By: Cheryl Bailey
Therapist, The Refuge – A Healing Place
In this western culture we live in there seems to be more and more pressure to get more and more done faster and ever more efficiently. More and more, faster and faster. To just do a job well is no longer enough. If you met your goals this year, there will be an expectation that you accomplish even more next year. Americans are so busy at work that they only take half of their paid time off. What’s more, 61% of Americans work while they’re on vacation, despite complaints from family members; one-in-four report being contacted by a colleague about a work-related matter while taking time off, while one-in-five have been contacted by their boss. (Marketwatch.com)
Given all of that, grief and mourning become a major inconvenience and disruption to our fast paced lives. Some companies give 3 days of bereavement leave but they define who qualifies. For example, if your mother dies, she qualifies. However, if your aunt raised you and was your mother figure, no bereavement time off for her death. Who has time to grieve?
Can we even conceive of grieving the loss of someone we love and be back to functioning normally in 3 days? Not so long ago, people wore black for a year and their doors were marked with a black wreath so that the entire town knew they were in mourning. Within a hundred years we’ve gone from a year to 3 days! This enormous pressure to move on takes a tremendous toll on those who grieve. What do we do with our grief in this hurry up and move on world we live in? How many times have grieving people been told to “stay busy” as a way to not have to deal with their grief? Those who grieve are acutely aware of how their grief makes most of the people around them uncomfortable as well.
In my work at the Refuge I have heard too many stories about what grief expert Alan Wolfelt calls “carried grief” – the grief that is carried deep within when losses have not been grieved adequately for whatever reason. And the reasons are many.
If the loss disrupted the family’s life or precipitated other crises, everyone may be focused on survival which might entail moving, significant loss of income, changing roles in the family or other events. Sometimes family members try to be “strong” for each other and not show their grief and unintentionally give others the message that it is not okay to show their grief. This is unfortunately very common with parents and children.
Given our lack of time on top of our tendency to want to move away from the pain of grief, people find a number of ways to attempt to keep going in spite of their grief. A few of these are:
- Over-working: “Keep busy.”
- Minimizing or intellectualizing: “Everybody dies. You just have to move on.”
- Chemical abuse/addictive behaviors like sex, gambling etc.: gives temporary relief or avoidance, but the grief always comes back.
- Replacing: taking the emotions invested in the relationship and reinvesting them prematurely.
- Postponing: if you ignore it, it will go away, but the grief builds up and explodes later.
- Shopping aka retail therapy: this only provides short-term relief.
- Displacing: taking the expression of grief away from the loss and placing the feelings in other directions. The person may end up feeling irritable or angry and have difficulty getting along.
- Shutting down emotionally through any of the above or swallowing and/or compartmentalizing the grief
So how can we grieve a significant loss with all this pressure to move on and get back to “normal?” First and foremost is to find a way to allow the time and space to grieve. This might mean setting aside some time each day to focus on our grief. It won’t necessarily prevent grief from being triggered at other times and places but having some specific times can be very helpful. The natural cycle of grief is to go back and forth between grieving and adjusting to life after loss. During these set aside times some of the following activities might be helpful:
- Allowing the feelings, tears, anger etc.
- Journaling about our grief. We will be able to look back later and see the progress we have been making
- Writing a letter to the person and then writing back as the person
- Remembering good times
- Talking to the person in our head – or out loud
- Continuing to think of the person on a regular basis
- Imagining the person’s reactions to current life events and problems
- Making a collage about the person or our feelings
- Poetry writing or sentence stems: “Grief came knocking at my door one day …”
- Making a memory book
- Linking objects –finding comfort in wearing clothing or jewelry that belonged to the person
- Doing things in honor of the person
- Sharing stories, especially with younger members of the family
- Creating rituals can be powerful
- Making an altar with photos, mementos etc.
- Having a second funeral or memorial – the one you would have wanted
- Praying or utilizing our spiritual beliefs
- Nurturing ourselves as grief is hard on the body, mind and soul
Many people ask how long their grief should last and/or how will they know if they have grieved enough. There are no simple answers. The length and intensity of each person’s grief will depend on a host of factors – too many to mention for this blog. But one thing is certain: if we can resist the pressure of our grief avoidant society and take time to grieve and mourn, we will come out the other side and find that we can reconcile ourselves with our losses. We are hardwired for resilience.