Grief will happen either as an open healing wound or a closed festering wound, either honestly or dishonestly, either appropriately or inappropriately. But emotions will be expressed. ~ Elisabeth Kubler Ross
When a person has a cold, what they are feeling is their body driving out the virus. The runny nose, the watery eyes, the sore throat and the cough are symptoms of a strange and wonderful dance the human body does to rid itself of the rhinovirus which invades the body. A person feels the worst at the peak of their immune’s system response…when the body has marshalled all of its power against the virus to keep it from duplicating itself… the body drives out the virus through the nasal passages (sneezing and runny nose) and the lungs and throat (coughing). The immune system works hard to restore the body to where it was before. But at the time the restoration powers are peaking, that is when someone feels the absolute worst.
And so it is with the grief reaction to loss. A person has attached to something or someone and when that person is lost, the mind does the difficult work of grief to detach and to restore the system to where it was before the loss occurred.
If a person does nothing, the work of grief occurs naturally and sees itself through to the conclusion of restoration. A loss has occurred and the human mind’s natural grief response has allowed the person to heal from that loss and go on. The grief is resolved and the person is emotionally free.
Unfortunately, people delay or inhibit the grief process because they don’t want to feel as bad as they really feel. They go to great lengths to find someone or something to keep the grief from building to a crescendo and letting the powerful feelings run their course.
And from there they become like a person who has a chronic cold…they never quite feel like themselves, they never really get restored back to their “right self.” They always feel not quite good, somewhat depressed, and inside they know something just isn’t quite right. It feels like having a low grade fever…or an underlying depression. There is something beneath the surface that is easy to ignore most of the time but still signals that all is not right and all is not well.
When another loss occurs they have to work even harder to keep all the symptoms at bay because the mind doesn’t just need to process this loss, but any other loss that hasn’t been resolved. And so it goes….the person feels worse and worse and has to do more and more to avoid feeling the feelings. The cycle continues because the big ball of feelings becomes too much. The avoidance techniques become more complicated and inventive.
But avoiding grief is usually a house of cards. A person is either going to run from the loss their entire lives living in a state of agitation or anxiety or they are going to experience a manifestation of avoidance symptoms such as depression or suicidal tendencies.
A loss that is not grieved is a loss that continues to haunt.
When people think of their grief as a weakness or feel the emotions are too powerful for them, they repress it and can become irritable, difficult, moody, sullen, depressed, and experience very difficult personal relationships. They can use chaotic and dramatic relationships to avoid the pain deep inside. They will keep the outsides in as much as an uproar as possible to avoid the sorrow inside. Their life becomes a complete mess over which they have no control. Unresolved grief NARROWS the life scope. You start to lose your ability to choose because you are on the run from your grief and that is what fuels (unconsciously) your moves and your choices.
Resolved losses ENLARGE the life scope. You become willing and able to choose healthy things because you are not afraid of the grief process. You have weathered that storm, you know there is sunshine after the rain and you are stronger and better for it.
Each loss that goes unresolved increases the neurotic responses and the person becomes more and more detached from their own emotional system. If the losses are ever to be fully grieved, it will take great work.
Healthy mourning involves letting the human emotional immune system rid the system of the feeling of loss and resolving this loss, this time, for good. That involves allowing the symptoms to happen.
At first there is a disbelief that the loss has occurred. This is the first phase of grief. The body and mind shuts down and refuses to deal for a time. It could be a minute, a day, weeks or months. Some people stop right there and the grief process is forever inhibited.
After the mind settles in that a loss has occurred, the middle phase begins. Freud called it the “painful bit-by-bit process of letting go.” Grief involves a process of “review and relinquishment.” Often people will say, after a breakup, “why can’t I stop thinking of him/her?” and that is not because they can’t get over it, but because the review process is well under way. DON’T STOP IT and don’t act on it. Just let it be. Yes, it is crazy making when you can’t stop thinking about the ex…journal about it, talk about it, walk the floors and wring your hands, curse the process but let the process happen.
The review and relinquishhment process results in what John Bowlby called the “buffeting of emotion” or what Therese Rando calls “the rollercoaster ride of grief.” This is when, like having a cold, the mind is doing its utmost to work through the loss and is necessary to restore balance to the emotional system. It is intensely painful but extraordinarily necessary. You will feel anger, sorrow, confusion, disorganization, anxiety, and a host of other emotions. You may feel like you’re going crazy or that the pain will never end. You’re not going crazy and it will end. But in this intense middle period you need to take cold medicine to lessen the symptoms. You go to therapy, to support groups, to book references, to friends, to family. You look for support to help you get through the difficult middle phase of grief. You need to seek people to help you, otherwise you will run from it and not see it through.
Sometimes, as with the common cold, when the symptoms get really bad, you just have to surrender to it…maybe go to bed for a day…just let yourself go down for the count and minimize your activity during the blitzkrieg of suffering. Sometimes taking a mental health day (or two ) or week is what you really need. Stay in bed, eat soup, watch mindless TV….allow yourself to just chill out while the great offensive is taking place. That is what you do when you have a cold and it is inhibiting your ability to function. Sometimes you need to do that in the thick of the grief process.
The final phase of grief is called integration…you accept the loss into your life and you see yourself moving on. Occasionally you may be thrust back into the middle phase of grief but you understand it is temporary and that you are moving forward.
People who have worked through a loss often experience a profound reorganization of their lives. They sometimes change jobs, return to school, move to another state or get serious about their life plans and life goals. They are renewed and invigorated. Most importantly, they are not afraid of loss, they know they can work through it. They make healthier choices because they are no longer on the run. Their lives become fuller, richer, and more meaningful.
Grief is a medicine.
If you’ve had a loss, let the grief process happen. It will restore you and allow you to get on with the business of becoming the person you were meant to be.