Grief. Many people think they know what it looks like and how it’s going to manifest. They’ve read depictions in books and seen it portrayed in films. They may even have seen someone go through it. They understand it to be a world of devastation, despair and heartache.
However, in truth, an individual’s journey through grief is far more nuanced. It can give rise to a multitude of feelings, many of which can cause intense conflict, overwhelm and confusion.
Unfortunately, rather than recognising these feelings as a necessary part of their healing, and as an essential part of the human experience, they are commonly viewed as ‘problems’ to be solved. From such a perspective, people often resort to judging, criticising and creating shame around their feelings, resulting in them being pushed away and ignored.
A useful analogy to consider is grief as a river. Those that grieve, have to learn to travel this river and navigate their feelings. However as painful and difficult feelings surface, people can sometimes start to build a dam to block the water from flowing and prevent themselves from being submerged. Whilst holding the water back in the short-term brings them a moment of much needed respite, the water pressure on the other side is continuing to build, until eventually the dam bursts. At this point, all those feelings that were boxed up and had nowhere to go, create a torrent that decimates a person’s physical, mental emotional and spiritual health. Feelings experienced in grief aren’t going anywhere and they will continue to show up, until they are confronted.
This blog will explore the various feelings that can surface during grief. It will discuss how labelling or denying these feelings is fundamentally counterproductive and can delay a person’s path to recovery. It will also suggest that letting feelings in and sitting with them, whilst uncomfortable, is a normal and necessary part of the healing process.
Following the loss of a loved one, people sometimes disconnect from their feelings in order to carry on functioning day to day. In order to protect themselves from their pain and distress, numbness becomes their body’s defence mechanism. It allows them to pace their grief and to process their feelings at a speed they can cope with, a bit like a valve, controlling the flow of water.
This is especially true of those who have experienced multiple losses in a short space of time. It becomes impossible to take on board all that grief at once and so numbness allows a person’s body to do what it needs to do, just to survive. It doesn’t mean that they’re heartless. It doesn’t mean they don’t care. Nor does it mean they didn’t love the one they’re grieving for. Being numb doesn’t mean anything. It is simply allowing a person’s body to function.
It’s also transient. It doesn’t last forever. Sometimes when an individual experiences sensory overload, they might physically remove themselves from their environment to stop the overwhelm, but following a period of quiet, they’re ready to return. It’s the same with feelings. Sometimes, those that grieve need to disengage emotionally and effectively shut off their feelings for a while, until they are ready to deal with them. And that’s okay. It’s important they find a balance that works for them.
There is no timeline in grief. There’s no charted course. Often when people feel stuck, it’s because of the expectation they place on themselves that they should be somewhere else at that moment in time, feeling something different. It may be that they feel they aren’t quite as far along in their grief journey as they think they should be, that they should be feeling better, over it, or healed. When a person layers these assumptions on top of what they’re already feeling, it can cause them to hold back their thoughts and they can start to feel stuck. However, feelings should not be seen as problems requiring resolution. They are just a chemical reaction to the thoughts people have.
As such, by reframing their narrative and creating a kinder internal dialogue they can start to allow their feelings in, sit with them for a while and meet themselves where they are at. And this will help to create motion. By removing self-judgement and exploring what it is they need, in that moment, they can begin to move forward. It is worth remembering that in order to heal, people must first feel.
There is an assumption that when an individual experiences anger during their grief journey, it is directed at the person who has died. And whilst this is certainly the case for some people, for others, their anger is aimed at those around them, including family and friends. This type of anger is usually borne out of a sense of frustration that unlike others, they are now on their own and have no choice but to do everything for themselves.
Sometimes anger can materialise for no particular reason. It may be that something someone has said, has just triggered the person grieving.
Often, fear is at the root of their anger - fear of facing their feelings, of being alone, of confronting an uncertain future or even fear that their life, as it is in that moment, will never change and that they shall forever remain bitter and resentful.
The reality is that any anger felt during the grieving process, is not permanent. By building up an awareness of it, by acknowledging that it may appear in different forms and towards various people and situations, sometimes unexpectedly, by learning to explore and discuss it, people can start to process what they’re feeling and move forward. A person grieving has earnt the right to be resentful and to feel frustrated. However, as they allow themselves to be angry and start to process these emotions, they will likely realise they don’t want to dwell in that space for too long.
Relief can feel very misplaced during grief, especially if a person has experienced loss following a terminal illness. However, it is actually very common. Many people feel a sense of relief when a terminally ill loved one dies, not because they are glad the person died, but because they are grateful their suffering is at an end. They may also feel relieved that that they no longer have the caring responsibilities they had at the very end of their loved one’s life. And that’s okay too, because in truth, many of those responsibilities are heart-wrenching. So to differentiate between loss and relief is critical. They can be mutually distinct. Feeling relieved at the passing of a someone who was in pain, in no way diminishes the love that was held for them. Rather than punishing themselves for feeling relieved and layering guilt on top of their grief, people should accept that everything they feel is valid. They should allow themselves to sit with their feelings, be curious about them and grapple with why they might be feeling that way.
When someone loses a loved one, their world can feel like it has been ripped out from underneath them and yet all around them are people seemingly getting on with their lives. Suddenly, they start to feel envious of friends and family, of pictures on social media, of people out and about. A simple get together with friends can leave them feeling bitter and resentful as they are left alone at the end of the evening, whilst others leave to carry on their lives as normal.
Such jealousy is common following a loss and can generate deep discomfort, causing a person to question who they really are. It can also give rise to self-loathing, as they struggle to understand how they can feel this way. Are they really wishing ill will on others? The answer is no, of course not. Just because they feel jealous of others, doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate the help and support offered by those around them. It simply means they miss their person, that they want what their friends still have and they are mourning the loss of their former life.
And it’s important that they spend time really processing this and understanding that it’s okay for them to feel angry and disappointed at how life has turned out and how bitterly unfair it all is, it’s just wise not to stay in that space. So what then can they do to move forward? It’s worth remembering that not everyone’s life is as perfect as it seems. It’s very easy to take a snapshot of someone’s life and make assumptions or judgements about how blissful it seems. The reality however, may be very different. By opening up to family and friends, discussing their feelings, and discovering what’s really going on in the lives of those around them, they may alter their perspective, which could help them to move past their jealously and towards their healing.
People are not one-dimensional. Everyone has flaws and vices. As such most couples at some point during their relationship, will experience some tension and challenge. Whether it be issues with addiction, mental health, infidelity or perhaps a trial separation, few relationships are smooth sailing. Therefore, for the surviving partner, reflecting on a relationship with someone who has died can throw up confusing and conflicting emotions.
For whilst there may be ‘uglier’ parts of their personality that they didn’t love or even like and therefore don’t wish to grieve, there will also be a lot that they will miss and want to mourn. Life is messy and complicated and so is grief. It’s perfectly acceptable to hold two opposing feelings, two vastly different views in the same space. They don’t have to fit neatly into one box. There’s no right or wrong way to feel. For those grieving, learning to express everything they’re feeling without judgement and over-analysis, will be key to their progression.
It seems an obvious one, but sadness is an important feeling to consider because it is so big. When a loved one passes away, a person’s sadness can feel overwhelming - a gaping void that will never be filled. However, rather than reach out to others for support, people often box up their misery, hide their tears from others and force themselves to smile, because they fear becoming a burden to those around them. They try to spare other people’s discomfort by swallowing their sadness. However, this can set a person back a long way in their healing journey. As counterintuitive as it seems, immersing themselves in their sorrow - playing sad songs, sobbing over sad films and poring over old photographs, will help them confront their grief more effectively.
There may be times in a person’s grieving journey, that they experience unexpected moments of joy. This may occur months, weeks or perhaps even days after their loved one has died and can feel quite unsettling. It may feel wrong for someone in the midst of their grief to enjoy a moment of happiness. It may seem disrespectful. They may feel like a bad person for laughing or having fun. However, being open to these moments of joy does not diminish anything. It doesn’t mean that this person is fixed and it doesn’t mean that they have stopped loving the person that died, nor that they’ve moved on in their life. It’s important that those grieving, avoid continuously placing meaning on feelings and just let themselves feel whatever it is they are feeling. Whether it’s a negative or a positive emotion, it doesn’t matter. They are all valid and are all part of their recovery.
Imagine a person grieving is like the sky and the clouds are their thoughts, feelings and emotions. Some days the sun shines, there is a lot of blue sky and the clouds are like barely perceptible wisps, floating around. On other days, the sky is black and thundery and the clouds become bigger, darker and heavier until they open to produce a torrential downpour. In a similar way, some days, those who have lost someone, feel brighter and more optimistic about their future and on other days, they feel swamped by negative, sad and painful thoughts.
During grief, feelings can surface in different ways and at different times and often unexpectedly. Blocking, banishing or invalidating these feelings will only set a person back in their grief journey, for what they resist, persists. Instead, by viewing them as signposts directing their attention to what they need most at that moment, they can learn to explore everything that manifests and this will guide them towards their healing.
If you are dealing with the loss of a loved one and are interested in receiving more in depth support, please visit www.karensutton.co.uk/five-foundations and begin your journey towards a brighter future.