How do we deal with grief as a culture?

We all have known grief in different levels of intensity. The loss of a pet, moving to a new place, the shifting friendship alliances of grade school, losing a romantic relationship, the death of a family member or friend, the helpless feeling of watching someone suffer or struggle, trauma, either with a big T or a little t. Grief is a part of the human experience. And yet culturally, in the US, we don’t talk about it. We mourn our loss and are encouraged, either passively or actively, to move on. To get over it. Culturally we no longer wear a mourning band, or widow’s weeds. There are no outward signs to show that we are still grieving. Unless we actively tell people. I found this assessment of American grief apt and pointed. “The mourning process in America today is supposed to be brief and private.”

“The mourning process in America today is supposed to be brief and private.”

Bereavement: Reactions, Consequences, and Care
Institute of Medicine (US) Committee for the Study of Health Consequences of the Stress of Bereavement
Marian Osterweis, Fredric Solomon, Morris Green , editors.

However, that does not actually align with how most people feel nor what they experience in the process. It is not brief. Attempts to keep it private or silent often come out sideways in other behaviors or get stored in our bodies. One almost wonders if this could be a contributing factor toward so much mental and physical illness in our culture today.

What Happens When We Grieve?

Here’s what we know from scientist who work in this field: Grief is not just in our minds, it’s in our bodies. The brain sends a surge of stress hormones and signals to the body. It involves the cardiovascular and immune systems and can ultimately change how those systems function. It is little studied (due to lack of funding in this field) how those systems act together to create problems for the body. We do know that people who are in the midst of or have experienced high levels of grief and depression also have high levels of the immune system’s marker for inflammation.

This article in the NY Times gives a fascinating overview of the grief process in the body. One quote the author uses when talking about how grief moves is this: “In a recent issue of the research digest UpToDate, medical doctors outlined the most current scientific studies on bereavement. One way to think about grieving, they said, is that the feeling of connection to the person who died “gradually moves from preoccupying the mind to residing comfortably in the heart.”

One way to think about grieving, they said, is that the feeling of connection to the person who died “gradually moves from preoccupying the mind to residing comfortably in the heart.”

The Biology of Grief – The New York Times, Isabel Seliger

She goes on to say, speaking of her own experience with grief:

“I’m unsure about that word, “comfortably,” but yes, I’m no longer preoccupied. Now, 34 years after my son’s death, I’m back in charge, and if pain never quite goes away, then neither does love.”

Most people who experience grief never really move totally away from it. The  loss becomes part of us. This is not always a bad thing. As the author states above, the pain never quite goes away, but neither does the love she felt for her son.

What does our culture tell us?

Most people are familiar with the 5 Stages of Grief, right? They are as follows:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

Here’s an interesting thing. The 5 stages were developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her landmark book “On Death and Dying”. The 5 stages began to be applied to grief in general but Dr. Kübler-Ross specifies that those stages were meant for people facing their OWN death, not the death of a loved one.

  • “Shock and denial: This is a state of disbelief and numbed feelings.
  • Pain and guilt: You may feel that the loss is unbearable and that you’re making other people’s lives harder because of your feelings and needs.
  • Anger and bargaining: You may lash out, telling God or a higher power that you’ll do anything they ask if they’ll only grant you relief from these feelings or this situation.
  • Depression: This may be a period of isolation and loneliness during which you process and reflect on the loss.
  • The upward turn: At this point, the stages of grief like anger and pain have died down, and you’re left in a more calm and relaxed state.
  • Reconstruction and working through: You can begin to put pieces of your life back together and move forward.
  • Acceptance and hope: This is a very gradual acceptance of the new way of life and a feeling of possibility for the future.”
  • Source

All that thinking and understanding the process is well and good, but what do I DO?

Loss and bereavement are complicated processes, both mentally AND physically. There is not a easy or quick path through it. Remember that you can use healthy coping strategies to walk through grief. Here are some we have found to be helpful.

  • Grieve together
  • Spend time in solitude (a balance of social support (togetherness) and solitude is needed)
  • Ask for help when you need it. Sometimes we don’t even know what help looks like. Maybe it’s just a meal. Maybe it’s a walk and talk. Maybe it’s a conversation over a cup of coffee. Maybe it’s someone to come help you clean your kitchen because the daily work has slipped out of control and it gets messy. Grief is messy. It’s ok to ask for someone to help you.
  • Move your body in some way. It’s ok to be gentle or do heavy work.
  • Eat as well as you can. 
  • Sleep as well as you can.
  • Don’t ‘should’ yourself  (this is about how you “should be doing better than this”. Where you are in this process is exactly where you are. Shame is never a tool for growth. Let’s let shame and the shoulds go.)
  • Try to do things you enjoy. There may be some guilt or shame you experience in this when you laugh for the first time. It helps to remember that life is for the living and your loved one would love to see you experience moments of joy, even in your grief.
  • Take a look at the 3 Rs and see how they can help you: Recognition, Remembering, Rebuilding – The Three Rs. Note* This video mentions the pandemic but so much of what she talks about is applicable to grief in all aspects.

Why is it important to be with others? Why do we get stuck when we only grieve alone?

We need support in grief. But we also need some solitude. Finding the balance that is right for you is important. Take the time you need. A wise mentor once told me that when we grieve alone, we stay stuck in the grief. When we grieve together we move. Even if that movement feels backward to more intense feelings. That’s ok. There is no timeline for this. If you feel like you are stuck in grief, it may be time to find a way to do it with others. Support groups, friends, loved ones, reading together, remembering. These are all helpful things. When I personally went through the loss of a loved one, I read Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor with my dad. We would read and talk about the book, cry and process and learn together, even though he lives far away. 

When is it time to ask for professional health?

Not everyone needs to process grief with a professional. But sometimes we do. It’s never too early or too late to ask for help. Not everyone has the community they need to process grief in. Not everyone has healthy support from loved ones. Not everyone has the ability to process loss in their own bodies for many reasons. There is no shame in asking for help. When you feel the need to talk about and process through grief with someone but don’t have that support in place, that’s when it’s time.

At Abide Counselors, this is something we can help you do. If you or a loved one feel stuck in grief, let us help you walk through this process.

Further Sources:
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