How do you begin to work through grief? In its never-ending valley of ups and downs, grief can be very daunting. This is doubly so for first-timers or those in the early stages of what is often a very lonely journey. No two individuals experience grief in the same way, and I’ve learned from experience that it can change with every loved one that you lose.
But the only thing I can say for certain is that grief is a funny thing. By which I don’t mean ‘haha’ funny. It comes in a sequence of unpredictable waves. Somedays I find myself openly talking to my grandmother while working around the house. On other days I wake up exhausted, going through life in a daze. I lift the phone to call her, only to realise that no one is going to answer. Before I fall to sleep I hear their last breaths rattling through my mind. I see the heaving chest, the soft opening, and closing of their fists as they reach out for comfort. Most brutally of all, I search for their last cohesive words and mine in response, but quite often I come up empty.
So, yes. Grief is the funniest and most daunting emotion I’ve ever come to feel so far in my life. And it’s something I doubt I’ll ever truly get over. The perfect way I can think to sum up grief is that you get used to it, but the pain never fully goes away.
My own experience working through grief.
Twenty nineteen was a roller coaster of emotions. In the short space of six weeks, I lost not only my grandfather but also my grandmother, both of whom played a big role in my life growing up. I went from having four grandparents to having just two in the first half of the year alone. Before then I had only experienced intense grief a few times in my life, one of which was the loss of our family pet.
There comes a point where you begin to take those around you for granted. They’ve always been there, so surely they’ll always be there, right? Although I knew death was a reality that we all had to face one day, I hadn’t expected it so soon. Especially not for my grandfather.
Towards the end, not even the strongest syringe driver was able to relieve their pain. Then the rattle starts and just when you think that’s it, their heart marches on. Until it doesn’t anymore. Their breathing slows, then stops and you hold your own breath waiting for their next. When it doesn’t come, your heart plummets into your gut and you begin to wonder how you’ll ever get over this.
One thing I don’t see a lot of people talk about is the feeling of relief coupled with intense guilt. Anyone who has ever watched a loved one die will understand exactly what I mean when I talk about relief. You’re relieved that they’re no longer suffering, but your mind can’t quite focus to separate the two. And you find yourself wondering why you don’t care more.
Of course, these thoughts are purely my brain struggling to understand my own grief, and entirely false. Of course I cared! I grieved from the moment I found out about their illnesses and I’m still grieving. My grief has just been manifested in a different way and spread out over a longer period of time.
“Everyone grieves differently. There is no linear path to take when grieving and that’s entirely normal.”
5 Things to remember to help you work through grief.
Remember that your feelings are valid.
No matter how you’re grieving, someone else will always be grieving differently. Much like life, there isn’t a rule book on how we should go about the process. Even if we expect to react in a certain way, we never really know until the time comes to pass.
But why do we react the way we do? It depends purely on the relationship we had with the individual, where we are in our own lives, and our previous experiences with death. We also have to remember that everyone expresses their emotions in a different way, no matter how unhealthy some of those may be.
My own reaction and experience with grief changed over time. When my grandfather passed in May ninteen, it was like nothing I’d ever felt before. It was agonizing. I didn’t know where to turn or who to go to, and while I cried during the ceremony, the majority of my emotions stayed hidden thereafter. My next experience was just six weeks later when my grandmother passed from a long-drawn illness. I’d mourned her for months before she died, so when the time came I was more at peace with it than I had been with my grandfathers. I was prepared, and despite likening her to a mother figure, I found it more difficult to cry about her loss. To this day I have yet to cry properly, but I talk about her and to her on a daily basis. For me, this is my way of processing her loss.
When we buried her husband just eightteen months later, we were in the middle of a lockdown. It wasn’t a shock. We were prepared for his passing, and part of me believes that he was ready to go the moment we buried my grandmother. His cause of death was simply old age and he died peacefully with all his family surrounding him. Everyone he could have ever wanted was there with him, including, I’m sure, my grandmother. The grief was different this time. It was peaceful, accepting, and almost welcomed in a strange way.
Give yourself permission to feel your emotions.
The pain that we feel when someone passes can often be unbearable. And what do we do with unbearable feelings? We often try to push them aside. But it’s important that we allow ourselves the time and opportunity to feel every aspect of grief fully so that we can begin to heal.
This can look different for everyone. Some people cry while others scream, and some might even laugh or smile as a reaction to difficult emotions. As we’ve previously discussed, there is no one way to experience grief, so all cards are on the table!
While we’re on the subject of emotions, you’ve probably heard of the five stages of grief; Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These can occur at different times for different people, and you might even find that you skip one entirely! Others may experience all of them in the space of a few hours, they may jump from one to another and back again. I, for one, have come to accept the death of my loved ones. But even so, I still get caught off guard by lingering emotions which can present themselves at the oddest of times.
Grief isn’t only felt when we lose a human loved one. When we lose our beloved pets, the pain is just as bad but in a different way.
Have patience with yourself and others.
While you work through grief, it’s important to remember that others are too. And they may be doing it in a completely different way. I found stark differences within my own life when it came to how I was able to work through grief compared to others within my family. While I chose to grieve by talking about my loved ones openly, others found it difficult to even mention their name. Pictures and possessions were and continue to be a big part of my grieving process too. And I know this to be true of other people I know. But for some, possessions hold no value and images only drag up painful feelings.
The important thing, once again, is that we all have different ways of working through grief. Just because you can talk about them and go through photo albums, doesn’t mean everyone else can. A good way to better understand this is by thinking about grief as a merry-go-round rather than one defined path. The pain associated with loss can change with time but that doesn’t mean it’s gone. It can come back at any time, and often I find it resurfaces with the death of others around me. Even if I wasn’t particularly close to them, a death can bring up emotional trauma and difficult memories.
But it doesn’t stop there because grief can even appear during happy events. My thirtieth birthday, for example, brought up memories of birthdays gone by with my grandparents, and I found myself wishing they were able to celebrate with me.
It’s important to remember that crying six years after the loss of someone doesn’t mean you’re back to square one. These feelings aren’t a setback at all, in fact. It’s called being human.
Reach out for support.
I can’t stress enough how important it is that you reach out for support when you need it. It’s one thing to work through grief, but it’s something else when you try to do it alone. Many people choose to seek professional help through their GP, specific grief counselling, or even support groups. Others may simply choose to speak with their friends and family. No matter what, talking about your loss and how it’s making you feel is paramount to helping the healing process.
Asking for help is particularly important in the days and weeks following the death. This could help with planning the funeral, dealing with legal matters, or, simply, picking up groceries. You may also need help prior to the death of a loved one, particularly if they are long-term terminal. No matter what position you find yourself in, remember, you’re not alone. Even though grief is a very personal and individual thing, there is support all around you in the form of professional services, friends, family, and maybe even colleagues.
Practice self-care through grief.
When working through grief we can often forget to practice our own self-care. Quite often we’re left feeling sluggish, unmotived and overwhelmed with emotions, all of which is normal. But we can let our health slip through the cracks. We can forget to carry out basic human needs such as eating, drinking water and even showering because it becomes a struggle to exist. But taking care of your basic needs is the first step to helping yourself grieve physically and emotionally.
Try to remember to eat regularly, and drink plenty of water. While I should emphasise the importance of nutritional food, it’s okay to stick to easy comfort foods for the first while after bereavement. But do remember to branch out as time moves on to include nutritional alternatives.
Taking gentle exercises such as walking or yoga can help improve mood, concentration and sleep. Both these exercises are slow-paced and can even help us to work through emotions as they create ‘thinking room.’ I found yoga to be particularly helpful during my periods of grief and used the mat as a comfort and safe space to cry.