When grief makes an appearance, it rarely slithers or creeps. Grief is bold and abundant in its declarations. But it is grief’s entrance that echoes loudest through the halls of our homes, and grief’s extended stay takes on the quality of cobwebs, carpeting corners and extending inwards – or outwards – when left untended.
It has been a long 18 months for grief, gathering dust in nooks and crannies dark and warm, unkempt in their familiarity.
We have lost many things, and not only those as tangible as loved ones (the UK alone has witnessed roughly 130k deaths since March 2020) or work; we have lost our routines, our sense of stability, of safety and clarity.
Grief unearths the root and exposes the core. Who are we, when all that we defined ourselves against, is gone?
No matter what was lost – the freedom to choose what to do, financial stability, social interaction, a loved one whose absence feels like a physical presence, so palpably there in all their ‘non-existence’ – many of us have taken a crash course in grief.
We argue that there is no right way to grieve. This is true. But I have discerned a definite cultural reluctance to sit with the uncomfortable reality of grief. This is not only understandable: it’s human. It’s normal. However just because we collectively do our best to circumvent the discomfort grief envelops us in doesn’t mean it’s right. In fact, we owe it to ourselves to experience every part of it. The only way out, is through.
We don’t like to sit with grief because “hurt” doesn’t even begin scratch the surface of what we feel. In my deepest grief, I felt disoriented, desperate, frustrated, confused, sad, melancholic, lethargic, relieved, afraid, regretful, and numb (to name but a few). It was overwhelming. There were days I felt like I could not bear the weight of so much feeling.
We all know the 5 stages of grief. But we neglect to mention, or simply forget, distracted by bootstraps and empty yet well-meaning truisms, that these feelings do not follow in a neatly linear fashion. We don’t simply swan through denial, anger, bargaining, depression and then sail into acceptance and healing. Anger flares while sadness wanes, regret hammers away while we negotiate, first plaintively, then aggressively, then pleadingly. We shift from acceptance to denial to acceptance again.
In the middle of all this, our negative emotions around fear, loneliness, and abandonment trigger coping mechanisms we developed over time to feel safe. Oftentimes we learn these in childhood and our teenage years. And I’m not sure about you, but the coping mechanisms I learned in that time were borne out of a pure drive for survival, and they did not age well.
Grief is not only messy to experience, but it is also hard to witness. Often, we are told to move on or to toughen up. Our grief is subject to society’s schedule which requires we become working members of society as quickly as possible. But we all process grief differently: some catapult themselves into work and exercise, others immerse themselves into drugs and alcohol. Some travel. Some desperately seek solace in others, while some sequester themselves away. Some do all of the above, manically flitting from one activity to the next, hoping it will fix what’s broken. Rarely are we taught to just sit with our pain and explore what it brings to the surface.
As uncomfortable as it is – and believe me, I wanted to physically remove my skin and run out of myself and this body that was racked with feeling – there is so much to be learned and gained from grief, provided we allow ourselves the time and space to feel it out.
If we think about grief as an emotion that follows loss, if grief is mourning what was, then it also paves the way to what will be. It is the door to renewal. When something is lost, for better or for worse, it means that there will be space for a redefining the self, outside of what was. You will be a new version of you, one who has loved, and lost, and learned.
Grief sets the foundations for us to build something new, provided we take the time to mourn the ruins. Grief can help us discern what we require in our lives to feel safe and loved. It teaches us what to seek, as long as we take the time to listen in.
Importantly though, I do not advocate that we sit in our grief 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for months on end. Over-identifying with your grief and not tending to your needs can slow the healing process. Rather, when you feel a wave begin to rise, accept it: the crash is inevitable. As is the ebb. Remember to breathe and find solace in the knowledge that everything passes.
Practice patience with pain but try, where you can, to nourish your mind, your creativity, and your body, so that you don’t drown in it (this could be anything from meditation, reading, a new skill, quality time with family, walks outside, exercise, etc.). Remind yourself of the reality that exists outside of grief, even if you can’t quite experience it yet.
Finally, stay mindful of the voice you use to speak to yourself. No one was ever chastised into healing. Be firm, perhaps, but not cruel. This is a rough journey as it is, and all you can do for yourself is accept whatever lessons you need to learn along the way.