Have you ever lost someone close to you or had a relationship end in your life? If you have, then you know the pain of loss.
Loss is one of the hardest things that we have to cope with as human beings. One of the reasons it’s so difficult is because when we lose someone (or when things change – a loss doesn’t have to be a person), feelings can be intense and overwhelming, which can be difficult for some.
For example, someone who has always felt ‘in control’ of their emotions – there is no such thing, but still, many people perceive themselves in this way – can suddenly find themselves crying, feeling angry, unable to get out of bed or feeling like they can’t function and are unable to ‘get back to normal’.
Life can really feel like it stops after a major loss, and many people wonder what is ‘normal’ when it comes to grief, and if there is something wrong with them for feeling the way that they do.
Why is grief so hard?
There are many reasons why loss is so difficult to cope with; one of them being that it is usually out of our control but an important consideration is that loss is often multi-layered.
For example, even if we end a relationship and we know it was the right thing to do, we often still feel the loss of the other person – simply because our lives feel different when they aren’t there and because usually, nothing is black and white, and nothing was all bad).
Therefore, we are experiencing the loss of the good times, the loss of our idea of them; of who we thought they were, or the loss of what we imagined our future with them to look like, etc).
In fact, we can feel lost when anything major ends in our lives; the thing or person we lose doesn’t even have to have made us feel good for us to experience loss. For example, even if you’re in a toxic relationship that ends and you would expect to feel liberated, you can also simultaneously feel grief.
Even if you do feel completely liberated, you still will need to acknowledge and process some loss – e.g. of your hopes for the relationship, or perhaps the loss of all the time you spent trying to make it work.
Another example is that if you leave a toxic work environment and you know it was the right decision, you might feel the loss of other things that you didn’t want to let go of (e.g. career progression, your idea of where you would go in your professional life, or the positive working relationships you had).
Most of us know that grieving is normal in certain circumstances, for example when someone close to us has passed away or when a relationship ends. However, grief is often not expected or considered a valid response when it comes to the loss of other things, such as jobs or environments (e.g. moving country or even moving house; which is especially true for children).
Grieving after any kind of loss is healthy as it signifies the processing of an event, and it needs to happen for us to integrate the experience into our authentic selves so that we can work out how to regroup and live positively with that change.
When we try to shut out the feelings that loss brings – ie when we try to proactively control the experience of grief and move on, which is often what happens when people are afraid of strong emotion or have strong ideas about emotion being associated with weakness – we become stuck.
If that happens, we can’t process the experience in a healthy way that will allow us to gradually and organically move away from the acute feeling of loss. Instead, we can find ourselves feeling intense and overwhelming distress that won’t shift, no matter how long we try to shut it out.
Grief is therefore not only appropriate; it’s necessary when there has been any kind of meaningful loss in our lives.
There is no right or wrong when it comes to how we grieve; the only thing that isn’t healthy is to try to shut it out or to control it in some way; to make it go faster, feel less etc.
With all the things that can happen in life and the multiple losses that we will all experience as human beings during our lifetimes, knowing that your grief is always appropriate and natural as a human response, understanding that feeling strong emotions is ok and that it’s normal not to be able to control those emotions (and indeed, that we shouldn’t be trying to control them) as well as knowing that there is no ‘time limit’, can help.
Grief can also be a lonely experience. Precisely because grief is something that is completely personal to each of us, it looks and feels different for everyone in terms of what we feel and when, whether we cry or don’t, how long it takes for us to process our grief, how much time passes before we can feel ready to move away from those acute feelings.
People who are grieving can find themselves feeling alone or judged by others; for example, if people think we should be ‘over’ something by now, or if they expect us to feel better after a certain period.
Also, the hugeness of the emotions we feel can make other people feel uncomfortable, not because we are doing anything wrong, but because most people do not feel comfortable being with strong feelings and so they want to ‘fix’ them (and therefore, you).
So if you experience unhelpful comments or you have someone asking: ‘How are you?’ when you know that they don’t really want to hear the truth, it’s important to remember that it is entirely about them and not about you; they’re projecting their discomfort onto you. Nevertheless, it can make us feel very alone like no one can see us, or understand us.
Feeling connected to others at vulnerable times in our lives is extremely important. The more isolated we feel, the more we might feel guilt or shame about our grief or have ideas that we are somehow abnormal, which can lead us to try to suppress our emotions or control the process even more, both of which aren’t helpful.
This can lead to complex grief, which is where we find ourselves stuck in our grief, where we feel like nothing ever changes and we can’t move forward.
Something that can make the grief process even more complex is that many of us have experienced multiple losses and may not have allowed ourselves (or we may not have been allowed) to grieve previously.
It is common in therapy to encounter a client who has come to therapy feeling terrible following a loss, and it becomes clear that they’ve not only lost the recent person but that they have had multiple losses throughout their lives (even in childhood, as this has no time limit) that have never been processed.
This can be as simple as the experience of a grandparent dying and no one wanting to discuss it or take us to the funeral because they’re trying to ‘protect’ us. I have lost count of the times that clients have told me that someone died and was never spoken of again.
When people have experienced multiple unprocessed losses, they can find themselves feeling overwhelming emotions after the most recent loss, which can seem too large for the most recent event. This sudden onset of intense feelings can consequently impair their ability to function and can feel very frightening.
How to recognise if you’re grieving
You might think that it must be obvious if you’re grieving, but because we all respond differently, it’s not always obvious.
Sometimes people do the ‘obvious’ thing – e.g. crying or feeling sad, but if you find yourself feeling other emotions following a loss, such as feeling constantly irritable, angry, or just low and apathetic, more anxious than usual or even numb, these are all related to the grieving process.
Perhaps the most widely-known theory of grief was first presented by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a prominent psychiatrist, in 1969. She conceptualised grief as a five-stage process consisting of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Initially, she suggested that these stages happened in order, but current thinking is that it’s more of a cycle where a person can go in and out of these stages, with no set beginning or end.
Later, she introduced another stage of ‘meaning’, which is considered to be an important part of the grief process, as of course, we all need to make sense of the things that have happened to us.
One of the most important things to understand with grief (especially when it comes to losing a loved one) is that you never ‘get over’ it. You have to learn how to live with it, and equally, if the loss is related to death, your relationship with that person doesn’t end; rather, it just changes.
For example, some people can find themselves still trying to prove something to a disapproving parent long after their death, which isn’t helpful as it keeps them caught up in toxic or dysfunctional ways of relating.
Alternatively, someone’s death can open a door to feel things that were repressed while that person was alive.
Sometimes trauma or intense feelings can well up, which can be scary, but with a therapist’s help, might actually represent the first step towards healing, as feeling these feelings can give you the opportunity to actually acknowledge your experience, make sense of that relationship, and to make peace with it.
When a big loss happens, it’s normal for it to feel surreal for there to be a level of cognitive dissonance where you know logically that it’s real but it doesn’t feel real. You can feel shock and numbness, and you can’t believe that it’s happened.
This response is because your system is trying to distance you from the pain in order to help you survive it. During the grieving process, feelings of abandonment, loneliness, anxiety and anger may arise, and some people look for someone to blame; this may be others or yourself (…if only I had done xyz).
This is because anger and/or endlessly analysing what happened can sometimes feel (falsely) safer than feeling how powerless we really are in the face of the loss.
It is also common to feel despair or helplessness, or sometimes desperation for things to be different, or indeed to feel like the pain will never go or like things will never change and that life will never be joyful again.
How do I grieve healthily?
Because we are so vulnerable when we are grieving, it’s always worth getting help from a therapist to help you navigate the process. They will be able to normalise whatever you’re feeling, support you and help you make sense of things.
Lots of people have unanswered questions about what ‘might have happened if…’, or what that person might have said if…, or how that person felt about…, and a therapist can help you to find your own answers, which is a key part of the sense-making process.
Most people are surprised to realise that the answers we need always lie within ourselves.
How long does this take?
Processing grief is an ongoing process and it takes time; often more time than you would think, and it varies for each person.
The best way to manage it is to allow all feelings to come and go, and to understand that whatever you’re feeling is fine and that it is all part of a natural, organic process that you can trust to progress and work itself through if you can go with it.
It’s not important to know how it’s going to resolve, but just to trust that if you allow the process to happen, your brain will make sense of your experience and you will be able to integrate it and move past it.
Even once we have accepted a loss, it’s important to know that moments can make it feel like it’s hit you again, because often the permanence of a significant loss is one of the hardest aspects of it to experience.
However, it’s completely normal to go back and forth and to experience different feelings on an ongoing basis; yes, the intensity of the feelings and the level of overwhelm will diminish over time if you’re allowing yourself to grieve healthily, but that old adage of ‘time heals’ is false.
Time itself doesn’t heal unless you deal with an issue – this is why we can push a traumatic experience to the back of our minds but then cry years later when we open up about it to someone who is listening with empathy.
Therefore, it is important not to put any time limits on things and to try to allow yourself just to be with your emotions, as they come and go. It’s not easy, but a therapist can help you to learn how to do this, and it’s a skill we all need, as part of emotional maturity.
Certainly, talking to someone who can show real empathy will help you to feel seen, understood and therefore less alone, which brings resilience in the face of any traumatic experience.
However, because all trauma can get trapped in the body if not dealt with, it’s not all about working with your mind; your whole system needs to navigate the loss and get to the point of allowing the intensity of grief to naturally abate.
Talking, writing, meditating, intensified breathwork sessions and the many ways that there are of working therapeutically with the body can all help.
The right help will help you to gain perspective, ease into your pain and learn to live with your reality and your memories in a healthier way.
Grieving, done healthily, is actually the beginning of a path of healing and can often lead to positive life changes. Something has ended, and now it’s time to pause, process and integrate the experience before we can move forward and construct something new.
Healing from grief, particularly after death, is not forgetting; it’s simply adjusting.