Facing and Embracing Grief
James Baldwin says that “You cannot fix what you will not face.” In bereavement, we often tell people that we cannot “fix” their grief. There is no magic wand to make the pain disappear. However, if we think of fixing as repairing or mending, we can say that grief “work” can help us to mend or repair our broken hearts. By facing our loss, we can begin the process of learning to live with pain and sadness we are experiencing. We can also learn to correct some of the old notions of grief and loss that many of us were brought up with, such as there being a time frame for grief, that we need to “get over” or “move on” from grief, that “time heals all wounds,” or that some feelings in grief are unacceptable. Part of facing grief is letting go of these and other ingrained myths. Instead, it is more helpful to understand that grief is unique to each of us, we will experience myriad feelings. By working on our grief over time, it will soften. We also need to learn tools and skills that allow us to navigate a new universe without our loved ones.
As we face and embrace our grief, we can begin repairing our broken hearts. One truth about grief is that we will always carry the scars of our loss. However, facing, confronting and working through it will allow us to begin the process of adjusting and integrating it in our lives.
Working on our grief allows us to let our feelings in – whatever they may be. As John Bradshaw says, “We cannot heal what we cannot feel.” Many of us were brought up to believe that we must avoid any feelings that create distress, including deep sadness, anger and guilt. We often treat these feelings as if they are our enemies, when, in fact, they are just a few of the many feelings that human beings experience. By facing our grief, we learn to let these distressing feelings come and go rather than thinking we will be “stuck” in any one of them forever.
Grief professionals often talk about “opening the door to grief.” By allowing grief in, we are facing it and learning how to live with our feelings. Certainly, no one wants to be in pain. However, by allowing the pain in and reminding ourselves that the reason we hurt is because we love, our grief is much more likely to soften, and our broken hearts to heal.
We do not need to experience all the feelings all at once. Our natural defense mechanisms allow us to dose ourselves in small ways with feelings associated with loss. In doing so, we can develop strategies that enable us to manage uncomfortable feelings. As we develop more tools, feelings can be less daunting. A good toolbox provides reminders that all feelings are “okay” and that it is within our power to express them and make them more manageable.
Some ideas to help you as you learn to face and embrace the feelings of grief:
Practice slow, deep breathing to aid healing. When we are upset, we may forget to breathe, which increases stress. Practice taking slow, deep breaths whether you feel stressed or not. The more you practice, the more this tool will help when you need it.
- Practice being present. This is what Buddhists refer to as mindfulness. Healing is aided when we are fully present and in the moment with thoughts and feelings. Breath work can help us to become more present.
- Feel your feelings. Be open to any and all feelings, including those that are distressing. Being present to all our feelings helps us learn that we will not stay stuck in any one forever. Journaling, talking, creating art and exercising are just a few tools to help us manage uncomfortable feelings.
- Practice self generosity, patience, compassion and forgiveness. Accepting and forgiving our own imperfections can help us be more open to extending these ideas to others.
- Nurture your body with rest, gentle exercise and good nutrition.
- Celebrate small accomplishments - getting up, taking a shower, etc. Recognize that after a major loss it can take enormous energy to carry out even the most routine activities.
Loss is painful and our hearts are broken because we love. There is no one right way to grieve, but through grief work and patience with ourselves, we can learn to live in our new reality. You do not have to walk alone with your pain. Remember: we are here with resources and support.