Grief is emotional pain in response to a loss. “Something is missing!” It can be knife-sharp and overwhelming, or a dull ongoing ache. Unlike sadness, which can be about something happening to someone else, grief is visceral, personal, immediate. It can include heartbreak, bitter disappointment, and rage at the unfairness of loss.
Grief wants to wail aloud and writhe and rub dirt in our hair. It wants to be fully felt by the person grieving. It wants to be witnessed and acknowledged by the community. Grief can be private, but it is not meant to be secret.
In our modern society, we assign active, loud grief only to children. As adults, we curl around our grief, stifle it, stuff it down, make it small and silent and invisible. It leaks from between our concealing fingers as silent tears when no one is looking. Compacted grief leaches the joy out of being alive, and looks a lot like depression.
Affected by loss
Because we do not see others grieving, we feel hijacked by our own powerful emotions. We criticize ourselves for not pulling it together, rather than turning toward ourselves with compassion for our pain. We gaslight ourselves, telling ourselves that the good parts of what we lost were not really there, or that it is our fault for reaching for what we wanted and daring to be happy. We believe we should not be affected by losing what we love.
When we lose an attachment figure, someone who supplied warmth and joy and above all a sense of safety and belonging, the loss feels like an essential part of us has been ripped away. We have to learn to live around the gaping hole left behind.
The length and intensity of grief does not necessarily correspond to the apparent severity of the loss. A “small” loss can trigger an avalanche of stored grief as we try to stuff it into an internal closet that is already full to the limit. We might have pinned our hopes for the future or our steadiness in the present on what is now gone.
Like a harsh winter or a bad case of the flu, grief can last far longer than we want it to. We expect the sharpness of grief for a big loss to abate after a month. Instead, it might ease after the first year of painful anniversaries, and might continue long after that.
Grief has its own rhythm and timetable inside each of us. Sometimes it might be shorter than we expect, or resolve suddenly into a half-forgotten lightness. It can be as hard to give ourselves permission to stop grieving as it is to step into grieving fully. We might believe that it is disloyal to feel better.
Progress is uneven, small reprieves followed by sudden resurgences. Reminders and associations slowly wear away over months, until one day we realize we got through that painful reminder while thinking of something else entirely.
Disrupts our plans
Grief disrupts our plans and gets in the way of productivity and accomplishments. Grieving is its own full-time job. We have to adjust our expectations and make room for grief to move through us.
At the same time, grief is a normal part of being alive and connected. Random, unfair, cruel loss can happen to any of us, no matter how hard we work to make the “right” choices. Blaming the victim does not protect us from the pain of loss.
Not all grief is about loss of something we had. It might be grief for something we never had at all, like attuned parenting or warm community or a safe childhood. We can acknowledge the pain of what is missing and take in small bits of attunement or community or safety in our current lives.
Some of our grief might be for big losses that we are all experiencing together. Whole species silenced forever. Thriving open spaces razed and covered with concrete. Increasing climate chaos as we pour more and more heat into the system. Increasing inequality and people around us suffering without access to housing, food, and medical care. We can join together to mourn our losses and resist where we can.
Just as we do not learn how to be with our own grief, we do not learn how to be with others who are grieving. At a time when we most need companionship and support, grief can be compounded by friends who back away when they do not know what to say, or who fear grief might be catching when they feel their own buried grief stirring. Loneliness and grief often go together and intensify each other.
We can look for support groups or grief rituals where people know how to hear us and lean toward us rather than away.
Turn toward ourselves
We can turn toward our grieving self and be our own caring friend.
No matter what we are grieving and how our internal and external Feelings Police think we “should” be handling it, we can take time to let our feelings move through us. We can offer ourselves physical care with water, food, sleep, and movement. We can take emotional care of ourselves with, “I sense something in me is grieving and I say hello to that.” We can write out our feelings in private journals and online forums.
We can also reach for distractions. There is a balance between honoring our emotions and taking breaks from them. Grief is something to live into, not grit our teeth through. We can continue with activities we used to enjoy, or start something new. Spending time outside can be helpful, even if it is a brief walk around the block. We can make order in our living space, which can be soothing when so much feels out of our control.
We can create rituals for ourselves, such as telling a rock how we feel and then placing it in running water. We can talk to a photo of a person we lost. We can choose to wear black for a year. We can choose to wear bright colors that cheer us up. Grief is as individual and as universal as a fingerprint.
Kindness and warmth
Moment by moment, we can accompany ourselves through acute and chronic grief with kindness and warmth. Eventually, it softens. Eventually, it becomes the background rather than the foreground. Not erased, but integrated into who we are as we continue to move through our lives.
- The Wild Edge of Sorrow by Francis Weller. A poetic and thoughtful discussion of grief and how to acknowledge it with meditation and group rituals.
- Tear Soup, story by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen, illustrated by Taylor Bills. A compassionate book about the process of grieving in children’s book format, helpful for any age.
- Tear Soup Cooking Tips How to support yourself and others through grief.
- Tear Soup Recipe