How do you know if you are grieving in a “healthy” manner? We often question ourselves because we are grieving in a society that is unprepared for the depth of emotions involved in grieving, and that has given us unrealistic timeframes for grieving.
NO RIGHT WAY TO GRIEVE
As you start your grief journey, remember that there is no one way or right way to grieve. Every person’s grief is unique. Despite the uniqueness of each journey, we can still provide some guidelines about what is healthy in grieving. Healthy grieving means you are making deliberate steps to move forward in your grief.
Healthy grieving involves time, big emotions, and a will to do the hard work required to move forward. Staying stuck in one’s grief is easy because it does not require work, just continually experiencing pain. Working through grief to a healthy resolution requires effort and determination. It is called “grief work” because it is work. Healthy grieving also requires being mindful and intentional about choices you make, who you choose to share your grief with, and how you spend your time. It will require that you take care of yourself, putting your well-being first, which may be an unfamiliar experience for you.
NO SPECIFIC LENGTH OF TIME
First, you must dismiss all preconceived notions or advice about how long grief will take. Our society underestimates the time required for working through grief. Grief takes as long as it takes . . . which will be longer than you had hoped. When you think about the importance of the deceased in your life, the fact that you will need time to work through the grief makes sense. Thinking that we could quickly dismiss the pain of a loss so greatly diminishes the importance of your loved one. Healthy grieving takes time. Rushing it, setting artificial timelines, or attempting to meet the timelines of others is not healthy.
Healthy grieving means allowing yourself to experience the pain of grief. In the early days of acute grief, the emotions may flood you so that you have no choice. In the weeks and months following the death, the emotions are still present and need to be experienced. Allow yourself to feel the pain, anguish, anger, guilt, regret, . . . whatever emotions come. Pushing them out of awareness doesn’t make them go away; it only prolongs your grief. Allow time each day to simply feel the loss and identify what you are feeling. Identifying the feelings and trying to understand them assists in working through them. Allowing time to feel or lean into the feelings lessens their hold. You may experience days in which you are too emotionally exhausted to feel anything. That’s okay. The feelings are not gone forever, but you have given them expression, which slowly helps you have more control over them. In healthy grief, the intensity of the emotions lessens gradually over time.
EXPRESSIONS OF GRIEF
Grief needs to be expressed. The most common way to express grief is through tears, which are normal and cleansing. However, not everyone expresses their grief through tears. Some people express strong feelings in other ways. They may engage in intense physical exercise to get the emotional energy out of their body. Others find healthy expression in writing, keeping a journal, artwork, or meaningful tasks. For many, expressing their grief with a trusted friend or professional helps them make sense of their struggles. Some find participating in a support group led by a trained individual helps them express their grief. Hearing others in the group put words to their feelings may help you identify your feelings. The important thing in healthy grieving is to give your grief some form of expression rather than holding it inside.
Healthy grieving requires spending time alone. You need time to be still, time to think about what has happened and what your life is going to look like now. In times of quiet solitude, you can express your pain without having to put on a brave front for others, work through feelings of regret, guilt, or anger, and ruminate without the judgments of others. Times of solitude gives you opportunities to contemplate how much your world has changed and how you are going to adjust to the many new realities. Stillness allows you to find a new footing to begin to take steps forward. None of this can be rushed or interrupted, as often happens when surrounded by others.
Healthy grieving means accepting that grief is not a linear process. Sometimes you will find that you return to emotions you thought you had worked through previously. You will find you return to issues you thought you had resolved or revisit painful aspects of the loss you hoped were over. Just when you feel like you are making progress, you may find that you take a step backward. This is all part of a normal grief journey. Healthy grieving means you don’t despair or lose hope but understand these setbacks are normal.
TALKING ABOUT THE DECEASED
Needing and wanting to talk about your loved one is healthy. The greater the role the person played in your life, the greater your need to talk about him. You may need to repeat the story of what happened over and over. This is part of making the unimaginable more real. You may long to hear others say their name because that assures you that your loved one has not been forgotten. Sharing stories of good times or favorite memories is a healthy way of keeping their memory alive and provides a break from the pain of missing the person. Seek out people who will allow you to say their name and tell stories. You may need to teach your friends that talking about your person brings comfort, which will give them permission to share memories.
A NEW RELATIONSHIP WITH THE DECEASED
Healthy grieving means finding a new place in your life for the deceased. You will never forget them, and the goal of healthy grief is not to forget about it, move on, or get over it. The goal is to establish a new relationship with the deceased, one that involves treasuring memories and an enduring connection. You will hold this loved one in your heart forever and feel the connection through memories. While setting up a “shrine” is not healthy, keeping photos and favorite mementos out helps move the relationship to one of fond memories of happier times. Finding the right balance of sharing memories without seeming morbid or appearing to deny the death requires time and being open to trying different things.
RITUALS OF REMEMBRANCE
Establishing rituals of remembrance is an important aspect of healthy grieving. These rituals provide comfort, offer an opportunity to share memories, and help reassure you that the person will never be forgotten. Rituals may be related to an activity the person enjoyed, they may involve other friends and family, or they may be very private activities in which you honor the memory of your loved one. The rituals can become a part of your activities for the rest of your life, giving structure to how you choose to remember your loved one.
A NEW NORMAL
Finally, healthy grieving means understanding that there will never be a day when everything is “back to normal.” Your “normal” has been changed forever because an important person is missing. You will have a hole in your heart that represents the loss of the loved one, and you will carry your loved one in your heart forever. Over time, as you work through your grief, you will establish new life patterns. These patterns can include hope for the future and hope for happy times that exist along with the memory of your loved one. In a sense, your grief will never be “over,” but it will no longer hold the primary place of importance in your life.
You will know your grief journey has been a healthy one when you can visit your loss without feeling overwhelmed and when you can look to the future, knowing there will still be happy times ahead.