Loss is a part of life. Whether we’re talking about the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship with a partner or a friend, loss of a job you’ve had for years, etc., loss of some kind happens everyday. And with loss, comes grief. The purpose of this post is to demystify grief: I will be explaining what grief is, what it can look like, and the importance of mourning and mourning/grieving rituals as ways to hold onto the memories of beloved ones in a healthy way. In this piece, I will be mainly talking about grief after the death of a loved one, but again, there are many different kinds of losses one can experience. I hope this piece helps y’all start to make sense of what you have experienced.
What is grief?
Grief is the very common response to loss. Many people are familiar with the idea of the stages of grief, but I don’t like thinking of grief in that way. With the idea of set stages of grief, there is a risk of expecting people to fit into boxes that aren’t real for them.Grief looks different depending on each person. People are complicated. So the process of grieving is just as complicated. Everyone’s journey is their own and depends on life circumstances and the relationship you had with the deceased person. Trauma, issues with abandonment, other stressful things going on in your life, physical and mental health issues, etc. can add to and complicate the grieving process. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are not the only emotions people feel while grieving. You could feel relief. You could be happy the person is no longer suffering. You could be glad on some level to be out of that job. You could be low-key grateful your partner is gone. Feeling emotions beyond those 5 doesn’t mean you are broken or an extra secret special messed up. Again, people are complicated. And while dealing with all these complicated feelings, it may feel like you are being swallowed up by an eternity of feelings. Regardless of how it can feel, grief is not forever. With time and active work towards healing, your often intense, painful feelings of grief will start to go away usually in about a year (in the case of death). I’m not saying you won’t miss your deceased loved one anymore. But you will be able to think about them and miss them without the feelings taking over your life. You could think about them without crying immediately, for example. That difference between actively mourning someone versus remembering someone fondly, etc.
The grieving process becomes a mental health issue when it starts to take over your life and you have been actively grieving for over a year. What do I mean by actively grieving? If 12 months have passed since your loss and your feelings are just as intense as the very first day, you may be experiencing what is known as “complicated grief”. Constantly thinking about the loss, feeling distress that is outside of what is usual for your society and/or culture, being unable to keep up with your commitments at work, school, with family, etc. like you used to, and passive and/or active suicidal ideation are all symptoms of complicated grief. Examples of passive suicidal ideation include wanting to go to sleep and not wake up, wishing you weren’t alive, or wishing you were dead. Examples of active suicidal ideation include thinking about ending your life, having the intention/desire to end your life, having the tools/method to do it, and/or having a specific plan (See my post on suicide here for more information explaining suicide).
Grief and Depression
Grief and depression can feel very cruel because they both can convince people that this is the way they are going to feel forever. They both change the way you see yourself and how you see the world while you’re in the middle of it. A huge difference between major depressive disorder and grief is the subject of the distressing feelings. A grieving person’s thoughts focus on the person who has died. On the other hand, depressive symptoms tend to focus on feelings of personal worthlessness. Basically, if a grieving person is feeling sad, it is most likely going to be related to a sense of loss, to missing the deceased, to wishing they could be with that person, etc. A depressed person’s sadness focuses only on themselves and any flaws (or “flaws”).
In my piece about depression here, I break down the symptoms of depression in more detail. To have clinical depression, someone must have at least a depressed mood most of the time, almost every day, or not able to feel pleasure/joy from things that used to make them happy. Depression is self-critical. A depressed person’s inner monologue/their self-talk/the majority of their thoughts (to be REALLY blunt) is mainly about how they feel they ain’t shit. Depressed thoughts are pessimistic and any related suicidal ideation is about wanting to escape their situation. Again, grief, though, focuses specifically on the loss. And a grieving person’s thoughts are mixed with the positive memories and emotions related to their dead loved one. Even the suicidal ideation that some grieving people experience is usually focused on wanting to be with their loved one, not escaping their misery as it would be with a depressed person.
Now to complicate things a little because life is complicated: Grief and a major depressive episode can happen at the same time. And the loss of a loved one can trigger depressive symptoms in people with a history of depression. Recent loss can kick up past emotions like fears of abandonment from past deaths and other kinds of losses. It’s important to be aware of yourself, especially if you have a history of depression, trauma, anxiety, etc.
Mourning rituals and practices are an incredibly important part of healing. These rituals, both personal and public, allow people space and time to express emotions, process thoughts, and reflect on memories. Many cultures have their own mourning rituals and ceremonies in place as a part of community healing. In psychotherapy, therapists encourage clients to practice in their own culture’s mourning rituals and/or create their own personal rituals. These rituals allow for time to think, memorialize, feel feelings while also helping to contain the emotions and give them a proper place. These rituals are a way to set boundaries with yourself and your emotions so mourning doesn’t consume lots of your time and energy. If you need more information on how to set and maintain firm boundaries, I wrote a piece about that here. Learning to balance your thoughts of the deceased with your thoughts of the land of the living is important for the healing process and for your ability to continue to stay on top of bills, keep up the relationships with your living loved ones, etc. Many people feel trapped in their initial pain because they believe, on some level, if they don’t feel this pain, their loved one will be forgotten. And this isn’t true. You don’t need to be in pain to honor them. Your cultural and personal rituals are your special way of remembering them. They keep the memory of your loved one alive.
Some ideas for personal rituals and other ways to personalize your mourning process:
Creating physical or online memorials
Visiting the gravesite
Lighting candles alone or in a small ceremony and reflect on the deceased
Writing letters, poetry, or songs to the deceased
Going to grief counseling groups to commune with others going through similar situations
Having a dinner to celebrate the life of this person
As time passes, the sharp painful feelings of loss will start to fade. In therapy, checking in with clients is an important part of the healing process. I would have clients track their own emotions, their thoughts, etc. so we both can see how they change over time. Are their feelings of grief becoming less intense? Are they able to sleep as well as they used to? How much do their feelings of loss interrupt their day? Are they getting the support they need during this time? Check in with yourself. Try some mindfulness techniques (read more here) as self check-ins to see where you’re at, what you need, and how this changes as you heal. While checking in with yourself, see if there’s anything you can do via self care (my piece about the many types of self care here) to help yourself heal.
A REALLY IMPORTANT NOTE: Certain times of the year like holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. can still be hard emotionally for you even years later. This is very common. In my clinical work, clients and I have worked together to make a safety plan (Check out the suicide post linked above for a sample safety plan) to figure out how clients can get the help they need before any problems start. Like a fire drill. That way, when things pop off, there’s no need to panic. Safety plan for yourself in advance for the hard days. And these moments and days when the sadness and grief come back can happen, but they won’t be as debilitating or world-crushing as the day 1. Seek therapy if mourning gets in the way of functioning and/or it has been longer than a year and your feelings feel as intense as it did on the 1st day of loss. You may need some professional assistance with going through the healing process. And that’s okay.
Loss is inescapable. Whether it is loss of a relationship, loss of a loved one via death, etc., everyone is going to grieve something at some point. And though feelings of grief are painful, they are a part of life and important to feel. Un-dealt with grief can build up inside someone and then come out in other, less healthy ways. On the other end, intense feelings of grief that last over a year can get in the way of living one’s life to the fullest. With all things, finding a balance is key. Mourning a loss is an important part of life, especially the death of a loved one. You can love and miss people without those feelings taking over your life. Love never really goes away. That’s facts, but personal and/or cultural mourning rituals and grieving ceremonies help people set boundaries, use mindfulness techniques, and get their support system in order in healthy ways. Beloved people won’t be forgotten because we can keep them alive in our hearts through rituals and remembrance. And we can live our lives to the fullest in their memory.
Thanks for reading. The next piece will be part 1 of a 2-part series in time for the holiday season about setting boundaries specifically with toxic/abusive people in your life.