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Grief comes in many forms. Any loss can touch off a series of emotional responses in you. You can help yourself move through your pain to healing.
When I experienced intense loss for the first time, I was 27 years old. My father was killed in a tragic accident while out for his morning jog. Completely devastated, I found myself eager to quickly move through the stages of grief in order to finally land at acceptance and closure.
I had believed, incorrectly, that a person experienced stages of grief in a certain order, and that once you reach that final stage, the grief is—poof!—gone. In fact, until my late 20s, I associated grief with the death of a loved one and didn’t realize grief includes various forms of loss.
I couldn’t have been more wrong about what grief was or how one experiences it.
Understanding the Variety of Grief’s Forms
Grief shows up in unexpected forms and often during unexpected times. It may arise when you lose a family member, friend, or beloved pet. Grief may be part of the heartache of a divorce. You may grieve the loss of youth, or perhaps you grieve the life you aspired to live or the child you planned to someday nurture.
Many of us have felt grief in the midst of COVID-19. You might have postponed a celebration, lost your business, canceled a once-in-a-lifetime vacation, or perhaps you weren’t able to honor a deceased loved one with a proper funeral.
These curveballs of life often create loss, and that loss may create grief. Healing from grief takes time, and it’s not an easy process.
The Expansiveness of Grief
A few years after my father’s death, I found myself facing another sudden loss—the loss of my marriage. As a stay-at-home mother to my one-year-old daughter, this curveball devastated me. I found myself unable to sleep, I had no appetite, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how my life would no longer be what I thought it would be.
When a good friend of mine pointed out that I was grieving the life I had expected to live, I experienced an “aha” moment. I finally realized that grief applied to many forms of loss. This explained why the pain of losing my marriage felt so similar to the pain of losing my father. The intense grief left me not only in emotional and mental pain but in physical pain as well. I experienced two completely different versions of loss, and I grieved them both.
Everyone faces loss at one time or another—it’s a substantial part of the human experience. Because we aren’t taught how to grieve, you may not be equipped with the knowledge or skills you need to manage loss when it happens.
So, is there a “right” way to heal? Is there “good” grief?
I’m not an expert in grief, but I have experienced it and continue to grieve my father and the loss of my marriage, even though it has been 16 years and 11 years, respectively. What I’ve learned is there is no right or wrong way to grieve, but there are some resources and words of wisdom that can help you heal.
1. Stay Present with Your Feelings
You may want to run away from the painful feelings of grief. Do you find yourself turning to something that will numb you—like comfort food, internet shopping, or a few glasses of wine? Perhaps instead of pouring yourself another drink, you pour yourself into your work as a method of avoidance. These salves might help your wound feel better temporarily, but they simply mask the pain.
Instead of pushing the pain away, try to bring awareness to the feeling and see if you can stay present with whatever you notice. In her book When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, Buddhist teacher and author Pema Chödrön writes, “To stay with the shakiness—to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge—that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—this is the spiritual path. Getting the knack of catching ourselves, of gently and compassionately catching ourselves, is the path of the warrior.”
The anniversary of my father’s tragic death was two weeks ago. Even though 16 years have passed, I felt pain and sadness. I thought about finding a way to distract myself, but instead, I decided to honor the pain by staying present with it. I practiced a meditation technique called tonglen to acknowledge my own suffering and the suffering of my family members. I reminded myself that grief comes and goes. Staying with my feelings of grief and honoring them helped me get through the day without numbing myself.
2. Plan Ahead for Special Days
Emily A. Meier, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry with UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center recommends that the grieving person should plan for certain days. “Anniversaries, holidays, birthdays, and other special days may trigger intense grief reactions. By predicting what may trigger a grief reaction and planning ahead, it allows individuals to cope better.”
It might be helpful to look ahead in your calendar, map out those potentially triggering days, and make plans that can help you cope. Nourish and comfort yourself on those days in whatever way feels best for you. You can ask friends to spend time with you or gather family members to share a meal. I’m fortunate that many of my thoughtful friends reach out to me on my dad’s birthday and death day. Hearing from them helps me feel supported. Because I know how much their support helps me, I reach out to my friends on their difficult dates. Even a simple “Thinking of you” text can help someone get through a heartbreaking day.
3. Understand the Fluidity of Grief
Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed and wrote about the five stages of grief in her book On Death & Dying. Those five stages—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—became the blueprint for grief, although they have been misused. Just like I did, many people incorrectly learned that the process of grief begins at the top with denial, moves down the line in order, and finally ends with acceptance.
Instead, grief can be a zigzag across those stages with no particular order, and you may not experience every stage. There is no prescription for the process of grieving, and grief doesn’t merely disappear once you’ve zagged across every stage. You may never experience closure after a loss.
Pauline Boss, Ph.D., professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota and author of Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief, posits that there is no such thing as closure. In her On Being podcast interview, Boss said, “I think ‘closure,’ … is a perfectly good word for real estate and business deals, so I don’t want to demonize the word ‘closure.’ But ‘closure’ is a terrible word in human relationships. Once you’ve become attached to somebody, love them, care about them—when they’re lost, you still care about them.”
She goes on to point out that society wants to “close the door” when someone passes away. Boss argues that you can live with grief. Similar to the way you can live with chronic pain, you can live with the pain of grief.
4. Usher in Feelings of Common Humanity
When facing intense suffering, you may feel isolated. I remember feeling terribly alone after my dad’s accident and while going through my divorce. It seemed like everyone else kept sailing through life without a care while I slowly stumbled through the murky and muddy waters of loss. Most of the people in my life with children are married or have partners, and I sometimes feel isolated.
It’s helpful to remember that I’m not alone and that, of course, other single mothers face these struggles like me. I feel much less pain when I usher in common humanity—the recognition that others experience suffering as I do. Common humanity is one of the three main components of self-compassion, according to Kristin Neff, Ph.D., one of the leading experts on self-compassion. “Self-compassion involves recognizing that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience—something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to ‘me’ alone.” I use a tangible object, a wristband, to help me keep self-compassion and common humanity front-of-mind. I flip it over when I need to remind myself that I am not alone. It brings me feelings of comfort and peace when I need it.
5. Try Meditation
Speaking of self-compassion, it’s difficult to practice it while grieving if you don’t take the time to observe your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Meditation can help you notice and stay present with what’s happening within and around you, and it can help you comfort yourself. Chödrön writes in When Things Fall Apart, “Meditation is an invitation to notice when we reach our limits and to not get carried away by hope and fear. Through meditation, we’re able to see clearly what’s going on with our thoughts and emotions, and we can also let them go.” This Affectionate Breathing meditation can help you cultivate mindfulness and self-compassion:
*Excerpted from The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook by Kristin Neff, Ph.D., and Chris Germer, Ph.D. Copyright (c) 2018 Kristin Neff and Chris Germer. Reprinted with permission of Guilford Press.
6. Continue to Connect with Your Loved One
It may seem like a good idea to avoid anything that makes you revisit your loss, but when grieving a loved one, it can be helpful to intentionally connect with that person. The nonprofit organization The Dinner Party aims to help grieving people thrive after loss. It organizes community dinners where each person brings a favorite dish that reminds them of their loved one. Perhaps it’s the recipe your loved one used to make for you, or maybe it was their favorite dish. By coming together in the community, you can share your loss with others and also help them heal. Another way to keep your connection is through rituals that help you honor and remember your loved one. Dr. Meier says, “The use of rituals can be extremely healing during the grief process. It is often helpful to create family or individual rituals that honor the loved one as an additional way to cope with grief.” Rituals can take many different forms. You can find inspiration from cultures that honor those who have passed. For example, many Latin Americans celebrate Día de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead in October. Originating in Mexico, the venerated holiday honors ancestors and deceased family members.
7. Seek Help
If you tune into your body during moments of stress, you can notice the desire to find support. Author and health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., mentions in her popular TED talk that you release the hormone oxytocin when you experience stress. She says, “When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you.” Whether you seek out a grief counselor or reach out to your close friends, it’s important that you don’t try to conquer grief on your own. In order to heal your soul, don’t go it alone. When Dr. Meier counsels patients who are suffering loss, she shares, “There is no right or wrong way to grieve as it is a highly individual process with no specific timeline. It is important to practice self-compassion while grieving, to continue to find opportunities that allow for a connection to our deceased loved one [memories, memorials, celebrations, laughter, joy and to practice patience.”
8. Be Gentle and Patient
A dear friend of mine, psychologist Taryn Gammon, Ph.D., recently shared an analogy she uses for grief. She thinks of grief as an infant or small child. In the beginning, it needs almost all of your attention and care. Your grief may feel like a full-time job, in fact. At age four or five years old, the grief still needs your love and attention, but you’ll have more space for other parts of your life. As the years pass, this older grief won’t require 100 percent of your time and energy like it did when it was an infant. However, you still need to be present with your grief when it decides to drop by. Your grief, like someone you care about, needs your patience and your love.
Whether you follow the stages of grief as laid out by Kübler-Ross, or you come back to other stages time and again, your path to recovery is as unique as your fingerprint. Be open to wherever your grief takes you, in the time that it takes you.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.
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