The Prescription for Grief is to Grieve
By: Rochelle Perper, Ph.D. | October 27, 2017
“Grief demands to be seen and felt – and when we see it and feel it, grief will break our hearts open into sweeping expansion.” -Joanne Cacciatore
The grieving process acts as a long winding road through a myriad of painful and unexpected emotions. Such emotions range from shock and anger to disbelief, guilt, anger, fear, and profound sadness. As hard as you may try, and as much as you may desire it, these emotions cannot be avoided. You cannot go under it, around it, or over it. The path for healing begins by your willingness to move through your grief.
Western culture conditions us to find a cure for pain. When we pull a muscle or have a headache, we learn to take a pill or distract ourselves long enough for the pain to subside. We often search for a similar cure for grief. So, you might have tried to numb the pain by using alcohol, drugs, prescription medications, unhealthy sex, binge eating, or other risky behaviors. Or, you might have withdrawn, watched too much TV, slept too much, buried yourself with work, or pulled away from family and friends.
As much you may try to avoid the pain, push it down, or distract yourself with other tasks or activities, grief has a way of rearing its ugly head, often when you least expect it. Grief can manifest in ways such as displaced anger, general irritability, physical pain and discomfort, or delayed emotional responses. Avoiding feelings of sadness and loss only prolongs the grieving process.
As hard as we may try to avoid grief, the prescription for grief is to grieve.
The Courage to be Vulnerable
Although it may be necessary to give yourself some space from your grief in the days, even months, following a loss, equally necessary is facing your grief and setting aside time to feel your emotions. Facing the myriad of emotions that arise during grief takes tremendous courage. Being vulnerable in this way can feel unnatural, even scary at times. Although being vulnerable with our emotions is daunting, it’s also a powerful and authentic way to live. Vulnerability connects you with others and opens you up to feelings of love, joy, creativity, and empathy.
Examples of thoughts that hold you back from feeling your emotions:
- “I shouldn’t feel this way”
- “Why can’t I just stop it?”
- “I’m weak”
- “There must be something wrong with me”
We all tend to judge our own emotions negatively. However, remember that we all feel. And, our emotions are always valid. Negative emotions comprise an unavoidable part of being human. But, being vulnerable isn’t a choice we have to make. Rather, the choice is how we respond when elements of vulnerability greet us: uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. The next time you find yourself saying negative or critical things about your feelings, try adopting the following mantra instead: “It’s okay for me to feel this way.”
The Power of Acceptance
Acceptance is not trying to change how you are feeling. It is not approval, agreement, or being resigned to a stressful, negative situation. Rather, acceptance is staying in touch with your thoughts and feelings and taking them for what they are. The act of acceptance is to acknowledge the presence of your thoughts and emotions. It involves increasing your awareness of yourself by being more observant while refraining from self-criticism and judgment.
It may take time and sustained attention to become aware of, and accept, what you habitually stuffed down. But, the more you expose what needs to be seen, the more your life will open and expand. When you accept your thoughts and feelings without struggling against them, you will move towards a richer and fuller life.
Experiencing Your Emotions
For many of us, the prospect of truly feeling our emotions is daunting and unfamiliar. Fears such as “if I start to cry I’ll never stop” or “I don’t want to make things worse” may arise. The steps below can help you get started on this journey in deliberate and thoughtful ways. Remember: grief is as unique as each one of us is unique. Honor what feels best to you in this process.
Before you begin, consider the following who, what, when, where and how dimensions:
WHO: Are you alone or with someone you trust?
You may find it comforting to begin this process with someone who has shared a similar experience, or who is trained in helping people navigate through the grieving process such as a therapist or religious/spiritual leader. Or, you may prefer to be by yourself. Whatever your choice, it is important to feel one hundred percent comfortable with who you are and feeling what you honestly feel at any given moment without holding back.
WHAT: How do you feel most comfortable expressing yourself?
Because every one of us experiences and expresses our emotions differently, what will your grief expression look like? For some, grief might manifest as a flood of tears, mournful wailing, or sorrowful sobbing. More comfortable for you might include journaling or engaging in “conversation” with the deceased loved one. Whatever feels most natural to you is where you are encouraged to start.
WHERE: Where do you feel the safest?
When expressing your emotions, it is important to feel safe in doing so. This means choosing a place in which you feel from judgment or distraction. This includes being home alone or out in a natural setting where you find solitude. You may find it best to be with someone or have someone nearby should you need support.
Note: Be thoughtful when children are around. Children may feel scared or confused, thus complicating their grief reaction further.
WHEN: When will you set aside the time?
Timing is very important because feeling an emotion is exhausting. You will want to set aside time to recover afterwards. The last thing you want to do after a good cry is to go to a party, make dinner, or go back to work. Be sure to tell those around you what you are doing and what you will need from them. For example, if you are away for several hours at a time you will want to tell your family so that they do not worry about you.
HOW: What technique is best for you?
The strategies described below will help you learn ways to be more aware of your thoughts and emotions in a non-judgmental and loving way.
- Mindful emotions
- Watch your thoughts
- Body scan
For best results, start small with more manageable emotions and then work your way up to more intense emotions.
- Sit comfortably in a quiet area and bring your attention to your breath, feeling the sensations of breathing without trying to manipulate your breath.
- Notice the emotion(s) you are feeling, and what it feels like.
- Name the emotion. Identify it with a word that best describes how you are feeling.
- Accept the emotion as a natural and normal reaction to the circumstances. Don’t condone it. Don’t judge it. Just let it move through you.
- Investigate the emotion by asking questions such as:
- How intensely am I feeling this emotion?
- Has my breathing changed?
- What are the accompanying sensations in my body?
- How is my posture? Am I experiencing increased tension in my muscles?
- What is my facial expression in this moment?
- Notice the thoughts or judgments that arise, but let them pass. If you find yourself dwelling on any of them, gently bring your attention back to your breathing. Re-center on breathing and visit the emotion again.
Watch Your Thoughts
- Imagine your thoughts as clouds passing overhead. Observe them, but know that they do not stay for very long and that you have the choice not to operate through them.
- Identify what you are feeling and why you are feeling these emotions.
- When something happens that you know will elicit an emotional response from you – stop and question it. Where is this emotion coming from? What memories do I have from this emotion?
- Every feeling has a message. Ask what your feelings are telling you. Maybe that message is simply to allow yourself to feel the emotion until it dissipates. Maybe the feeling is guiding you toward some action.
- Ask: “Is this feeling mine?” All the feeling you’re carrying around may not be yours. Sensitive, empathetic people may not only carry around their own emotions, they also carry the emotions of others. Your own emotions may be crowded by the emotions of others that you absorbed unconsciously. Learn how to clear the emotions of others from your field.
Pay attention to your body. Your emotions can manifest themselves physically, so be aware of your feelings and how your body responds. What’s happening on the inside can be as painful as a broken bone. Because healing emotions is trickier than healing broken bones, start by taking things slowly and easily.
- Take deep breaths for a few minutes each day to allow yourself some rest and peace. Pause to think about what you’re feeling and why you are feeling that way.
- Find where your emotions hide in your body. Simply observe and pay attention to your internal experience with non-judgmental acceptance.
In a culture addicted to the relentless quest of happiness, grief is regarded as pathological and is actively avoided. We are encouraged, either implicitly or explicitly, to “get over it” and “move on” from a loss far too quickly. We feel pressure to suppress or camouflage our negative feelings. And yet, it is unreasonable to be positive all the time, especially following a loss.
When faced with such unreasonable expectations, we apply negative judgement to the natural mental and emotional reactions experienced during grief. Counterintuitively, the prescription for grief is to grieve.
As hard as it may seem, willingness to sit non-judgmentally with your emotions will allow you to move forward in your grief towards what enriches your life.
Image: Katrin Albaum on flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0