Is there a right way to grieve?
When grieving the loss of a loved one, we may react in many different ways. You may have heard it said that "there is no one right way" for many different circumstances.
So, what about bereavement; is there one right way to grieve?
Let me tell you about my friend Clara who cared for her ailing Godfather. They had a close relationship; he was her best friend, her confidant and sounding board. In the last few months of his life, she moved in with him; juggling work and his care. She took him out to enjoy time together as much he was able to. As his cancer progressed, so did Clara’s exhaustion.
In some ways, she had prepared herself for his death and felt the anticipatory grief as she said her goodbyes. She knew it was coming, and so when her Godfather died, Clara ploughed on. She took on extra shifts at work wherever possible and was never one to turn down a social invite or activity opportunity.
I experienced some of the lengths she went to, avoiding places that triggered painful memories such as the café in the park where she and her Godfather had regularly visited. The reminders were just too painful.
Friends rallied around and invited her for meals, gym classes, and walking groups. Not wanting to dwell on the pain of her loss, which was most present when home alone each evening, Clara said yes to all invites.
Was this busyness the wrong way to grieve?
Clara was left with confusion and some sadness that she didn’t think of her Godfather more often, but she reasoned that she had already done so much of her grieving before he died. Her life was moving on.
Could this avoidance be serving a useful purpose?
In other ways, perhaps her full-on, busy schedule was a way to avoid the maximum point of the pain of her loss. Sure, sadness bubbled away close to the surface, but it was manageable for now. However, the creeping feelings of doubt and guilt were hard to deny.
How do you know if you’re avoiding your grief?
No one ever got full marks, a gold star, or a tick and a smiley face for grieving in 'the right way'. Perhaps you find yourself taking stock of the way you are dealing with your loss, and you feel guilty and confused. Maybe you worry about what other people think of the way you are grieving?
Do you recognise any of these common avoidance tactics?
- Are you avoiding particular places, situations, or things that remind you of your loved one? Perhaps there’s a particular road you enjoyed driving down together that you go out of your way to avoid? Or you turn the radio off or leave a shop when a particular song is playing that reminds you of a special time you shared?
- You’re throwing yourself into work and taking on more and more. Perhaps this is leaving you feeling exhausted.
- You’re isolating from friends and family; texts go unanswered and calls are declined. You turn down invitations and visits.
- You feel numb, lacking all emotions both happy and sad. You act as if everything is fine.
- You keep yourself busy at all costs.
- Perhaps you are drinking more or seeking an escape by taking drugs.
Why does it matter if you are avoiding your grief?
Grief can feel overwhelming and never-ending, and avoidance can feel like the only way to manage how you feel and get all the practical things sorted after a loved one has passed away. Planning the funeral, telling family and friends of the death, registering the death, and sorting and tidying their belongings all takes time and energy, and it can be emotionally draining.
Avoiding the full force of the pain of your loss can be useful at this point, enabling you to keep going during the initial days and weeks after your loved one has died. It can continue to be helpful as you get back to work or your daily life and routine, enabling you to cope with the various demands and pressures.
So perhaps you're reading this thinking "yeah I’m doing lots of these avoidance tactics and I’m not feeling any better, but I don’t know any other way to cope right now".
Hang on! Let’s slow down and take a minute. Give yourself a break!
Avoidance is such a normal and human response to loss and is by no means wrong. Does your avoidance mean that you’re not sad or that you didn’t love the one you’ve lost very much? Absolutely not. Maybe there’s a fear that the full impact of your loss will hit you at some point.
What to do when avoidance stops working
While avoidance may seem effective for a while, in fact suppressing these emotions can make them seem to grow in size and get more painful and overwhelming. It can seem increasingly difficult to carry on as normal, and fear of these emotions may begin to take over your life.
You avoid being in certain situations which previously felt normal. Doing the supermarket shopping on auto-pilot, you burst into tears as you realise you’ve picked up your loved one’s favourite dessert, as you had done countless times in the past. You quickly gather yourself together, feeling flustered and embarrassed. The emotions and feelings of your bereavement may feel like they are taking on a life of their own and becoming completely unmanageable.
So, what can you do?
What if the activities you're using to avoid your grief come to feel futile and meaningless? Well then, it’s time to do something different. Yes, 'doing' can still be useful even if the overwhelming sadness and hopelessness come knocking.
1. Grieving is a process that is unique to each individual. It can be helpful to accept where you are right now and that this is the right way for you at this point.
2. Let go of any expectations you have of yourself or that you think others may have of you and your grieving process.
3. Perhaps you find it helpful to look at photos or surround yourself with your loved one’s clothing and have a good cry.
4. Maybe you prefer to scream and let out the anger you may feel. Feel free! Get it out!
5. While tricky to do, it can be helpful to try and find a balance between experiencing your emotions and finding healthy distractions.
6. When a friend asks "how are you doing?", rather than your usual response of "I'm OK. Keeping busy", it can bring some relief to respond with a more honest answer.
Perhaps it’s time to try something different, and rather than going out 'to do' something, it’s time to go out in the world and 'be'. Rather than going out with a friend to a gym class or cinema trip, go around to their house, have a cup of tea, and try and share a few memories of your loved one and share some of the emotions that may be causing you to feel alone. While it may feel tough and painful, it may bring some relief, and diminish some of the loneliness that is a common aspect of grieving.
Your emotions may begin to feel more manageable and less overwhelming, and rather than them controlling you, sharing your feelings can help you to feel empowered. You’ve heard the saying "a problem shared is a problem halved". When feeling overwhelmed and alone, a problem shared is a load lightened. You’re not alone anymore.
So, what about you? Is your way of grieving working for you? Or is it time to try something different and reach out for a little extra support?