Grief is one of the most difficult emotions to feel. It takes our breath away and is often unpredictable, making it disruptive to all aspects of life.
Grief is an unruly emotion that does not respond to being brushed aside. In fact, when it is not acknowledged and processed, its impact on our lives will only amplify.
It demands to be heard and felt. Attempts to numb and avoid only delay the inevitable grieving process that has to run its course. Unaddressed grief will only complicate things and impact our physical, mental and emotional well-being.
In a culture that pushes expediency and efficiency, grief resists being pushed aside, stuffed or denied. Connecting with your grief may feel a bit reckless and counter-intuitive, much like befriending a porcupine and giving it a big hug. Yet, responding with respect for this emotion and relaxing expectations and judgments surrounding grief will help support the needed healing process.
The Different Types of Grief
You are probably familiar with the five stages of grief theory developed by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. This framework models the process of learning to live through loss while giving you an anchor to what you may be feeling. Caution against seeing grief as a linear process, which is counter to how Kubler-Ross intended for this theory to be used. Grief is much more nuanced than these five stages.
Grief shows up for different reasons and is experienced differently based on circumstances and your history with loss. It is important that we recognize the various types of grief so that we can care for ourselves and others in times of loss.
- Ambiguous Grief
This is when a loss and its residual grief has no foreseeable end. It could the loss of a relationship, physical ability, the impact of addiction on a loved one, a stage of life change, retirement or infertility struggles.
- Anticipatory Grief
This is when a loss is inevitable but not final. It is often seen when a loved one has a chronic illness.
- Complicated Grief
This is when co-occurring struggles with depression, anxiety, trauma or addiction impact the ability to function over a long period of time.
- Collective Grief
This is grief felt by a community. Examples include natural disasters, school shootings or the loss of beloved a public figure or someone connected to us.
Grief, the Teacher
Grief is a powerful teacher, though its lessons are difficult to receive. Grief is a lot like hydrogen peroxide as it delivers both a searing pain, but it is also cleans and cleanses—bringing with it immense clarity of what matters and what does not. In times of deep grief, something that felt like a big deal can relax and wash away. While other relationships, issues and causes can feel even more urgent and important.
The experience of grieving has been studied and written about extensively. Yet, there are still several myths surrounding grief that, if not addressed and corrected, can perpetuate and complicate grief. Here a few of the worst offenders:
- Myth: Grief needs to be resolved.
- Truth: Loss is loss. It changes you and is not fixed or resolved. It is a part of your story and not something to fear or hide.
- Myth: Talking about your loss will make it worse.
- Truth: Connecting with others who understand grief or meeting with grief specialists can be a powerful and necessary support in times of great hurt.
- Myth: Losses that do not involve a loss of life are not significant.
- Truth: Grief is not just about death. Grief and loss are triggered by endings of all kinds, which are normal and healthy to grieve.
- Myth: Grieving a pet is indulgent.
- Truth: The loss of a pet is devastating because of the powerful bonds our pets offer us. Grieving a pet is essential and is not selfish.
- Myth: You can’t grieve something you never had.
- Truth: Whether it is a relationship, a family, a job or an experience—the longing of grief is real and painful.
- Myth: Crying is the only expression of grief.
- Truth: There is not one way to grieve. There is a wide spectrum of emotions and behaviors that can be connected to grief.
- Myth: You are never given more than you can handle.
- Truth: This response is painful and dismissive to someone experiencing grief. It diminishes their deep pain and often does not reflect what they are feeling.
Responding to Grief
Brené Brown, PhD said it best in her book Rising Strong, “Grief requires us to reorient ourselves to every part of our physical, emotional and social worlds.”
Here are some best practices when leading yourself and others in times of grief:
- Name it publicly.
Acknowledging your grief and loss gives other people permission to do the same.
- Write it down.
Keep writing about your losses and longings. Encourage this in others, too.
- Share your grief.
Honest expressions of pain from leadership, friends, family, colleagues strengthen, anchors and encourages others. It also rids the world of shame surrounding grief.
- Normalize the many different responses to grief.
There is no one way to grieve. Show respect for how you and others respond to grief.
- Never put a timeline on grief.
Loss is never gone. It just shifts. Giving yourself and others time to grieve in their own way fosters a grief that moves toward healing.
- Respect the fact you will bring your grief with you wherever you go.
Stuffing your pain impacts your well-being and increases chances for complicated grief and trauma-related responses.
- Be kind to yourself and your grief.
Have compassion for how grief can stir up other traumas and losses in your life and of those in your life.
- Take advantage of resources.
Respect that the pain of grief is legitimate and needs care and attention.