Words by Jen Woodward
Grieving, after losing someone or something important to us, can feel like an invisible weight. It may take the form of an overwhelming gloom, a darkness, depression or an intense sadness. Just over three years ago, after suddenly losing her husband, Sheryl Sandberg put into words the reality of mourning, describing her grief as “the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe.”
The word grief comes from the Latin word gravis, meaning heavy. It’s also derived from the Italian word grave, meaning slowly and with solemnity. Exploring the language used around loss allows us to appreciate a truer definition of grief. It emphasises the importance of taking the time to mourn, to respect the process and those heavy feelings, to accept the invitation to open up and to care for ourselves with deepest empathy and sincerity.
As we go through life, we pick up on others conscious and unconscious perceptions of loss and mourning. We might observe others feeling sadness, grief and loss - they go to their loved ones and perhaps are met with disinterest, or even a dismissive ‘you’ll get over it’. We hear these reactions and interpret them as our feelings of grief are not welcome here. Meaning, we are not welcome when feeling those feelings.
We adopt this helplessness as we grow, never being able to fully process all the griefs of our childhood and dissociating from these feelings. Grief, particularly in relation to death, isn’t talked about. Family and friends are often paralysed when it comes to talking about mortality, so when we experience it ourselves it hits particularly hard. We expect a linear journey, as grief takes hold it’s easier to have an end point to aim at, a point in time where we can finish mourning. We also learn that grieving is private, that those feelings don’t belong out in the open.
We may feel scared by our grief, alone or helpless. Accepting grief means perhaps taking things slowly, believing in the process, having faith and challenging those preconceptions. It might require us to soften, to let down our guard, to explore ourselves and to be vulnerable.
Because of these attitudes to death and losing a loved one, it’s easy to feel like we must get through grief, struggle through, barely make it even. But connecting with it, meeting it in that painful place, that’s what makes us human and that’s what will provide us with the most opportunity for growth and healing.
Build a grief support system. Find a counsellor, try your workplace, your GP, low cost therapy in your area, a private therapist, a bereavement charity or even a free phone or text line like Samaritans. Maybe attend an event set up by Death Cafe – “At Death Cafes people drink tea, eat cake and discuss death” their slogan goes. Thinking and talking about death helps de-stigmatise it.
Also, make sure you have friends and family around you, get involved in an activity where you’ll meet people, try and connect with others. Then talk about your feelings, even if it’s a bit uncomfortable at first you’ll find people all have experiences of loss.
Research rituals and ceremonies. In doing this you allow yourself to embrace the grief, to really feel it and most importantly you honour those feelings you’re feeling. If you have any cultural link, start there, what did you ancestors do to pay tribute to their deceased?
Listen to others’ experiences. If you aren’t ready to talk about it, have a listen to the podcast Griefcast and hear comedians talking about the loss of a loved one. Or for those going through a break-up, separation or divorce, there’s The Break Up or Terrible, Thanks for Asking.
Widespread cultural death denial means we don’t want to talk about death, and that means we don’t want to deal with it. It’s too scary, and so we all just sit around feeling terrible. Challenge those fears and delve into those feelings.
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