A common complaint of my grief therapy clients is that they don ‘t think they are “grieving right.” I assure them that’s there’s no “right” way to grieve, and that, in fact, grief can be downright messy.
Just from a superficial point of view, the face of a grieving person can be pretty darn messy – bloodshot eyes, runny, red nose, puffy eyelids, red nose and other outward appearances that we might want to hide. Grief can also throw other physical aspects out of whack. Individuals who are grieving may either not sleep well or get too much sleep. Eating patterns can get interrupted as well, and it’s not uncommon for a bereaved person to either lose or gain too much weight.
The emotional side of grief is equally messy and can also be unpredictable. Emotional outbursts can seemingly come out of nowhere. I remember many times after a significant loss sitting in my car at a red light and screaming or pounding on my steering wheel. At times like those, I’m tempted to say to the driver next to me: “Don’t worry. I’m not crazy. I’m just grieving.”
People who pride themselves as being patient and calm can find themselves being angry, irritable, intolerant and impatient in their grief. I reassure clients who are concerned about this that these are normal grief reactions. At the same time, however, I am vigilant as a clinician to make sure these clients are not depressed. There is a major difference between normal grief and depression. Whereas grief, though difficult is usually “normal”, depression is not, and needs additional care.
A pitfall for some grieving clients is that they believe grief should follow an orderly fashion, and may point to the five stages of grief described by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, i.e., denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Dr. Kubler-Ross never intended for these stages to be linear and predictable, but rather, touchstones in the grief process. We cycle in and out of these stages in a sequence that is neither predictable nor orderly, but rather, can be downright messy. However, if a griever believes these stages to be linear, after experiencing some initial denial, he or she may think “OK, I’m done with that stage. I’ll check it off my list and go on to the anger stage.” They may point to Kubler-Ross’s model as proof that they aren’t grieving “correctly.”
There are many ways to work in a healthy and healing way with the mess that is grief. Because grief’s myriad expressions and emotions are unpredictable, grief can be stressful and exhausting. Therefore, the first step in healing grief is to take care of your physical being, making sure to get enough sleep, eat healthily and get exercise.
Telling the story of your loss can also be immensely helpful, as a way to make meaning of the loss. This will help with the feelings of confusion, helplessness, hopelessness and despair that can accompany grief. In addition, telling the story can help the bereaved maintain an emotional connection to his or her deceased loved one. Telling the story can be done by talking to others, journaling, writing a letter to your loved one, painting, or by any other form of expression. Expression helps to literally push out all of the swirling, messy feelings in a way that makes them workable.
Reaching out for support is also extremely important in working with the mess of grief. Calling on friends, family or one’s spiritual community and calling on one’s inner strengths and resources are all very beneficial in preventing isolation and depression.
Working with the messiness of grief can be like tending an unruly garden. Gently pulling the weeds, giving the dirt nutrients and carefully tending to the growing plants allows them to bloom. Similarly, giving our grief tender loving care can allow the mess of grief to transform into healing and growth.