“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be. Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life,” writes Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking, her account of her year with grief following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne.
She writes poignantly of the shock of a sudden loss that can leave you suspended in time. You can wander there, lost to all but your grief. Totally stuck, unable to move forward.
Sometimes the cause of being stuck isn’t the grief itself, but the fact that you don’t recognize that you’ve lost something and that you need to grieve, says New York-based psychotherapist Katherine Schafler.
We recognize that grief doesn’t fit in a box – that some forms of grief take years to work through, that other types take a few solid months, and some take a single moment of deep acknowledgement. And we know that people grieve differently and for different reasons, but one thing remains constant in the process and it’s the one thing no one has ever said about grieving:
“I did it right on time.”
No, grieving is marked by a lag, a delay, a freezing, says Schafler.
People can be grieving and heartbroken about something and not even know it. Grief is also not exclusively about the physical death of a person. Apart from a bereavement or a breakup of a relationship, a friendship or a marriage, person can grieve for:
- a childhood home that’s for sale
- a desire or need that was never met
- a person who is still alive but chooses not to be in your life
- the loss of a dream
- loving someone who is self-destructive
- the loss of a pet
- the loss of a job or the end of a career
Denial is usually the first step in the grieving process, and that’s actually a good thing, says Schafler. The denial is a defense mechanism that protects you so you don’t’ have to feel everything all at once.
Ideally, denial slowly fades away so you can begin to feel grief, but more typically, you swallow your grief.
“It comes up in small spurts when you’re not paying attention, then you numb yourself to it somehow, then it jumps up more forcefully, then you numb yourself more heavily. That is the path of staying stuck in grief.”
Is there a better path?
Schafler says this about grief: “But you don’t have to walk it unless you choose to. Some losses are so exquisitely painful, in a way that no one else could ever fully understand, that no one would fault you for staying in the loop.”
Here are her steps for moving out of the disorienting, dizzying loop of grief, if you so choose:
1. Understand that your heart is in fact broken, even if no one can see it. Keep in mind that there’s no ‘right way’ to grieve and that grieving is not a linear process – whether it has been 6 months, 4 years, or 15 years, none of that means anything to your grief.
The clock starts when you begin to recognize your grief, when you genuinely begin to address what happened (or perhaps what never happened).
2. Recognize that you need to grieve. Something happened, or didn’t happen, that burdened you. Ironically, when you’re burdened, something is given to you and taken away from you at the same time. What do you feel was taken from you? What do you feel you are burdened with? The answers to those questions help you recognize what you need to grieve.
3. In order to be in touch with your grief, you have to get in touch with the loss and all the feelings the loss brought into your life, including the anger, sadness, bitterness, resilience, compassion and any other feelings you encountered during your loss.
There’s simply no way to move through grief without making contact with it, without fully touching it, without fully feeling it.
“You either allow yourself to encounter the feelings or you remain encased in a shell of yourself under a misguided sense of self-protection.”
4. Dealing with the grief means letting go of the familiarity of it and moving towards something less predictable and less familiar, which is scary.
Still, if you want to genuinely address the grief, you have to continue to move through the peripheral, familiar parts of your grief and go right into the epicenter of your grief.
As the classic hero’s journey goes, you have to get inside the belly of the whale. There (and only there) you will find the door to the unpredictable pieces of life that are patiently waiting for you on the other side of your pain.