Understanding Grief

Every time we experience a loss, we grieve what is missing from our lives as a result. Death, as we have said, is not the only loss to trigger grief. We have been feeling grief over these weeks even though we may not have recognized it as such. It is very important to understand, however, that there is no one neat orderly way to understand the grief process. It is not “5 Stages” or any other “one size fits all” formula.

So we need to begin by understanding what grief is. In simple terms, grief is a natural human response to an unwelcome event. It is defined as “a natural human reaction to any significant loss, manifesting itself in a unique cluster of human emotions, intensified and complicated by the relationship we have lost.”      

Unfortunately, in our “death denying culture”, we are not taught what to expect in the days and months after a loss, and so grief inevitably catches us by surprise. Often a few weeks or months down the road we can feel like it is getting even worse. In fact, sometimes it is when others think we should be getting ourselves together, that the grieving person feels like they are falling apart. When people find themselves unavoidably confronted with loss and struggling with grief, it can be one of life’s most challenging experiences, and often we need help to come to terms with it.

a)     Grief is a Natural Human Experience

Our definition above affirms my conviction that grief is a “normal reaction to an unwelcome event.” It is not a sickness or disease, nor should it be considered a mental health disorder. Grief is a natural, human response to any significant loss.

However, the fact that it is normal does not diminish how difficult the experience can be. We should “normalize” but not “minimize.” What many people are going through as a result of this pandemic and the subsequent life losses they have incurred must never be underestimated.

When you lose someone or something special from your life, whether by death, disease, distance, or disaster, you are going to grieve. Grief is our protest against something we don’t like or want. Our grief is saying that we’re struggling to adjust to a life without that special relationship.

By understanding what you can expect, you are able to validate the experience of grief. When you have legitimized the process, you feel able to “work through” the unique issues your specific loss raises, knowing you are not crazy or abnormal. You realize that your grief is not a reflection on the “inadequacy of your coping skills”; it is an indication that you are missing something or someone you cared about.

When liberated from the stigma of grief, which is the fruit of those “pull yourself together and get over it” statements people make, you can begin the grief journey of exploring your feelings about how your world has changed and making the adjustments you need to reorganize your life.

b)     Grief is a Uniquely Personal Experience

Every individual is unique. We are all different, in looks, in character, in cultural diversity, as well as in human experiences. While there may be many similarities, every individual manifests grief in a way that is appropriate for them. That is influenced and shaped by many variables: what we have lost and how; anticipated or sudden/unexpected loss; our age and our gender; our beliefs and values; our cultural context and traditions, among others.

Here is the dilemma we face in supporting people through this pandemic. Some are welcoming the pause and the opportunity to reconnect with themselves and their family. They have an opportunity to do the things that they had long promise they would get to “one of these days”.

But for others, this has been a living hell, isolated in homes where relationships are strained and possibly even finding themselves in unsafe situations, facing financial pressures, unemployment, or facing not being able to visit elderly or sick loved ones in nursing homes, or being present with them when they are dying. Many are overwhelmed by the hierarchy of needs that daily demands their attention, and finding ways to cope.

But for most people, their experience is a combination of all of the above.

Grief is always a struggle. It is never easy to lose someone or something you have relied on. This is possibly the most difficult experience of life.

But as we struggle, we discover that in every loss there is a gain. There will be times when you will wonder if they can make it, but little by little you will that in the struggle you find strength you didn’t know you had.

In our next blog we will seek to understand something more about this experience of grief which I think you will find interesting.