How do I process grief?
The title of this article is something that I come across often in client work and when speaking to people following loss. The painful feelings that arise after losing somebody you love may engulf you like a tsunami. It makes sense that many people seek an answer to fixing or healing from this as quickly as possible.
The question of ‘processing grief’, suggests that there is an end goal: That you can go through the stages of grief, ticking them off as you go, then arrive at a place where grief is now processed and you are healed. If only it could be worked through in such a prescriptive linear way, knowing that the end is in sight. Unfortunately, grief is rarely that simple.
The truth is grief occurs because love came first. The pain of losing somebody very important and somebody who is very much part of your life story is likely to be proportionate to your love for them. Even if the person who has died is somebody you were estranged from or had a complicated relationship with, they are still part of your story and the feelings that arise can be confusing and consuming.
There are no quick fixes in working through bereavement. ‘Processing it’ isn’t the answer to fixing it. Understanding this may help you to reframe your expectations. It may help you to understand that it isn’t that you’re ‘not coping’ and ‘should be’ feeling a certain way by a certain point. Try to treat yourself with compassion and accept how hard this is for you. You don’t need to be ‘strong’ - an unfortunate common societal message.
So what might help?
Telling your bereavement story is cathartic and helps you to process thoughts and feelings. You may find that you repeat your story and tell everybody what happened. This is you making sense of your loss and ‘getting things off your chest’. Your story might begin with what happened when your loved one died; it might start at the beginning of when they got ill; it might be about what happened to cause their death or maybe it will be focused on when you received the news that they had died.
You might find yourself sharing your story with neighbours, friends or even people in the supermarket queue. The more you share your story, the more you are processing what happened. If you feel unable to talk about what happened and find yourself numbing with food, alcohol or drugs, or distracting yourself from talking about it; you could try writing about it instead. If you feel like there is nobody for you to share your story with, Cruse Bereavement has helplines you can call or you can find a safe space with a counsellor.
Sharing memories of your lost loved one is an important part of keeping them alive in your thoughts and in those of the people that knew them. Through talking about them, it can often give others permission to do the same. I am often told of people recognising awkwardness in others and an avoidance of talking about their deceased loved one. This can cause them more sadness, as to mention someone is proof that you are still thinking about them and that they are not forgotten.
Furthermore, sharing memories with others may bring things to light about your loved one that you didn’t know. Giving you a fresh perspective and understanding of them. This is why hearing eulogies can be comforting and insightful at funerals.
At times, especially during the early days of grief, it might feel hard to talk about or even think about memories of your loved one. If you can relate to this, recognise how triggering you find it and be curious about anything you might be avoiding in the difficulties. Are you avoiding crying? If so, do you have beliefs about crying being a sign of weakness? Understand that crying is the body’s way of releasing stress and sadness; tears contain stress hormones. So when you cry, you are literally releasing stress from your body.
Feeling regret is very common following bereavement. There might be things you wish you said or did and now it’s too late. You might find yourself going over past arguments or berating yourself for not being there during their final moments. Writing a letter to your lost loved one, detailing all your regrets and how you would’ve liked to make amends, can be helpful in processing regret. You could burn, rip, keep or even bury the letter - whatever feels right for you.
The feeling of regret arises from our thoughts. Notice what you are thinking about when you feel regret, is there another perspective or explanation that you can consider? Other than the narrative that you might be telling yourself - a narrative in which you may be casting yourself as the villain, resulting in irrational feelings of guilt. If you can relate to this, think about what your loved one would say to you about it if they were still here.
Work to forgive yourself and let go of the things that you cannot change.
Feeling anger is another common emotion that arises after bereavement. This might be aimed at somebody, particularly if something went wrong with the circumstances of your loved one's death or if somebody else was responsible. You might be feeling angry at the perceived injustice of your loved one being gone, especially if it was sudden or unexpected. We often have a timeline in our heads, which assumes that death will come following old age. If somebody dies at a young age, deviating from this timeline, that can cause anger and resentment.
If you are struggling with anger, understand that this is a normal expression of grief. There isn’t anything wrong with you for feeling angry, it’s part of being a human. Repressing, avoiding or judging yourself for feeling angry is likely to result in negative thoughts and feelings about yourself. Accept that you feel angry and the sense of injustice at your loss is the cause.
Find healthy ways to release your anger; scream into a pillow, throw ice cubes at a wall, rip or screw up paper, exercise, cry or write about the way you feel. Writing about your anger can provide space to reframe and explore your angry thoughts.
Treat yourself with compassion for feeling angry at your loss.
Waves of grief is an expression that you may or may not have heard when people are describing grief. To give an example, you might be going about your day feeling quite calm and not thinking about your lost loved one when a song comes on the radio that reminds you of them. You immediately feel a lump in your throat and an ache in your chest; tears spill from your eyes. This is a common trigger for a grief wave.
Just like waves in an ocean, grief waves vary in size and intensity. If a birthday or anniversary is approaching, the waves may feel more constant, particularly during the build-up to the date. Whereas if you are triggered by watching a TV show and the character experiences a bereavement similar to yours, that grief wave may take you by surprise but pass when the programme ends. Sometimes grief waves can last a few days and you might find yourself experiencing sadness without connecting it to your loss.
Understand that waves of grief will come and go, just as the tide washes in and out. This may help you to keep hope when you are struggling with grief in that moment.
Acceptance that grief is not something that can be fixed or solved, but rather something to be experienced and felt, can be key in forming expectations about it. Try to approach grieving the way you would if supporting a dear friend, with compassion and empathy.
If you notice that you are repressing, numbing or avoiding your feelings of grief, working with a counsellor could provide some objectivity and most importantly, a safe accepting space where you will be listened to. If you would like to work with me on a one-to-one basis in person or online, please email me.
For those living close to Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, I hold a free drop-in monthly bereavement support group, you are very welcome to join us. For more details, see my profile page or please get in touch by email.