What is grief?
Grief is an intense emotional, spiritual, and physical experience that tends to follow a loss event or significant life change. Although culturally we tend to associate grief most commonly with things like death and divorce, many experts believe that you can grieve any major change or deviation from what was “normal” before. This includes the changes that our culture sees as being largely positive, like weddings, moves, and retirement. Even in these situations, the “old” way of life is gone permanently, and despite the fact that these may have been intended and anticipated changes, they often do trigger grief responses and adjustment difficulties.
What does grief feel like?
It is sometimes said that grief is a paradox in that, while all of us will experience grief at some point in our lives, the way we grieve can vary significantly from person to person. Extreme feelings of sadness are a predominant feature of most peoples’ grief journeys, but many grievers experience a range of emotions, including anger, longing, loneliness, restlessness, and anxiety. Depending on the nature of the loss event, people may also be surprised to experience a sense of relief, tenderness toward humanity, and a deeper sense of love than they did before their loss.
In addition, while grief is a very profound emotional experience in particular, it also impacts people’s sense of wellbeing in other life domains: physically, socially, and spiritually. Following a loss or a major life change, people frequently report an increase in troubling physical symptoms, such as headaches, muscle tension, changes in sleep patterns and appetite, and a general sense of unease in their bodies. Moreover, grievers may socially withdraw for myriad reasons after a loss, including perceived lack of support, physical and emotional fatigue, stigma and a sense of shame, and avoiding painful reminders of “life before.”
As for the spiritual realm, current research shows that major loss or life changes often have existential impacts, in that they may lead people to reevaluate their lives, their understanding of themselves and human nature, and significantly alter their worldview. While it is true that grief is highly individual and people’s grief experiences are uniquely their own, it is important to remember that this is a natural process that most everyone will experience at some point in their lives. You are not alone.
Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance… which stage of grief am I in?
Most of us are familiar with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s “stages of grief” model, and perhaps we were familiar with it even before we experienced a loss or life change of our own. It’s less commonly known, however, that this model was actually developed through Kubler-Ross’s work with patients who learned they were terminally ill - it was not meant to apply to the emotional experiences of people grieving the death of a loved one. Part of what makes the “stage” model so appealing is it is simple and seems to offer a trajectory of path out of the woods. However, many grievers find themselves feeling overwhelmed and confused when their own emotional experiences after a loss are not quite this linear and orderly!
For this reason, some people prefer to think of Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance as “themes” of grief, rather than stages. In early grief, you may find yourself pinging back and forth between all of these emotions at a break-neck speed - often over the course of the same day! Over time, the pinging may slow and you may find that you spend days and weeks feeling some of these emotions more predominantly than the others. You may experience something else entirely. Your grief experience is your own - take it as it comes and focus on how you’re feeling now, rather than where you believe you “should” be headed. The models of grief I use with clients tend to focus less on stages and steps than they do on the client’s personal experience with grief and other emotions, interpersonal attachment, secondary losses, and shifts in roles and relationships.
Everyone else seems to have moved on. Am I stuck, wallowing, or going crazy?
Culturally, we seem to have this idea that we need to “move on” from our grief, and in a sense, leave it behind after a requisite amount of time and mourning. However, many people who experience a profound loss or life change learn that this just isn’t possible. To quote Nora McInerny, author and host of the podcast “Terrible, Thanks for Asking”: “We don’t move on. We move forward.” We learn to live with the reality of our loss, to live with the void that was left in the place of the person who is no longer here, to feel that pain while simultaneously choosing to continue living a life with meaning, beauty, and purpose. Over time, most people do experience an easing of their grief - in the months and years following a loss, most find that their grief is not as sharp and acute as it was in the initial weeks and months. However, it is common to experience “flare-ups” of grief from time to time, even years after the loss event. These sudden, temporary upsurges in grief (or “STUG reactions,” coined by grief expert Dr. Therese Rando) are sometimes predictable - around anniversary dates, birthdays, holidays, and milestone life events - and sometimes they seem to come out of nowhere. Though it may not feel like it, all of this is normal and giving yourself space to feel the pain when it shows up can be very healthy.
Additionally, I caution people from comparing their grief experience with that of others. As internationally renowned thanatologist and grief expert David Kessler says, “Grief is as unique as your fingerprint.” Simply put, we all experience loss differently, have different emotional triggers, feel things at different intensities from one another, and for variable amounts of time. As long as you are not hurting yourself or someone else, there is no “right” way to grieve. With that in mind, it’s important to be flexible, compassionate, and to both offer and receive support as you are able: someone who appears to have “moved on” may just have a difference in coping styles and may engage with their grief on their own time. Likewise, what may look like “wallowing” may just be someone who is openly processing the pain of a devastating, life-altering loss. Differences in grieving styles can cause friction within couples and families. My role as a counselor is to help you navigate these new dynamics and day-to-day challenges; to honor your loss and the resulting emotional experience, wherever it may take you; to help you find your personal meaning in your experiences; and to begin to move forward.