The theologian, C. S. Lewis, wrote “A Grief Observed” after his beloved wife’s untimely death. In it, he wrote, “No one told me the laziness of grief.”
When you are actively grieving, mounting even the slightest effort may seem unimaginable. Tasks formerly enjoyed may become distasteful. Indecision about even trivial matters might be the order of the day. Inability to find pleasure in anything can be typical. Feeling like you just don’t have any skin may be expected. Being self-focused and believing no one will ever understand might be prevalent. Pining for the lost loved one while riding a roller coaster of emotions may be normal and predictable. And many people just want the pain to end, though they may be convinced it never will.
How does one grieve while needing to function? With difficulty, to say the least. But it can be done, even though functioning at pre-loss capacity will not be possible for a time. Here are 5 do’s and don’ts when actively grieving.
5 Do’s When Grieving
- Be patient with yourself. Expect, for a time, that your functioning will not be what it was before your loss. For some people, their grief is so deep they can never get back to that level. But there are things you can do to try. Let others around you know of your grief. Ask for help in staying focused. Maybe you can find someone who could even take over some mundane or basic tasks until you are yourself again.
- Find a listening post. Good listeners do just that: they listen. They don’t tell you to get over it, or give advice, or regale you with stories of their own, or tell you how to fix it. If it were that easily done, you would have done so by now. Look for someone who is patient and kind. There are many ways to find good listeners. These include a grief support group, religious advisor, best friend, sibling, sympathetic colleague, or psychotherapist. You will need to say whatever you need to say as many times as you need to say it.
- Remember that grieving is not completed in a day – or a month, or a year. You are not just grieving the lost person, or job, or health, or hometown. You are letting go of an integral part of yourself that was a large part of who you are. It takes time – sometimes a very long time. As time passes, your pain will begin to subside. Beware, however, that you may expect periodic times of rawness, too, usually when least expected.
- Talk about it, cry about it, and sit with it. People regularly ask me how to tell when they have resolved a loss. My answer always is, “You’ll know.” When you have done enough talking, thinking and finding ways to cope with your loss, you will notice the emotional charge begins to dissipate. It doesn’t have to be a moment of awakening where you all of a sudden find enlightenment; you simply begin to feel different. You will be forever changed by your experience, but you will feel that you can finally get back to being yourself.
- Understand nobody else can feel exactly as you do; they can only try. Even siblings invariably experience the death of a parent very differently. However, since grief itself is isolating enough, don’t make it any harder by isolating yourself. Even if people don’t share your exact experience, many kind souls will try to honor your pain and your changed reality.
5 Don’ts When Grieving
- Don’t be too strong for your own good. Surround yourself with people with whom you don’t have to put on a brave front. In a work setting, that may mean soliciting an understanding colleague to run interference for you. It also may mean opting out of mundane tasks for a time. Grieving is an act of great courage and strength. It is not for the weak.
- Don’t push yourself when you are tired. The more significant the loss, the more profound it is and the longer the recovery process. To function as well as possible, get enough rest. Cut yourself some slack while you slowly return to normal.
- Don’t expect to feel one emotion. Expect a roller coaster of emotions. Your feelings will run the gamut from sad to mad to despair to occasional glimpses of happiness and back again. If you only are able to feel sad, you will get stuck in perpetual despair. This is not a good place to be, as it invites depression, helplessness, and a feeling that nothing matters into your soul. If you are only able to feel mad, your rage will have you stuck in a lonely trap as it pushes everybody away from you. Focus on the occasional, if rare, happy things which will inevitably flutter through your mind.
- Don’t blame yourself for what happened. Taking responsibility for mistakes is one thing. Doing so helps us to learn and to grow. Survivor’s guilt, however, does not. A certain amount is normal initially. But if you find yourself continuing to blame yourself for not being able to save or heal a deceased or disabled loved one, a normal grief reaction becomes counterproductive.
- Don’t alienate yourself. Grief is a lonely enough process without also isolating yourself. You’ll need all the help you can get to muddle through this in-between time, when you aren’t what you were, you’re not sure who you are, and you’re not yet who you will be after you have recovered from the loss.
Emotions are as unique to each of us as our fingerprints or snowflakes. Everybody goes through a loss differently. But in the end, we all experience loss, just as we experience renewal and life.
By Beth Erickson, Ph.D.
"After suffering for too long with depression, paranoia, and anxiety, he swallowed a bottle of aspirin. Who would guess that something so benign can stop the heart? He was beautiful and I just want to hold him again, for a very very long time."
– NAMI Utah Suicide Survivor
"To spare oneself from grief at all cost can be achieved only at the price of total detachment, which excluded the ability to experience happiness."
~ Erich Fromm