Coping with Grief
There are many types of losses that we all face, some major- like a death or relationship breakup- and some less so- like a missed opportunity or saying no to something we want to do. How we cope with disappointments, not getting what we want, losing people we love or need, and even with the type of loss that comes with making a decision or choice that forces us to close a particular door in our lives, is very much an artifact of our inborn personality traits, how we see others cope with their disappointments, as well as our capacity for acceptance of pain, loss of control, and separation. By “acceptance” I mean the ability to face the fact that something is truly lost. This may sound easy but it really is not. Many of us hold on to illusions of getting back the thing we’ve lost, some become angry and fight against accepting the loss, and others simply deny to themselves that the loss has occurred. And, in fact, if such mental “tricks” are available to us for assuaging the pain we feel in the face of our inevitable losses, why the need to grieve? Especially when grief makes us feel sad, turn inwards, and takes away our motivation (temporarily) for engaging with the outside world?
One simple reason why the grieving process is important- why it’s essential to find a way to face our sadness (as well as other emotions) and truly “let go”- is because without accepting a loss, we cannot move past it, nor use it in the service of creativity, learning, or transcendence. We get stuck and this sense of “stuckness” can take many forms. For some, it means staying focused on what they don’t have rather than finding a way to look for new satisfactions or objects that they can have. This might mean holding on to a dead relationship- hoping it can be revived- rather than searching out one that holds more promise. For some, staying stuck in grief is a way of continuing to feel attached to the person or thing which was lost- but this attachment requires persistent feelings of sadness (and often guilt as well) which may come at the expense of being happy, engaging in or enjoying life. Happiness is sacrificed in exchange for not facing the loss.
Facing loss also means facing our lack of control. Something was taken from us against our wishes, and this fact is sometimes more painful than the actual loss itself. Sometimes the thing that is hard to face is actually the grief we cause to others. This might be when we can’t give someone what they need, when we subject the other to frustrated longings because of our own limitations or inability to give fully, or even when we simply can’t make up for a painful reality beyond the control of us both (such as a lunch date missed on account of an unforeseen traffic jam). We may feel pain or guilt at the losses we inflict by our errors of omission, and at times this can lead us to deny the other their experience of grief, or we deny our own grief out of protection for the feelings of the other. We act as if we forgive or as if it’s okay, when really it’s not- sometimes not admitting to ourselves that we’ve been hurt and sometimes not admitting it to the other. Either way, the impact of the loss remains unacknowledged and the wound cannot be healed.
Sometimes we simply split our experience, a part of us holding on to what must be given up while another part simultaneously lets go. We might keep one foot in a relationship and one foot out, hoping to protect ourselves from having to acknowledge the losses that come with being fully “in” one relationship as we close doors on other possibilities. We might act as if we’ve accepted someone’s absence while still clinging to reminders of their presence (sometimes in ways that leave us feeling quite haunted by shadowy traces of what is no longer fully there). But, like many things in life that we avoid out of fear, what we often don’t realize is that the grieving process may in fact leave us less scarred than we imagine. There is something freeing about fully acknowledging the reality of a loss which has occurred (often painfully “known” on some level even if we won’t allow ourselves to face this knowledge head on); about giving ourselves permission to move on; and especially about finding that when we truly let go of something we often find that we haven’t really lost it at all…it is alive inside of us.
How do you grieve your losses, and do you know how to use grief constructively in the service of moving on?