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Our Thoughts on Grief and Grieving

Grief. It isn’t something our culture talks much about; it isn’t something our culture tends to be comfortable with. When others are grieving, we might feel uncertain—wanting to help, but not clear on how to support them in the ways that they might need. And when we ourselves are grieving, we tend not to share what’s happening—afraid that telling others about what’s on our hearts will somehow be a burden to them.

When it comes to grieving, it can be hard to know how to offer support, and it can be hard to know how to receive it. All of this means that grief, which is already such a profoundly lonely process, tends to become even lonelier. But it doesn’t have to be. There are so many ways to honor the space and process of grief, whether it’s our own or someone else’s.

When you are supporting someone who is grieving...

First, and perhaps most importantly, create a space where all feelings are welcome. Those of us who grew up in Western cultures have a lot of training in something called “toxic positivity.” It’s a misguided kind of support you may already be familiar with—it shows up in statements like “they’re in a better place now,” “at least they aren’t suffering anymore,” “think good thoughts,” and “look on the bright side.” These kinds of statements may seem well-intentioned, but in truth, they fail to acknowledge someone’s true emotional state.

Toxic positivity is problematic because it bypasses a meaningful and important part of the human emotional spectrum—sadness, anger, frustration, depression, and grief. When someone is brokenhearted over the loss of someone they love, they need to be allowed to experience those feelings. Those feelings are authentic. They’re necessary. They’re healthy.

Offering genuine and helpful support that steers clear of toxic positivity means offering statements that are acknowledging: “I’m so sorry for the pain you’re going through right now,” “I know they meant the world to you,” or “This is so difficult. I want you to know that I’m here, and you can take as long as you need to.” Statements like this hold space. They don’t diminish someone’s experience. They’re healing because they acknowledge what someone is going through, and because they give permission to grieve.

As Miriam Greenspan writes so beautifully in her book, Healing Through the Dark Emotions, “what people in grief need most is to be compassionately accompanied, to feel that those who care about them are willing and able to tolerate the pain that they are in, to be there with them, to be present.”

Show up in meaningful ways. Grief can be isolating. You can help to counteract this isolation by being there with an open heart, a listening ear, and good intentions. Offer what makes sense for your relationship—offer what you know best.

Instead of asking what you can do, which may put pressure on the person who’s grieving
to identify and state their needs, give something you feel comfortable giving.

Bring dinner over, or flowers from your garden, or a box of tea. Offer to stop by and help them do the dishes or a little laundry and light housekeeping. Share a bottle of wine while reminiscing together. Call them. Write them a letter. Send them a favorite book of poetry. It may feel like there’s a lot of pressure to come up with the “perfect thing” but remember: your presence, love, and support are the most important offerings.

Share your own memories. If the person who has passed away is someone you knew well, your stories of them will likely mean the world to someone who is grieving their loss. When a person we love dies, one of the things we grieve is the dynamic nature of the relationship—the way we talked with them, learned about them—the way the space between us was constantly shifting and changing. Hearing someone else share stories about a loved one—stories we may not have heard, anecdotes we might not have known, perspective we may not have held—keeps them growing in our own minds. It gives a fuller picture of someone we loved and helps us to understand the size, depth, and complexity of their role in a collective memory. Offering someone a new story about a person who is gone is a profound gift—it adds to that person’s legacy even in their absence.

Understand that grieving takes time. Mourning is a deeply private and personal process. And grieving isn’t linear—there may be moments where someone who’s experienced a loss feels relatively at peace, and then there may be moments where they feel completely taken under again by a new wave of despair. Difficult moments can be unpredictable, seeming to come out of nowhere, or can be triggered by a holiday, a birthday, a place, a name, a photograph, a memory. A sudden resurgence of feelings of grief doesn’t mean things are moving backwards—it’s a part of the process of integrating and healing. You can offer deep and meaningful support just by showing that you care—by naming and recognizing that grieving isn’t linear, and that the process of healing will take time. It can be especially helpful to check in on family occasions—the first Christmas after a loved one has died, or the anniversary of someone’s passing. Recognizing these moments and offering your recognition that they may be challenging is deeply comforting, especially in a society that sometimes puts a timeline on how long we expect grieving to last.

When you are supporting yourself through the process of grieving...

Recognize that your process will be unique. Grief itself is a universal experience, but every single grief is separate and distinct. Your process may be full of anger, it may be full of constant thinking, it may be full of guilt, confusion, shock, or anxiety. It may feel steady and stagnant, or it may be constantly changing and shifting. There’s a common popular understanding that we all move through Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ “stages of grief,” but many psychologists say that these stages are actually not universal, and that thinking about grief in these defined ways can actually be limiting. What psychologists do recommend is allowing your grief to take its own shape. It may not look like the grief someone else has experienced, even if the loss is similar. It may take longer than you expected. It may come in cycles or waves. However it comes is valid. However your grief presents itself, it is asking to be acknowledged. It is asking for time and compassion and space.

Set time aside for the process of grieving. Grieving tends to clear your calendar and change your priorities. And your grief, no matter how big, how complex, how challenging, is here for a reason. It’s here to be felt, here to be understood, here to sit for a while with you. Psychologists understand that when we turn away from our emotions, they don’t disappear—they become more deeply entrenched, more complex, but they stay here. By allowing ourselves to recognize and sit with our sadness, rather than resisting it, that sadness can evolve and change and shift and move, exactly as it’s meant to. Nick Wignall, clinical psychologist, writer, and teacher notes that “one of the best things you can do is make time to grieve and be sad on purpose.” That may look like writing in a journal, looking through a photo album, reminiscing, or talking with someone who is willing and able to hold space for your grief. Offer yourself a few minutes on a daily basis to take part in your own rituals of mourning, to process what has happened, and to allow yourself the time and space to feel into the size and complexity of your feelings.

Spend time with others. There is so much healing and comfort to be found in connection, and it’s good to remember that not all of that connection needs to be about processing your loss. It may be deeply important and comforting to you to seek connection in the form of a grief support group, or by talking with a counselor, religious leader, or therapist. But there is also tremendous value in allowing yourself to experience other types of shared time—a walk with a neighbor, a movie with your family, coffee with a friend.

A moment of joy or ease does not dishonor your grief—it’s just a reminder that you are a whole human being who is still capable of having many different experiences and many different feelings.

Take good care of you. Losing a loved one is life-changing. In the upheaval, it can be easy to lose sight of yourself and all the things you’d ordinarily do to take care of your body, your mind, and your health. Grieving is physically demanding work, and it’s easy to get run-down without realizing it. Eating balanced meals full of healthful foods and staying hydrated can help your body weather these changes. So can the right amount of sleep—and it can be beneficial to try to go to bed and wake up at regular hours, instead of letting your sleep schedule shift. Regular exercise—even gentle, low-impact activities like walking—are impactful ways to prioritize your mental and physical health, give yourself a change of scenery, and offer yourself the benefits of movement and deep breathing.

 

If you are, at this moment, in your own process of grief, all of us at Arkeras want to extend our heartfelt sympathy. Arkeras itself was borne out of a season of loss, and we know that the process of grieving is huge and profoundly altering. We wish you gentleness, and space to mourn, and we wish you, in the right time, the deepest healing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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