Sometimes people ask me questions on a Q&A internet site about grief that I cannot answer because the question makes no sense. For example, one person asked if interrupting the grieving process makes it harder to complete the process. Someone else asked how people could start the grief process for the loss of a loved one when they still haven’t even been able to process that the loved one was gone. And of course, there is the ever-popular question about how to help a griever move on.
To me, questions like this are like asking “How do you peel an orange if you only have an apple?” Totally nonsensical. I suppose it’s a good sign that people are asking questions about grief since it’s a subject few people understand, and I suppose it’s good that they know grief is a process even though they haven’t a clue what that process is.
Processing the loss of a loved one, processing that they are gone, is the grief process. It is how we move on.
From what I understand about grief, there is no real volition to the matter. You don’t start the grief process and you can’t interrupt it. Grief is in control. Some people can bury their grief; others can simply decide not to grieve, others don’t feel grief at all. Generally, though, if the person who died was an intrinsic part of the survivor’s life, such as a spouse or a child, grief is not a process you can direct or an emotion you can redirect, but is a thing of the body, mind, soul. Such a profound death leaves behind a void that the survivor can never fill. It creates enormous stress (and is in fact the most stressful life event a person can experience, causing a 25% increase in the chance of the survivor dying, too). The death of a person deeply connected to you changes your brain chemistry, makes hormones (especially adrenaline) go out of whack, kills your sense of self, and plunges your life into chaos because what once was — the pair bonding, for lack of a better word — is no longer.
Oddly, the more you try to process your grief, the more chaotic it all becomes. So much of life is habit, and when one’s habits are obliterated, as so often happens after the death of a spouse, then the brain goes into overdrive because not only is it trying to process the meaning of the person’s absence and trying to understand death, which is something it cannot understand, the brain has to think about how to do things that you once did out of habit. And some of those habits die hard — for example, if you’re used to making coffee for two people in the morning, sometimes you forget that there is only you, and you inadvertently make a whole pot instead of half.
I’m not sure what it would even mean to “complete the process.” To a certain extent, we who have lost our mates are always somewhere in the process because the death affects us for the rest of our lives. We might not always be actively mourning, might even find happiness again, might find new habits and new loves, but still, the loved one is always gone so the void they left behind will always be there.
When it comes to grief, all you can really do is let grief take you where you need to go. You don’t try to start it, don’t try to stop it, don’t try to interrupt it. For some people, especially those with young children or aged parents to take care of, or if the survivor has a serious illness, grief bides its time. When they no longer have to focus on other needs, then grief comes and helps them move toward the next phase of their life. (I met several of these people at my grief support group; even though the death they mourned happened years previously, the grief was new.)
There are, of course, people who have the ability to bury their grief, but it still makes itself known in various ways — in illness, in mental issues, in emotional traumas — so my theory is always to let grief be; to let it do what it wants to do. As so often happens, if you do this, there is a good chance that years later you will end up in a completely different place — mentally, emotionally, or geographically — a place you could not even imagine but that brings you comfort and perhaps even joy.
I make grief sound like a good thing, don’t I? Perhaps it is. Although it is painful, grief is not the problem. The problem is that a person we loved more than life itself is dead. Grief is how we move from a shared life with that person to a new life that is ours alone.
Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator