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July 11, 2018 Beyond The Dash

Good Grief!

It has a purpose (other than causing you pain)

Good Grief!
Grief isn't pleasant, but it's the only way to find some semblance of normal when someone you love has died. (Shutterstock)

Grief is often discussed as a negative emotion that's comparable to sorrow, depression and anguish. But did you know grief is a healthy and important part of losing someone? Grief is actually a good thing. It's a bitter medicine that those who love must take at some point in their lives. 

Why do we grieve?

People often mistake grief to be synonymous with the death of a loved one. In fact, grief occurs in response to many kinds of loss, including abstract ones like loss of self or faith. It's impossible to rank any kind of grief as 'worse' than any other, because people process losses differently. 

It may be incomprehensible that a person could take something like a breakup harder than a death, but sometimes the loss of a relationship due to rejection can actually be more agonizing than a death. 

Death carries the heavy weight of being ruthlessly permanent, but people can find comfort in knowing their relationship with the deceased was sound, or in the conviction that they will be reunited in the afterlife. Others see death as a positive and natural end to a well-lived life. 

If the deceased person had a long and happy life, survivors are less likely to feel tortured by unfinished business and regrets. Believe it or not, these kinds of relationship complexities often complicate grief even more than the death itself.

Relationships ending by choice aren't as permanent, as reconciliation is always possible. But these losses come with the additional pain of blame, guilt and fear that the relationship may never repair. When a relationship has become estranged, one or both parties may worry that the other will die before there is an opportunity to make peace. This anticipatory grief is another kind of bereavement that haunts people.

There are as many reasons to grieve as there are ways to grieve. That's why there is no universal formula for how to process loss of any kind. Whatever your individual process is for handling loss, going through grief is essential to healing. 

If grief is healthy, why does it feel so awful?

The grief you experience when a loved one dies can feel so excruciating that you feel like you're going to die too. When pain is this intense, it doesn't feel good or healthy. But, in fact, grief is our physical and emotional response to tragedy—and actually helps us as we unravel complex emotions. 

Some people believe that if they feel their pain, it will actually make it worse. Nothing could be further from the truth! The more we practice working through pain and sadness, the easier it becomes to cope with in the future. Those who frequently bottle up their emotions do end up having a harder time when tragedy strikes, because they are ill equipped to handle emotions that cannot be contained. Like anything, regular emotional maintenance mitigates crisis.

Imagine losing someone close to you, and feeling no grief at all. For some people, this is the case initially. In these cases, the lack of pain becomes its own point of emotional anguish. If no one were to mourn loss, what is the purpose of love and life? These lows are part of what makes us human. 

Reimagining the world without your loved one in it

It may be incomprehensible to imagine life without those who make up your world. When a parent, spouse, best friend, child or special family member dies, you may not know who you are anymore. People who helped you grow leave behind a hole when they pass away—and sometimes that feels like losing a part of yourself.

If this is the case, living through the grief, making new memories and decisions helps solidify your sense of character when you feel a crisis of identity. All of this emotional work is good for you, and good for grief.

Avoiding grief is...grief

Reacting to a death does not make you weak. Though knowing that won't make coping with a loss any easier, it may help banish worries that you are going crazy or overreacting. 

Grief is not synonymous with sadness. If you're avoiding grief for fear of pain, you're actually already grieving! Rather than thinking of bereavement as akin to sorrow, think about it as an alternate reality. All emotions can be heightened, dulled or twisted. Your life is different. You are different. 

The only way to create a new normal for yourself is to feel it, accept it and forge on ahead. That starts with pain—but at least it's a start on the road to healing. Bereavement is not a disease. Grief is both the symptom of loss, and the antidote to overcoming it.

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