Grief is deep sorrow. It is deeply emotional. Other words that come to mind are sadness, pain, loss, anguish, suffering, heartache, and despair. Grief also is universal, which means everyone everywhere experiences it. Most of us are not given the skills to deal with grief when it shows up in our lives. In fact, we are taught — in numerous ways — to try to outrun our grief by drinking, taking drugs, staying angry, over spending, overeating, staying busy, and on and on. The message is: whatever you do, don’t feel. And yet the only way to cope with grief, really, is to allow it to be. I know this is not what most of us want to hear, but the truth of the matter is that we cannot outrun grief, and if we don’t allow it, we become its prisoner.
When I was around five years old, my best friend at the time, who was eight, died suddenly. From a virus. I remember my Dad kneeling at the foot of my bed, his eyes red and wet from crying, as he told me Michael had died. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I hadn’t yet met death, but I knew about loss and sadness because my parents divorced not long before that. As I grew up, more people I knew died. By the time I was 19, I was more familiar with death: my best friends’ Dad was killed in a car accident; my 1.5 year old half-brother died (from the same virus Michael had); my Dad drank himself to death; my Mom’s brother had a heart attack while giving a speech at work; and we had to have our family dog (Juliet) put down, to name a few. I also had experienced relationship break-ups, and was learning fast that there was no amount of booze, drugs, or food that would make the pain go away. Grief kept turning in on me and on itself. The more I tried to outrun it, the more depressed and anxious I became. And, of course, more losses kept coming.
Eventually, by the time I was in my early 20s, the mechanisms I used to cope with all these experiences stopped working. The depression and anxiety got so bad that I couldn’t get out of bed some days, and it became clear I needed help. I remember telling the first therapist I went to that I was NOT going to talk about my family or my past. I was there just to figure out whether I wanted to stay in school. Truth be told, I was petrified about what would happen if I allowed even the smallest bit of the emotions I was holding back to come out. I envisioned what I was experiencing as an overflowing garbage can pushing the lid off, and often thought the image of Oscar from Sesame Street summed it all up nicely.
And this is how my long learning to cope with grief journey began. Fast forward 30 some years later, and I have some lessons learned I think might help you.
1. Know that you are not alone. Sometimes I felt like a freak, like no one would ever understand. That I and my pain was unique. This is just not true. Like I said earlier, everyone everywhere experiences grief.
2. Give yourself permission to feel what you feel. You won’t die from crying. I really believed I would die if I allowed all the feelings to come out. I cried for what seemed like five years straight, and got angry without hurting myself or someone else, but I did NOT die. Neither will you. There is a price we pay if don’t do this, which Brené Brown sums up beautifully:
“We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”
3. Show yourself some compassion.* Often we have way more compassion for others than we have for ourselves. Now is the time to change that. Have mercy on your hurting heart. Think about how you would comfort a small child, and give that kind of comfort, love and understanding to yourself.
*For more on self-compassion, see https://self-compassion.org/test-how-self-compassionate-you-are/ and the self-compassion practices offered on this site.)
4. Get support — doing this is courageous and brave. It really is ok that you are hurting. It’s what we do with our grief that makes the difference. Put down your armor. If you are honest with yourself, you will know whether you are coping well or not. Look in the mirror for your answer, and then get yourself some help. We are wired for connection, and there are support groups, therapists, friends, and maybe even family members that can help. Pick up the phone (I know it feels like it a 100 lb. weight), and make that call.
5. Create space in your life to just be. Take walk, dig in the dirt, look at the trees, breathe, read books that help you understand what you are experiencing, draw, take naps, drink tea, spend time with friends, and use guided meditations.** You will be ok.
**For downloadable free guided meditations, see https://www.tarabrach.com/guided-meditations/
A final thought. Unattended sorrow also can show up in our bodies in all kinds of ways. We get sick. Our body aches. We carry tightness in our shoulders and neck. And sometimes, in really tough cases, people die of a broken heart. The seat of grief is right at our breast bone. Gently pressing that spot can give you a sense of how much you are holding in your body. Yoga, massages, and hot baths can help, too.
If you have techniques for coping with grief that have helped you, please share those in the comments section below. Let’s spread our collective tips and resources far and wide so we can help others find their way through. And, as one of my greatest teachers — Stephen Levine — used to say, treasure yourself.