The Life of Grief

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It’s Memorial Day weekend.  There will be many people who are remembering comrades, spouses, siblings, and parents lost in service to their country.  At least half-dozen precious faces of soldiers pass through my mind as I recall my own experience with this mark on the calendar.  Throughout a particularly tough 4 years during OEF (the war in Afghanistan), I attended a lion’s share of memorial services to honor fallen soldiers.  To this day, hearing a single trumpet playing TAPS, the chilling “roll call” tradition, or hearing the honor guard team sound off with their rifles causes my mind and body to pay attention.  I once heard a civilian pastor, during a Memorial Day sermon, suggest that “memorializing” an event or a person gave that event or person too much importance and that we should stay away from memorializing anything earthly.  He suggested that if we give our painful memories that power it would mean we were giving a backseat to our faith in God.  My seat on the pew squeaked as I squirmed in discomfort at the idea that any tears shed on Memorial Day might be a sin.  To the contrary, I believe there is positive power in sitting with the acknowledgments and memories that come with the day.  Remembering the love we’ve felt for the lost is good.  Finding that good, especially in the face of egregious and painful loss, may actually be a sign of faith.  Intentionally spending time with those memories and that loss, to me, is a sign of healthy reflection and strength.  Sadly, after I heard that sermon, I questioned the upheaval of my own emotions as this weekend rolled around.  It gave me cause to reflect on what I’ve learned about grief.  We can only truly learn a thing intimately if we’re willing to spend time with it.  I’ve had many people trust the therapy space in my office while they became familiar with their grief.  Here are a few those things I’ve learned about grief from watching so many people pass through its tunnel.

It might be helpful to think of grief as a signal that our life is changing in momentous ways.  Grief is a normal process, in part designed for helping us acknowledge and understand those changes by nudging us to pay close attention and even honor the precious people and moments that have shaped our lives. 

  • Grief allows a pace that matches each grieving person’s needs.  Not everyone grieves the same.  For some, grief comes loud and swift, cloaking the grieving in a shroud of despair while they drown in seemingly unending tears.  Others detach, and if you didn’t know about their loss you would be hard-pressed to see evidence that grief is there.  For them, the grief waits or moves at such a slow and quiet pace that it’s hardly detectable.  For the former, the shroud eventually lifts and darkness is replaced with the light of new normal that slips in subtly, as if not wanting to topple the cart.  For the latter, grief may decide it can no longer wait for the much-needed attention it requires, growing into an overwhelming presence that seems so random and ill-timed it confuses even the person who has the right to grieve.
  • Grief demands its due time and attention.  Grief is a strong and powerful emotional experience for anyone.  While all persons grieve differently, there is one constant with grief.  It demands its voice be heard.  Grief must be acknowledged, processed, and expressed in some form.  If a person tries to minimize grief, it will show itself in a variety of distressing ways.  From physical illness to severe mental health conditions, grief can morph and take over until it is properly notice for what it is – the pain of loss. 
  • Grief has no expiration date.  Many of us are familiar with the “5 stages of grief” – denial, anger, bargaining, anger, and acceptance.  The stages, penned by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross were used to describe the progression of emotions experienced by terminally ill patients before their own death.  The original way the stages were presented made it seem like a journey that had a distinct beginning, middle, and end.   While grief is a journey,  it is not one marked by the distinction of a finish line (acceptance).  In grief’s way, it ends up camping out with a person for eternity.  It’s really more of an adjustment – albeit a painful one.  It’s a threshold over which a person steps as they walk into a new life without the person they’ve lost.
  • Grief can help you grow.  Learning your own grief intimately – how it feels, what it sounds like in your mind, how your body carries it – can lead to increased self-awareness.  Grief causes us to ask important questions about our lives, about our faith, what we believe about our mortality.  It can take us on a search for our most significant why and lead us back to a mindfulness that makes each day count.  Grief is not the enemy.  If allowed, it can serve as a guide through darker times when aloneness is so heavy we can’t breathe.  When we feel we’ve lost our way wrongly believing that, without our lost loved one, we can never be found again, grief can guide us home. 
  • Grief requires nothing more than to be spoken and witnessed by respectful presence.  Grief doesn’t require that the blanks be filled in with explanation or reasoning for loss. While we are tempted to try and make sense of loss, especially if sudden (as is the case when a loved one dies in war or an accident), grief is not concerned with those details. If not blocked by avoidance, grief knows how to navigate its way through the ups and downs of our daily life with little urging on our part.  In support of any person who is suffering loss, grief requires only that we be respectful of the unique way it shows up in the grieving person and that we offer quiet, reassuring presence. 

Grief……..can take us on a search for our most significant why and lead us back to a mindfulness that makes each day count. 

Loss of a loved one through death is not the only loss that creates grief.  Important loss of any kind can prompt grief to flow.  However, losing someone you love to death may be the most painful grief of all. It might be helpful to think of grief as a signal that our life is changing in momentous ways.  Grief is a normal process, in part designed for helping us acknowledge and understand those changes by nudging us to pay close attention and even honor the precious people and moments that have shaped our lives.  Rather than avoid or minimize grief when it comes, we can learn to embrace it as a rite of passage – a passageway that is filled with evidence that we’ve cared for someone deeply and that our life has had, and will continue to have, significant meaning.

Note: This information is not intended to replace the medical advice or treatment of a trained professional.  If you feel your needs are creating an unsafe situation for you or someone else, seek emergent care through your primary care physician or local emergency room.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of self-harm, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255

About L. Chris Cannida

I am a licensed professional counselor living and practicing in Tulsa, Oklahoma
This entry was posted in Counseling, Grief, Psychotherapy, Resilience, War. Bookmark the permalink.

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