Grief as an Intentional Process: A Self Healer's Guide
Grief is Ongoing and a Requirement for Healing.
When I reflect to my clients that they may be grieving, I find that many of them struggle, at the start, to connect their experiences of sadness or sorrow to different losses they have experienced. Loss is not only about death; it is about change. Loss is about losing access to experiences you once had, people you once loved, feelings you embodied, and places you lived. Loss shows up throughout life, in moments of despair and hopelessness, in moments of growth, and even in moments of joy and resilience.
Grief is something that we carry with us throughout our lives. It is a process and a layered experience that lives in our body, our mind, our felt senses, and our relationship to self and others. The experience of grief can be life-long, as our relationship to what we love and what we have lost evolves as we move through our life and time passes.
“Love and Grief are sisters, woven together from the beginning. Their kinship reminds us that there is no love that does not contain loss and no loss that is not a reminder of the love we carry for what we once held.”
– Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow
How Grief Shows Up in the Body
Grief is a deep embodied process, when my clients speak to me of grief, they discuss the felt sense of grief
in their bodies. Here are a few examples of grief embodied:
Feeling constricted in the body
Immobilization or the feeling of paralysis
‘Having a heavy heart’ / ‘feeling heaviness in the chest’
Chronic pain and inflammation
Dissociation from the body – floating through life, not fully there
Experiencing discomfort, or dis-ease in the body
Difficulty with eating, sleeping, and movement
Exhaustion and fatigue
Being mindful of our somatic (body-based) experience of grief can promote self-understanding and compassion. Knowing that our body and mind have found ways to manage the grief, and being curious about how we have coped with our losses can be the foundation for healing.
Good Grief! Grief is a healing and restorative process that helps us relate to and make sense of our losses
We grieve as we deepen through these stages
The stages of grief can be helpful to understand, as they can support folks grieving in knowing that their complex experience is a normal and healthy part of responding to loss. There is no right or wrong way to grieve a loss, especially a complicated or ambiguous loss. These stages do not always follow this order, and. frequently as we deepen in our experience of healing after loss, these stages may cycle or repeat throughout our life, in response to life events and experiences.
Here are common stages that many cycle and move through as they deepen in their grief and heal:
Shock - Shock is an automatic response to traumatic events. Shock often looks like a fight / flight / freeze / fawn response. Shock can feel like an out of body experience, and can lead to dissociation.
Denial - Denial helps us to avoid pain. Denial is about minimizing the impact of the loss, refusing to address it or discuss it, or toxic positivity.
Anger - Anger usually arises when we feel powerless or out of control. Our anger shows up in protest of the way things are. Anger may be directed towards the event of your loss, yourself, a person or group of people in your life, or towards a higher power.
Bargaining - Bargaining is a stage of grief where we try and understand the situation by questioning it and attempting to change it. We bargain by playing out different scenarios, blaming ourselves and others, and holding onto regret. Bargaining isn't grounded in logic or reality and it makes acceptance challenging.
Sorrow - Sorrow is when we allow ourselves to feel the despair, pain, and sadness of our loss. In this stage, we acknowledge what we have lost and how it has shaped us. Here is where we allow ourselves and our bodies to express the grief they have been holding. This stage takes time, and many return to sorrow ongoing to acknowledge and remember their losses as they move through life.
Testing - Testing happens when we experiment with different ways to manage our grief. The testing stage isn't about escaping our pain, it is about trying to live with it. People in this stage may reach out for support, explore their spirituality/religion, and try to gain control of their present and future.
Acceptance - Acceptance is ongoing, and it is about honoring our grief and pain as we continue to live our lives. When we cultivate acceptance, we feel less raw when we think of our losses and our emotions become more manageable.
Making Meaning - Finding meaning in our pain is one of the most challenging things to do. As we deepen in our experience of grief, we can transform our pain into hope and healing within ourself.
Remember that everyone experiences grief differently, and there is no right or wrong way to experience loss and move forward. Grief works on its own timeline and has no real start or end point.
As we cycle through these stages, we can begin to see the grief as something that is separate from us. When we are consumed less by our loss, we can carry it as a reminder of what we have loved in our life.
If you resist being affected by your grief, your body holds onto fear and constriction.
The resistance of grief if traumatic.
Understanding and feeling our grief is the antidote to trauma.
In the following section, I invite you to approach your grief and loss with curiosity. Grief is medicine, as we move through it, we heal.
Be Curious with Your Grief
If you would like to deepen your understanding of grief, it is important to start with curiosity. Know that as you begin to explore your losses and allow yourself to deepen into the grief process, you will need patience. Take it slowly and listen to your body. Listen to these messages, know that your SELF is communicating, all you need to do is slow it down and listen.
As you slow down and listen in, you are invited to journal about your grief. Tracking your own experience of grief can bring clarity and self compassion. Use the prompts below to get curious.
Listen to your emotions. They communicate with you constantly. If you are angry be curious about what you’re protesting; if you are sad, the sadness might be communicating about something you deserved, or a need that was not met adequately. How do you feel? What are these emotions communicating with you? Naming your feelings and identifying their messages is the best way to validate yourself in the present.
Listen to your reactions. Reactions are usually triggered, and can be biased. practice pausing and learn to respond not react. What are your impulses telling you? What is the context of your reaction? Be still and check in with yourself. Do you need comfort from others or space to tend to yourself?
Listen to your body. Your body stores your memories and keeps the score. Your body remembers times of fear and loss. Your body requires food, rest, care, and attention. How does your body feel? What do you notice when you pay attention to your body’s tension, pain or discomfort?
Listen to your tears. Allow yourself to cry, if you feel like crying. Notice if there are certain people, places, things, or memories that bring your tears to the surface. What brought Your tears? What do you see in your tears?
Listen to your pain. Where do you feel tension in your body? Do you carry pain in your back or joints? Do you experience headaches or stiffness? Your body experiences the grief process and can be overwhelmed by stress hormones, depression, or anger. Your body requires tending to with compassion. How can you tend to these areas of pain?
Listen to your experiences. Allow yourself a full range of experiences, especially in the wake of change or loss. Your experiences may help you understand how you’re relating to your loss. How have you been moving through your life in the wake of your loss? How do you respond to change? What attitude would you like to bring into this stage of your life?
My Personal Experience with a Complicated Loss
The first time I learned about the 'stages of grief', I was in high school. I had just experienced a traumatic loss in my family. At that time, I remember my health and wellness teacher using the DABDA acronym – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. As my own grieving evolved, and I entered the field of social work, I came to understand grief as something far more complicated than an acronym. I began to see the ways that the losses I shared with my family affected us differently. Our experiences of the actual loss differed, and our capacity to ‘sit with’ the grief and move through it depended greatly on our individual resources, inner world, physical and mental tolerance, and relationship to what we lost.
During my adolescence and emerging adulthood, I experienced the death of various family members, but the loss that consumed me was a death of a grandparent to suicide. This loss was ambiguous in nature, as I could not find a clear path to closure or acceptance. I was left with uncertainty and unanswered questions, and my loss was complicated by cultural and religious attitudes about suicide that led to further confusion, pain, and immobilization.
I was overcome with sorrow and I felt as though my body and soul ached and could not continue on. I waded through the grief, overcome, for years. I struggled to comfort myself, to find belonging, to connect with others and myself. My body held my grief and sorrow – so naturally I began resenting my body. I couldn’t approach myself or my body with care, as I was afraid of being swallowed whole by my pain. I cycled through stages of shock, distress, numbing, anger, and denial. I felt disconnected not only from what I had originally lost, but from myself and my world.
My loss had become chronic. I found it impossible to find closure, let alone recognition that my experience was human, okay, and shared by many. Through nearly a decade of therapy, I began to address my losses, acknowledge my grief and figure out what it meant to me. I learned that my loss would likely remain complicated and ongoing for the rest of my life. I began to cultivate acceptance once I stopped resisting and avoiding my pain, and trying to make my grief disappear.
In the early stages of my loss, I had a very low tolerance for this type of distress. For many years, I felt that my grief consumed me. Because the loss in my family was incredibly traumatic, I lived in shock and denial and became physically and emotionally disregulated. My body and psyche cycled through fight, flight, and freeze, and my nervous system felt chronically constricted.
I began to address my losses, acknowledge my grief and figure out what it meant to me. I learned that my loss would likely remain complicated and ongoing for the rest of my life. I began to cultivate acceptance once I stopped resisting and avoiding my pain, and trying to make my grief disappear. -Dani Sullivan, MSW
For years, my losses left me angry, fearful, hurt, and numb; when I think about this time in my life, my cup overflows with compassion for this wounded and exiled younger part of me. I see their pain, I hear the beliefs “you are a burden”, “it isn’t okay to feel” and “the world is an unsafe place” playing on repeat, and I see the physical, emotional, and spiritual pain that they hold.
I now see my grief as something that walks beside me through my life. I have found great peace in recognizing the connection between grief and love.
As I became familiar with the deepening experience of grief, little by little my capacity to tolerate it grew. I allowed myself to experience these stages with curiosity and knew that my experiences of grief would not follow a simple timeline. I see grief as a process that deepens with me as I move through my life.
By shifting the way I relate to what I have lost, I have found space to grow, make mistakes, and allow myself freedom. I hope that shifting the way you approach what your grieve brings you the same space and freedom. -Dani Sullivan, MSW
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