Grief Has Many Layers
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“Things do not change; we change.” —Henry David Thoreau
The loss of your loved one is palpable. It is a void that can’t be filled. The hurt is so painful that we want to cover it and even deny the wound exists. Sometimes the bereaved will attempt to fill this empty space with food, alcohol, toxic relationships, or purchases. Although that may work for a while because it creates a very real distraction, at the end of the day the loss still remains.
Healing our broken hearts begins with an understanding that nothing can replace our loved one. As hard as that is to accept, it is important to know. When we truly see that we can’t buy, drink, or work our way out of grief, our heart and mind open to real healing.
The death of your beloved is like an amputation. And after the funeral, a new limb doesn’t suddenly appear. Learning to live without that limb, so to speak, is what awaits us; it is what is commonly called “grief work.”
Minimizing our loss and denying its impact don’t solve any problems, either. Understanding the full impact of the death is scary; however, becoming aware of it can help shape how we connect with our pain. Not engaging in these feelings associated with death can lead to having unresolved issues.
Avoiding suffering can result in the building of jealousy, insecurity, anger, resentments, sorrow, and deep fear. Not addressing grief can create a slow burn of such negative emotions and feelings. Before you know it, you are engaging in situations based on those unhealthy dynamics. For example, you might find yourself in a toxic friendship or making unwise financial decisions, the result of which can result in long-term damage for your life situation.
Also, understanding that you are impotent over the past may seem like you are admitting to a personal weakness, but doing so can be extremely powerful, especially if you have been blaming yourself. If a part of you feels responsible for the past circumstances associated with the loss, then you are forever tied to guilt. Admitting that you can’t change the past doesn’t mean that your present situation is hopeless.
Healing often begins with understanding that we are powerless over something. We can’t control all things and people. Acknowledging the feeling of not having control, of being powerless, is very humbling. It quickly puts our ego in check.
And, unfortunately, any current loss often brings up past memories of loss as well, which is why our bodies swim with stress just thinking about death. Although ruminating in the past can be harmful, it can be helpful for the purposes of self-discovery in the sense that understanding our present loss often is connected with intense feelings from our past. Ask yourself:
- What was my first experience of feeling empty, alone, lonely?
- How was I comforted?
- Did someone offer me food to assuage the pain?
- Did someone give me a material thing to deal with the discomfort?
- What feeling emerged in my grief? Fear, anger, shame, or betrayal?
- Who helped me with these feelings?
- Did someone blame me for the loss?
Depending on how loss was handled in the past can help you understand how you are currently coping with grief. Examining your answers to those questions can provide you with insight into your present behavior.
The past may be filled with negative experiences of people who failed to give you comfort after your loss. That is not to assign blame to anyone; it is simply an exercise to help you see how you might be using old coping mechanisms to manage your current emotions. Loss can create a shadow and a blind spot. We might be so caught up in our pain that we can’t see how we could be grieving a prior death as well. It is not often we realize that grief has many layers.
Unpacking those layers may require the assistance of a licensed mental-health professional. There is no shame in seeking professional advice. It is not unusual to wait for years before beginning therapy. The thing about grief is that it waits for you to be ready to address it.
It takes a very brave person to do this self-examination work. Looking inward can mean that we admit that we are wrong, and that is never easy. It also means that we become very present with our pain. Our growth postloss can’t occur until we are ready. We can try to manipulate outer circumstances to try to facilitate growth, such as doing charity work in honor of our loved one; however, doing that will not result in a personal change of heart until we are truly ready to connect with our grief.
Engaging with our pain at this deep level allows us to transmute our sorrow. An awakening occurs. That doesn’t mean you won’t have days of sadness, but you will be able to approach it with a different way of thinking. You will notice that you are practicing more compassion with yourself and others. You become quicker to forgive both your loved ones and yourself.
Unresolved grief is very heavy. Once you begin to heal, you will find the weight begins to dissolve organically because you changed your relationship with grief. Your actions are now guided by tenderness, compassion, and enlightenment instead of by fear, anger, and resentment.
Henri J.M. Nouwen once wrote, “You don’t think your way into a new kind of living. You live your way into a new kind of thinking.”
When healing from grief, there are no truer words.
Kristin Meekhof, ESME’s Bereavement Resource Guide, is the coauthor of A Widow’s Guide to Healing: Gentle Support and Advice for the First 5 Years. A licensed social worker and daughter of a Solo Mom, Meekhof became a widow in 2007 when her husband died from cancer.
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