Let Grief Be

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.

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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

Closure and Acceptance

In a book I read the other day, the character mentioned that he found closure after the death of his wife, which led me to believe that the writer had not himself experienced such a loss because, when it comes to death, especially the death of a spouse or child, there is no closure. There can’t be. The circle of grief never closes because the loved one is always dead. They are always missing from our earthly life, and the void they leave behind is never filled. There is no time when we can say, “Okay, that’s done. Let’s move along.”

At some point we begin to find the road to life again, but we will always miss our loved one and will never forget. As time goes by it gets easier and we learn to cope with the necessary changes, but there will not be closure.

Another word that is often bandied about when it comes to grief is “acceptance.” Finding closure implies an acceptance of what happened, and yet, there is not way to ever “accept” the death of a loved one. It’s not our death to accept but theirs.

Acceptance is supposed to be one of the stages of grief, but I’ve never actually gone through that stage (nor did I experience most of the supposed stages of grief for the simple reason that they do not adequately reflect the reality of grief for a life mate, soul mate, spouse or child). I cannot accept that he is dead for the simple reason that it’s not my place to accept it. Acceptance to me suggests that it is okay, and I will never believe that it is okay for him to be dead (even though I do understand the necessity of it).

If “acceptance” means accepting the reality of our loss and understanding that they are gone, then there can be no acceptance “stage.” The truth is that we “accept” the reality from the beginning, and therein lies the problem. If we didn’t understand that they were gone, we wouldn’t feel so bad. But we do understand they are gone. We feel the loss in our bones, our souls, our very beings. We feel it with every breath we take. We feel it in the emptiness of our hearts and our homes. We have no choice but to face the reality.

The only way “acceptance” works in the grief equation is to accept that we have no control over the situation. Accept that we will always miss them. Accept that we will always grieve to some extent. Accept that we’ll never be the same as we were. Accept, too, that grief is not a negative. Grief is an important adjunct to a profound loss, a way to process the unacceptable and unfathomable, a means of moving from being part of a couple to being alone.

As a friend wrote me, ‘Acceptance needs to be viewed as a continuum. Acceptance does not mean “one and done”.’

Many people who have undergone such a loss have a need for adventure, as I did. I never understood this need, but seen in the light of “acceptance” or “non-acceptance,” it begins to make sense. We feel the changes, know we need to go along with the flow of our new life, but we don’t want to accept the new status quo. We didn’t want this new life, didn’t choose it. Even more, it seems such a betrayal of what we once were, what we once had. And so we are unsettled.

To a great extent I have let Jeff go. Somewhere during the past years, I realized that no matter how connected we were when he was alive, we are two distinct people, each on a special journey. For a while, our paths entwined, but now our roads have swung into two different directions. No matter how much I miss him, miss the me I was when I was with him, miss our shared dreams and goals, there is no turning back. The future beckons, and I must go where it leads me.

Perhaps that’s acceptance of a sort. It might even be considered closure of a sort. All I know is that, like the so-called stages of grief, any jargon that is associated with grief falls short of the reality.

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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.