I remember sitting with a friend who had been betrayed by her husband. After repeatedly cheating on her, he had abandoned her, and she felt helpless and alone for a long time.
During our conversation, it became increasingly clear to me that my friend was frustrated.
But she wasn’t frustrated because of what her ex-husband had done. Instead, she was frustrated because she was not fully healed emotionally, but felt that she should be healed by now.
“It was a few years ago,” she said. “I feel like I should be over this by now.”
I immediately stopped her. She was still in intense pain, but not because she had grieved this loss for too long. No, she was still in pain because she hadn’t allowed herself to grieve at all.
One of the most damaging narratives we’re fed is that grieving should only be done under strict controls.
We’re sometimes told — either implicitly or explicitly — that it’s not appropriate to make a fuss, that grieving should be done in private, and perhaps, worst of all, that grief has an expiration date.
Society’s message is often incredibly clear: Grief is uncomfortable for others, so stay away and grieve alone. Grieving is a problem, so we’re going to put a gag order on it. If you need to grieve, fine, but it must not interfere with conventional norms.
But I want to set the record straight: This mindset can be incredibly destructive. Ignoring grief tears at the fabric of being human and disallows one of the most crucial experiences that must occur in the wake of our loss.
What so many of us fail to understand is that grief is a perfectly natural response to loss.
Although grief is generally associated with the death of a loved one, it can occur in response to any loss. If you’ve ever had a relationship fall apart, suffered a debilitating injury, faced financial calamity, or even had to deal with the consequences of having to let go of a dream, you’ve experienced grief.
Grief is an expression of the love that’s borne of our pain. Yet because it’s viewed as an unpleasant, irritating aberration, millions of people feel as if they do not have permission to grieve. This narrative plays out all the time, both privately and publicly.
For example, if anyone has ever told you to “move on” from a devastating injury or to “get over” a failed relationship, or they suggested that you should be thankful for the loss of a loved one because it was meant to “teach” you something, you’ve been subjected to this kind of shaming.
But telling grieving people to “get over” or “let go” of their losses can cause them to do the exact opposite of what these words intend. Instead of finding any sense of solace or hope in the most difficult period of their lives, they bury their grief in layer upon layer of shame and fear. The more they try to buck up or pretend as if their pain doesn’t exist, the more they fall into hopelessness and despair.
The reality is there is no one right way to grieve.
Anyone who tells you otherwise simply doesn’t know what they’re talking about. In fact, when you’ve suffered a loss, the single most important thing you can do if you want to find new life amid tragedy is to grieve the way you need to, and grieve fully, in whatever form that takes.
While there is no prescriptive way to grieve, it’s such a taboo topic that most of us don’t even know where to begin. In my experience, it helps to start with the following:
1. Truly acknowledge that you are, in fact, grieving.
This is usually very difficult to come to terms with because allowing yourself to grieve demands that you be vulnerable — not just with others, but with yourself. You must be willing to look yourself in the mirror and resist the temptation to bury the pain that resides within you.
Psychological research has shown that those who repress their grief are more likely to succumb to depression, sleep disorders, and other adverse effects in the aftermath of grief than those who don’t. As scary as it can be to allow yourself to experience grief, the reality is that it can actually prevent complications down the line.
2. Reach out to someone who’s willing to stand with you and listen without judgment.
Most clinicians, including researchers at The Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University, stress the importance of finding support amid grief. In fact, it’s often cited as the most important step you can take when grief has consumed you.
3. Understand that you, and only you, can truly define what “getting better” might look like.
After all, when you’ve suffered a tremendous loss, you don’t ever really return to “normal.” You can’t get a loved one back or “cure” an incurable illness. The task is not to “heal” as defined by other people, but to build a new life for yourself in light of what you have lost.
4. Don’t hesitate to seek out support from a licensed therapist or in a support group.
Note that I said support, not help. In the early phases of grief, “help” is too often tied to the notion of being “repaired.” You don’t need to be repaired as you learn to grieve. You need to be supported, and that comes when you find a person or community of people who are willing to accept you, just as you are, and bear witness to your pain.
Grief is not a linear process.
Grief is a lonely, aching, complicated journey with many winding roads. Remember that although only you can experience your grief in your own way, you’re not alone in that experience. Right now, at this very moment, millions of other people are grieving tremendous losses alongside you. Recognizing this won’t make everything better, but it can serve as a source of refuge as you navigate your losses.
Some years ago, a close friend of mine committed suicide. As I grieved this terrible loss, I distinctly remember one person telling me to “get over it” just a month after my friend’s death. This left me humiliated and angry. My first inclination was to hide my grief, but it didn’t take me long to realize that I could also choose to ignore this person’s terrible advice. The loss of my friend should never have happened, and I needed to experience my grief on my own.
Your losses should never have happened either.
The fact that you’re faced with tragedy is itself painful enough. How you honor what you have lost is something that you — and only you — can enact.