Grief Stories 1: Your Grief Story

Often people come to grief support groups because they want to know that they are not going “crazy”. Grief can make us feel that way sometimes. The feelings, thoughts, and physical reactions that can go along with grief can be unpleasant, unwanted, and just plain hard to manage.

One of the first necessary steps of determining how your grief journey is going is simply looking at what is happening on your grief journey. Simple, yes. Easy, not really.

Why? Because none of us like to sit with unpleasant and difficult things. And why is that? Because it is difficult and uncomfortable to sit with those things.

However, we need to attend to our emotional wellbeing (all the time, but especially) as we grieve just as we need to attend to our physical bodies when they are hurt or injured in some capacity. If we don’t look after a scraped up knee, for example, it is likely to get infected. The process of cleaning it and stitching it up may be painful, but we know that the pain is necessary for the healing.

And so it is with our grief.

We need to look at and pay attention to the sadness and hurt we are experiencing and trust that the discomfort is ultimately a part of a healing journey.

Exercise: 

Here is an exercise that will help you examine the parts of your life grief may be impacting.

Note: You want to examine these parts of your life with openness and curiosity. This is not the time to judge whether you should or shouldn’t be thinking/doing/or feeling something. This is simply the time to take stock of what IS happening for you. So, take a deep breath and have the courage to be curious about what is going on for you without judgement or expectation.

When you experience the loss of a loved one, there is one moment that will forever be a marker of the loss: the day, the moment the person died. One way of looking at your grief is by examining what your life was like before that day and what it has been like since that day. You journeyed along up to that day with your loved one by your side. And now you must journey without them.

What have the days been like for you as you have grieved the loss of your loved one?

As you think about your life before and after your loss, there are five domains to look at: physical, emotional, relational, behavioural, and spiritual.

  1. Physical: Often, quite surprisingly, grief impacts our physical bodies. When we think of grief as a stress (which it definitely is!), it may be less surprising to recognize that grief impacts our bodies — our eating, sleeping, energy levels, concentration, pain levels, digestion, agitation, making us more sensitive, suppressing our immune system and exacerbating chronic problems. Our body is good at communicating to us, when we stop and listen!

 What has been going on in your physical body these days? It may be subtle or it me be very obvious.

2. Emotional: Emotional pain is no surprise in grief. Sadness, loneliness, frustration, fear, shock, disbelief, guilt, numbness, confusion are responses that are talked about often. However, the complexity of emotions needs to be highlighted. We can have more than one feeling at a time and these feelings may be contradictory! For example, if you lose a loved one after a long, painful illness you might feel both relief and sadness. Remember, feelings are not right or wrong; they simply are what they are. As much as you want to not feel these difficult feelings, it is important to look at and name the feelings you have been going through. Remember, also, that feelings come and go and can come up with the smallest moment of remembering.

 Name the emotions that you have about the loss of your loved one, the death itself, your life without that person. What are the hardest moments and what feelings do you feel? Which moments feel easier and what are those feelings like?

3.  Relational: Grief often changes our relationships because it changes our identity. Going from wife to widow may change your place in your friend group. You might find yourself pulling away from family and friends or you might be wanting to be with them all the time so that you don’t feel so alone.

Examine your social support network. Who can you rely on? Has your relationship changed with these people? How are you relating to your friends and family since your loss — distancing or drawing close?

4. Behavioural: Your behaviours are linked to your physical body in a lot of ways, but behaviours have to do with the things that you are choosing to do (or not d0). To cope with unpleasant feelings, people may turn to food, alcohol, sex, shopping, gambling, etc. People may feel too tired or sad to work, exercise, or go out with friend. Conversely, people may feel sad so they work, exercise, and go out with friends to distract themselves! Perhaps you simply neglect self care like proper eating, exercise, and taking prescribed medications. You may also be more sensitive to other’s expectations for what you should be doing.

What behaviours and patterns are you experiencing since your loss? Are you on one end of the extremes: being too busy or pulling away?

Note: If you are experiencing thoughts of self-harm or suicidal thoughts, that is the warning sign that you need to speak to someone. Talk to a friend, call your doctor, or if it is urgent, call the mental health helpline at 1-877-303-2642.

5. Spiritual: Death is a time when we often have questions about spirituality, God, the afterlife, when we wonder about suffering and look for meaning. Spirituality can be a help but it may also be a hinderance on your grief journey.

What does your spiritual look like as you grieve? What questions are you asking? What might you need in this area?

Remember that your grief journey is unique to you alone. No one else can judge your experience. Today, I don’t even want you to judge your experience! Just look at it. Think about the five different domains and what is going on in them as you grieve.

In the posts that follow we will talk about healthy and unhealthy ways of coping with grief. But for today, just have the courage to sit and look at the ways you are living out your grief.

And in the meantime, remember that the basics of healthy eating, exercise, drinking water, and trying to maintain healthy sleep patterns have a significant affect on how we feel. Often we don’t feel like doing even these basic things when we are grieving, but doing them often improves our physical and emotional life.

So today, be curious about you and remember the basics.

Suffering is Inevitable (and what I learned from a 7 year old with the stomach flu)

My two youngest children have a very different approach to being sick. When my youngest daughter gets the stomach flu, even when she was 4 or 5 years old, she would go to the washroom, be sick, and go back to her room and no one would really know anything about it until she told us later. My son, on the other hand, who was two years older than her offered us a fairly significant warning system that he was about to be sick. It involved a lot of yelling, calling for us to come, and right before it happened, he would yell panicked, yet matter-of-factly, “I’m gonna do this! This is happening!”

We always thought it was funny because he was older, he was a boy, and all the usual stereotypes about toughness, while our little daughter just quietly went through her uncomfortable moments like they were no big deal.

Today that memory got me thinking about life in a number of ways.

We don’t want to have uncomfortable moments. We don’t want to have pain or suffering, whether it’s in our physical bodies, in our relationships, work, finances, etc. A lot of our time can become preoccupied with trying to stop these bad things from happening. And in lots of ways that can actually be helpful. There are things you can do to maintain positive circumstances in your life.

However, suffering and pain is an inevitable part of life. We can’t escape it. Certainly not all the time.

What I learned from my son and his approach to the stomach flu is: he was acknowledging that something uncomfortable was going to happen and he was psyching himself up to deal with it.

“I’m going to do this because this is happening.”

How often do we approach our problem situations with, “I don’t want this to happen” or “I can’t do this”? And then maybe we ignore the problem for a while or wear ourselves down with negative thoughts about our inability to cope. Neither of these attend to the problem. And so it’s still there.

What does it look like to approach our life problems with “I’m going to do this, this is happening?”

The bad thing is happening: the trouble with our finances, the uncomfortable situation with a family member, or something we are struggling with personally… Those things are happening and now how are we going to do to walk through it all?

The truth is, we walk through our struggles one way or another. Denying our problems or pushing them away might seem easier in the moment, but the problems always find ways of leaking out until we start paying attention.

Sometimes we feel ill-equipped to handle our problems ourselves. Thankfully we live in a time in history where it is much more acceptable to talk about hard things of all sorts. If you feel like you can’t manage on your own, there are so many resources available to you if you take that first step of asking.

So, next time you have something overwhelming in life, think of my son with his loud, dramatic voice, and make the choice to boldly say, “I’m going to do this because this happening.”

In the end, is it really a choice? Yes and no.

You don’t always choose your circumstances, but you do get to choose how you face them.

 

Our Lives as Stories: Rebirth

Finally we arrive at my most favourite genre of story: the rebirth. I’m generally not a big “romance” romantic, but I do love and dream (and, perhaps, romanticize) about people’s lives and stories turning around, starting over, coming back from the ashes, and all of the other phrases that can go along with the notion of “rebirth”.

Rebirth is generally depicted in stories where the main characters are bad or unpleasant, who discover the error of their ways, and then their redemption occurs. And there are so many classic examples of this: A Christmas Carol, Beauty and the Beast, Despicable Me, and, of course, The Grinch.

via GIPHY

Different than a tragedy where you know defeat is inevitable, there is something so moving and hope-inducing in a rebirth story: despite the struggle, things will change. All shall be well again (perhaps not even again, perhaps for the first time!)

Whatever your opinion on the Bible, if you read through the four Gospels which tell the story of Jesus’ time on earth, one thing that stands out is how Jesus changed people’s lives. Jesus healed and showed compassion and care to people whom society had given up on or fully rejected: people who were unclean due to sickness, disease, and deformity, people who were rejected because of their actions and choices (thieves, tax collectors, prostitutes, and adulterers).

In fact, Jesus had the harshest words to say to those people who thought they had it all figured out — the people whose lives, from the outside, seemed to be all together.

The truth is that none of us have life fully figured out. We will always be human and will always make mistakes. We all need the chance to start again and again and again.

Exercise: When you think of your own story, your own humanness, your own propensity to be a Grinch or a Scrooge, the places and times where you miss out on the compassion and grace and joy that really is always there (albeit sometimes deep, deep down)… what might a big turn around look like for you? What might it look like for that ugly part of you to be reborn?

What habits, thoughts, or actions might you need to turn away from? What might you need to turn towards?

What is keeping you from this change?

And who or what might be helpful as you think about this process?


P.S. Sometimes it is easier to believe that change is possible for others but not ourselves. We are bystanders in the transformation of others (whether in real life or in fiction). Because we don’t feel the depths of others’ pain or walk their road to change, it makes sense that others’ stories can feel easier and our own journeys seem insurmountable.

And I think it’s just human nature to compare pain. Helpful? No. Human nature? Yes.

I would challenge you to deliberately think of others’ stories of redemption only in ways that are life-giving and encouraging.

When (notice I said “when” not “if”) your mind starts going down the road of comparison to either put down your journey or others’, simply stop that thought and use that moment that was meant for negativity to redirect you to positivity and compassion.

Use others’ progress to encourage you that change is possible. Cheer for them. Cheer for yourself.  Let’s work towards solidarity in our very human struggles.

(To be able to connect to all of the posts in the Our Lives as Stories series, go here.)