“It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.”
― Lemony Snicket, Horseradish
Grief has a way of knocking us off balance, leaving us reeling and desperate for some sense of stability when we need it most. Some days, it can feel as if you’re buried underneath the weight of it all. Perhaps it seems like you’re in the middle of the ocean, desperate to come up for air but the heaviness keeps you stuck flailing to stay afloat. Other days, despair may simply pool around your feet like waves lapping softly against the shore - ever present but with a natural ebb and flow. Maybe you feel like you’re somewhere in the middle of two extremes.
This is normal.
There is no one way to navigate your grief. Every person is complex, filled to the brim with varying emotions and experiences. These emotions and experiences can make us view and process a situation differently from someone else. Remember that it is unfair to yourself to think that you should be feeling grief in a particular way. It is important to offer yourself grace and compassion because these feelings are valid and deserve to be expressed.
Navigating the five stages of grief
There is no map for grief nor is it linear.
However, there are stages of grief. Something to keep in mind is that these stages were never meant to tuck our emotions into neat packages. Emotions are messy. Grief is messy. The following stages are meant to provide us with a framework to identify what we’re feeling. The stages reflect where we are as we process our grief. There is no prescribed order.
“This can’t be happening” or “I can’t believe they’re gone” are common statements at this stage. You’re trying to come to grips with reality, grasping for a foothold when you feel yourself slipping. Remember that there is grace in denial. We were never meant to take in and process pain all in one day. That is impossible. Denial helps us pace out our feelings when we feel as if we are spiraling.
Anger is deemed as a “negative emotion” in our society. You will often hear people say to “just think positive” or dismiss the rage you feel. Don’t listen to them. Your anger is trying to tell you something. Anger is pain’s bodyguard. It is a way for our minds to protect ourselves from the overwhelming emotion of despair and the subsequent suffering that lies just beneath the surface. Don’t be afraid to explore that and sit in it.
The normal reaction to feeling helpless and vulnerable after a loss is to try to regain control through a series of “if only” or “what if” statements. Guilt often accompanies these thoughts or follows after. You might believe there was something you could have done differently to avoid your loss. Essentially, you could get into a cycle of shoulding all over yourself where you think things would have turned out differently if you had done something else. It’s important to recognize the guilt that comes up for you in these moments and allow it room to breathe before you let it go.
Depression & Despair
Heavy emotions like sorrow and despair can debilitate us. Maybe it’s hard for you to take care of yourself like eating, sleeping, or bathing. You may be withdrawing from everyone around you in order to try and process the deep feelings you’re experiencing. Maybe the world looks a little different now - emptier and lacking. These are all completely normal feelings because as a loss fully settles - there will be a deep realization that your life will not continue as before. That is heavy.
After navigating your grief, you will learn to accept the loss and that means learning to live with it. Life will look different after your loss. Whether it is the death of a loved one or a significant breakup, loss can affect us in various ways. Accepting the feelings and emotions for what they are, that they had a role in your grief work, and then letting them go like leaves on a river will help you move forward.
Finding meaning and purpose after grief
Eventually, you’ll find ways to move forward instead of remaining stagnant and stuck in place. Try to think of meaning as a way of reflecting the love we lost. Perhaps there is a way to honor that loss in a way that pushes you to reconcile and resolve. As you listen to and tend to your own needs, you will change, grow, and evolve.
Now that you know a general overview of grief and what each stage looks like, you can take steps to navigate it more fully. Remember that it is an active, not passive, process that can vary depending on your approach: in private, with others, with practical activities, or even spirituality.