recognise other kinds of grief.
We can experience grief when we lose anything that’s of value
This may include the loss of:
- A job (through retirement, redundancy, or mandate)
- A pet
- A house
- A limb
- Health (your own or someone you love)
- A dream
- A precious item (eg an heirloom)
- Financial security
- Relationship (through a divorce, and sometimes the loss of interaction with the spouse’s family)
- Country of origin (through migration or being a refugee)
- A child (through death or miscarriage)
- Independence (for example through illness, age or disability)
- Culture or way of life (for instance Covid restrictions)
- Freedom (for example Covid restrictions or disability)
When you realise that grief can involve anything from that list (and more), it becomes apparent that there are many, many people mourning something or someone.
Most of us don’t know how to grieve
In fact, many people don’t even recognise grief. They might think they’re depressed and seek advice from a doctor. I’ve often had people come as clients with a prescription for anti-depressants in their pocket. They are reluctant to fill it, and decide to try something else first.
Grief and mourning are natural — though not happy — parts of living.
But, if you can recognise grief, and have some tools to handle it, it’s something you can come to terms with.
There are various aspects of grief:
- Shock, disbelief, confusion or denial: You can’t believe your ears, especially when the loss is sudden.
- Anger: This might be general anger, because of frustration and a sense of helplessness; slamming doors or ‘kicking the cat’ type behaviour. Or, it could be anger at the person who passed or anger at God or a higher power.
- Bargaining: You might think about what you could have done to prevent the loss and this can result in the feeling of guilt. Or you may consider making a deal with a higher power to ‘bring the person back.’
- Depression: This can include sadness, crying, despair, regret, loneliness and overwhelm.
- Acceptance: You come to terms with your loss. You might still feel sad, but you can move on. It doesn’t mean you forget about the loss, just that you can deal with it.
Emotions don’t follow the nice, tidy bullet points above
In fact, you might feel all of those emotions in the space of 30 mins.
And then wonder if you’re also going insane!
Emotions, fortunately, are transitory
But we can maintain an unwanted emotional state by continually focusing on our thoughts about our loss. We might talk to ourselves negatively — and the words we use affect our feelings.
Someone or something might pull us out of that state temporarily, and for a while, we might even laugh and have fun. But when we return to our own thoughts once more, we might feel guilty about not feeling sad!
Do you see how this grieving thing goes?
It’s not straightforward.
So what can you do? How do you recover from grief?
Here are some tips to guide you through grief and mourning
Recognise you are grieving
Identify what you’re grieving about. Refer to the list of likely reasons, but also know there could be something else you’re grieving for.
Notice how you feel and acknowledge it
For example, if you’re feeling sad just acknowledge it by saying, “I’m feeling sad, and it’s OK to be sad. It’s completely understandable.”
Be your own best friend.
I doubt you’d tell a grieving friend to ‘get over it’ or ‘pull yourself together’, so please don’t speak to yourself in that way. Words have a massive impact on how you feel.
Notice the things that trigger you and anchor you to unwanted emotions
Sounds, smells, tastes, images and touch can all bring back memories. We call these anchors because they anchor us back into a particular emotional state. Music can have a dramatic impact (both positively and negatively) as can photographs. (The reason we take photos is often to also remember the emotions we experienced at the time they were taken.)
Even furniture and articles in a house can produce unwanted feelings. Previously, those items may have inspired happy memories. After a loss, they become an unwelcome and now tainted reminder — tinged with sadness.
This is often the reason a bereaved person might want to move out of the house after a death; they feel so anchored to everything in the house, that just being there makes them sad. Also, remember that these anchors can still trigger reactions months, or even years later.
Don’t be strong or staunch!
Let people know you’re grieving and ask for help if you need it. I’ve met whole families who individually are ‘being strong’ for each other, prolonging their collective grief by not sharing how they feel. Proclaiming that they are being strong is a lie. They are concerned that by allowing others to see their outward signs of mourning, they may embarrass themselves, or worse still, make others feel uncomfortable.
The irony is that they are only ‘being strong’ because they’re too weak to let their emotions show! Talk to one another and recognise you’ll all experience grief differently.
Think about it; by allowing yourself to express emotion, you give others permission to do the same.
Reflect on the message any perceived lack of feeling may send to others. Does it say you don’t care or that you’re indifferent? Does it say that you expect others to behave in ways contrary to how they truly feel? Ignoring your grief won’t make it go away. It’s more likely to just resurface at an inappropriate time and in an undesirable way!
Know that emotions can change quickly
Children often go through a range of emotions in a brief space of time. They might giggle uncontrollably one minute and sob inconsolably the next. We consider them to be normal kids. A child showing no emotions would be a matter of concern. Why should we be different as adults?
I’m not suggesting we throw our toys out of the cot every time we can’t get our own way, merely that it might be OK, and a healthy option to express some of those emotions. If someone tells us a joke, we don’t laugh for hours on end about it. We laugh and then we stop and maybe we smile later when (and if!) — we remember the joke. It’s socially acceptable to behave in this way. If we’re upset about something, then why is it we can’t just be upset?
How have we made grief so objectionable?
Stop labelling emotions as good or bad
Anger is a label for one emotion that we further label as bad, while we might label feeling happy as good. In fact, the belief in the principle of good and bad emotions is not a healthy way of thinking. All emotions would wash over us if only we’d stop trying to avoid them.
What’s wrong with feeling sad occasionally?
After all, if we’d never experienced sadness, how would we know what happiness feels like? We would have nothing with which to compare it! What if we could enjoy our sadness for a while? Now there’s a novel idea. Yet we sometimes go to extremes to avoid feeling our unwanted emotions; we drink, smoke, eat, work, take drugs, gamble — or any number of other addictive behaviours and avoidance strategies.
Take time for yourself
Know that it’s essential to allow whatever emotions surface to be there. Stick with them and allow them to flow out. Think about the word emotion.
E-motion. Energy in motion. Emotions are energy.
Allow the energy to come out. Cry, scream (Great to do when you’re in your car — but not when you have passengers!)
Go for a run or expend some energy at the gym or a power walk. Light a candle, have a bath and let your tears mingle with the bath water. Meditate, pray, or follow whatever spiritual practices work to uplift you. Look after your health by eating well and exercising regularly.
You’re stronger than you think
Know that you will come to terms with your loss. You’ll develop increasing resilience and have more compassion towards others. There is light at the end of the grieving tunnel.
… That first session heralded a breakthrough for my client
When he came back the following week, he and his family had finally begun the grieving/healing process. They’d talked and cried together. He’d become involved in his local church group again and was receiving support from old and new friends. He had asked for help from his work colleagues and was getting his life back on track.
I stopped feeling guilty about being the first one to cry in our initial session. I realised that by me being authentically compassionate for his situation, I’d triggered him to be compassionate towards himself, his family and his situation. He’d gained another, much wider perspective which was desperately needed.
What to remember when you’re recovering from a loss
- Recognise and accept your emotions as part of your life experience.
- Notice the things that trigger you and anchor you to unwanted emotions.
- Don’t be strong for others.
- Stop labelling emotions as good or bad.
- Understand that emotions can change quickly.
- Know that you will come to terms with your loss.
The following posts/podcasts may also help
- How Tender Self-Compassion Heals A Wounded Heart
- The stress and anxiety podcast
- Anchoring: What Have Pavlov’s Dogs To Do With You?
- NLP: FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) (Scroll down for the definition of anchoring)
- 3 Easy Methods To Deal To Painful Memories
Check out my SHIFT coaching, and I encourage you to reach out if you’d like further help.
Here’s the podcast about grief
(Apologies for my voice quality — I had a cold!)
Follow up Interview
Four weeks after that initial interview, Aaron and I had another conversation about grief. We expanded upon some of the reasons you may be experiencing grief, without having identified it as such. It’s only 20 minutes and I think you’ll get good value from listening.
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