How Do We Live With Grief?
By Molly Sherb, PhD, psychologist
View Molly’s webinar recording with extended Q&A
The current crises and the state of the world have provoked a lot of intense feelings ranging from sadness, anger, and frustration through numbness and disconnection. Another common, yet at times, unrecognized emotional reaction is grief.
We are all grieving for the world right now. We are grieving for the people we know, and we’re grieving for the people we don’t. We are grieving for the people whose names we recognize and the people who we will never hear about.
It’s important to acknowledge grief as a natural human reaction, one that can take many shapes and forms and has various dimensions. It’s also important to validate the various types of grief reactions, which will be outlined and discussed below.
How do we understand grief?
Grief isn’t defined by the emotions it elicits, but rather is defined by the loss someone experiences. This idea of loss includes, but also extends beyond loss in the most literal sense. It encompasses the loss of the life you once had, the loss of hope, the loss of safety and faith, loss of trust, loss of the future you imagined, the loss of innocence and the person you once were, and the loss of so much more.
These losses are all equally painful, yet we tend to recognize and validate grief related to death more than other loss experiences. It’s also important to remember that even when grieving someone’s death, there is no direct correlation between the intensity of grief feelings and the relationship to the deceased. We can grieve just as deeply for people we never knew.
All of these layers of loss contribute to the complexity of living a life with grief. There is no one way that grief “should” look or be expressed. Grief has no roadmap and no timeline, although we often create artificial markers in our minds of when we should stop feeling a certain way. These benchmarks only serve to stunt the growth process of grief and serve as fertile ground for self-judgement and criticism. Grief, as with any emotional experience, is a highly personal and individual experience and looks different for everyone.
What are the various types of grief?
As was previously mentioned, there are several types of grief experiences. Generally, symptoms of grief can include but are not limited to: shock, numbness, relief, anger, sadness, irritability, loneliness, and fear.
Grief can also manifest in physical symptoms as well, impacting energy levels, sleep quality, and overall health.
For the purposes of this post and the relevancy to the current state of the world, we will focus on the following grief experiences:
- Collective Grief
- Cumulative Grief
- Anticipatory Grief
- Ambiguous Grief
This is a grief experienced by any group, community, society, country and so on. Collective grief is typically experienced following a shared traumatic event, which is particularly relevant to the events that have recently occurred in our country and around the world. It’s a grief we feel and share with others.
Cumulative grief is the result of several grief events culminating into one overwhelming experience. We all have survival mechanisms that we use to avoid and file away painful experiences over time, but these memories and feelings can become triggered by certain events, even if they are unrelated. For example, much of our days over the last several months have been consumed by various losses. These feelings of loss can then trigger our grief related to other losses we’ve experienced in our lives. The emotions that are felt as a result are representative not only of the current loss, but rather can represent all of the losses throughout our lifetime.
Anticipatory grief occurs when you are expecting someone to die or expecting any type of loss in the future. This is particularly relevant to the current times, as we adjust to navigating through an unknown future. We have experienced loss, and anticipate more losses to come. We can’t name it, we can’t identify it, but we feel it. Anticipating sorrow is an incredibly exhausting experience.
This type of grief is experienced when you are grieving someone who is still alive. It occurs when you grieve the loss of a person’s spirit, or the relationship you had, even when the individual is still physically present (i.e. individuals living with dementia). This grief can also extend to the losses that were previously identified such as the loss of safety and security, loss of hope, loss of faith, the loss of a job, and more. These losses are particularly challenging as there are no traditional ceremonies to process these losses and therefore it becomes difficult to validate the emotional experience as a grief reaction.
This leads us to the question many are grappling with now: How do we live with grief?
The idea of a “grief process” and the wording itself implies a linear progression with a beginning, a middle and an end. This inaccurately captures the nuanced emotional experience often felt when living a life with grief, and only serves to pressure us in unhelpful ways. In the same way we would not tell our open wounds to scab faster, we can’t tell our souls to heal better.
Processing grief is not about making the weight of the loss disappear, but rather accessing sources of support, in order to be strong enough to continue walking through life carrying that weight without letting it crush you.
Just as we allow friends and family to rally around us after someone has passed, it is equally as important to allow friends and family to support us through our other grief experiences. Additionally, allowing yourself to experience your emotions rather than judging them or telling yourself what you could or should be doing, helps to facilitate the process of “moving on with grief” instead of moving on from grief.”
Moving on with grief rather than moving on from it is an important distinction that honors the notion that life after loss may never look exactly the same.
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