When a loved one dies, we are faced with the stark reality that life is indelibly changed. It is a hard reality to accept, and it launches us into the grieving process. We mostly think of grief as a journey through sadness, fraught with a myriad of struggles along the way – with feelings of helplessness, exhaustion, stress, anxiety or loneliness as our travel companions. We wonder how long it will take until the pain subsides and if we can ever get on with our lives. It is helpful to remember that grieving is a healthy process, one we are wired to go through after a profound loss. Sometimes people think of grieving only as something to get over. But, unlike an illness, we don’t get over it — we go through it, resolving our feelings about the loss gradually.
Grief has a function and a purpose: to help us accept the loss and heal the pain. Initially, its function is to draw our attention inward. Our mind gets foggy (known as grief fog); we may find ourselves overwhelmed in a way that paralyzes us for a while. Physiologically our heartbeat slows down and we want to withdraw, pay less attention to the outside. In fact, most people describe how strange it is that the world keeps going on around them. Life on the inside feels very discordant with life on the outside. That is grief doing its job. We need to go inward to start the process of healing. George Bonanno, Ph.D., a current grief researcher says that the overall task of grief is to help the person reorganize. “We have to come to terms with the fact that the person we are connected to is no longer there, and won’t be there, but in our mind they still exist.” That is a daunting task and one that takes time. Just as important, we come to discover that grieving is an active process — we work to let go while making decisions about what to keep.
Amidst our sadness, we may find ourselves experiencing moments of laughter or joy. Sometimes people feel guilty about having those experiences, thinking they are not grieving properly. But they are doing grief’s work. Those moments have a purpose and play an important role in healing too. We need the relief from pain in order to function in our lives, and it is often easier for others to connect with us in moments of laughter or relief than to connect to us through our suffering. We are bringing people closer to us in those moments, something that is a vital part of grief recovery. When we feel less alone, it gives us the strength to tolerate difficult feelings.
Day by day, as we go through the rituals and chores associated with unpacking a life, we are integrating the loss and finding more peace within ourselves. For example, possessions have significance and represent ties to that special person. As things are gone through, sorted, given away or put in special places, we are sorting our insides too. We are letting go, while making decisions about what is important to us. Experiencing and exploring the feelings that come up in the process help us figure out how we want to hold our memories in our heart.
During our grief journey we mentally and emotionally visit our relationship over and over, continuously working toward the inner version of our lost relationship that we can ultimately hold in the most meaningful and least painful way. Most of us revisit moments and memories, or we question our perceptions of our life with our lost loved one. We might feel momentarily confused about what was real or what was not. Guilt or regrets over something we did or didn’t say or do, or even feelings of relief that the person is gone may filter through. Every person’s relationship to their significant other is unique and no relationship is perfect.
Besides our feelings of sadness, loneliness, or longing for their company that arise in the process, we may also feel anger at being in the situation at all, of being left behind to go through the emotional upheaval or frustrated at how long it is taking. Acceptance of our feelings about the grieving process itself is important because it gives us opportunity to practice self-compassion, patience and even gratitude.
Our own identity may be shapeshifting and transforming as we discover new strengths, capacities and even new meaning for our lives. For example, feeling pride at fixing something that used to belong in the domain of our loved one. Or taking a trip and being relieved to find enjoyment in the company of others without one’s spouse or partner. Pursuing a skill, hobby or interest that one never had the time to do before gives us hope for a fulfilling future.
As grief pushes us through the difficult journey of healing, we are integrating the loss. And as we do that, we resolve the dilemma that Bonanno talks about. We are coming to terms with the reality that the person is gone while creating a new less painful relationship to our loved one in our mind. In fact, we are finding a new home for them in our heart, which is how we can then go on with our lives.