What I have learnt about grief
In the past few months, it’s been a privilege and honour to be invited to be part of the annual Tapestries of Grief and the International Pregnancy & Infant Loss Remembrance Day. As I supported participants in their healing process through somatic movement, breath and mindfulness, I find myself remembering my own tumultuous healing journey through grief.
Here are some personal reflections that could perhaps help people grieving, or help you to empathise with someone else going through the grieving process.
``There is no precise GPS for getting through grief`` - Sherry Walling PhD, Touching Two Worlds
Grief takes the time it takes
While there are some who feel like they need to “get it over and done with”, others wonder why are they are still grieving many months/years down the road. Whatever you have seen online or have received advice from well-meaning friends/therapists, there is no “average” time to heal, neither is there a “normal” length of time.
There is only one timeline – your own. Honour what you need and how long you need. But, allow yourself to grief. Saying “I’m fine” does no favours to anyone, especially yourself. Honour the need to grief, and honour your grief.
It’s not linear. Yes, there are stages of grief but you may go through them and then back and around again, and again.
The five stages of grief are relatively well-known – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But that framework is meant to be just that, a framework, which has recently been questioned
So yes, while it might be useful to get a sense of which stage you may possibly be in, the healing process is not linear. Sometimes we think we have a hold on it, other times the sense of unknowingness, like a deep dark black hole just keeps its grip on you and we have no choice but to surrender.
``The worst type of crying wasn't the kind everyone could see--the wailing on street corners, the tearing at clothes. No, the worst kind happened when your soul wept and no matter what you did, there was no way to comfort it. A section withered and became a scar on the part of your soul that survived.`` - Katie McGarry, Pushing the Limits
Sometimes the grieving process feels like being a frog in the well
…only it’s 3 steps forward and 10 steps back
That’s how it feels, thinking that we’ve made some progress and getting on with our lives, and then a triggering event happens and we slip down even further. When that happens, I need to remind myself that the healing process is not linear, so it’s not exactly slipping down the same well, but perhaps going sideways and diagonally – much like a tangled ball of yarn.
The next day, when the sun shines, we start climbing again. I may not see or understand it at the moment, but slipping down is still a ‘movement’ in the healing process – it’s not stagnation.
There are good days and there are bad days. And then there are bad days
On the bad days, cut yourself some slack. We don’t always have to be “progressing” on the healing journey. Put grieving on a pause. Sometimes we stay put and have ice cream, sometimes we watch a comedy and bawl our eyes out. Crying all the time can be tiring, as with trying to be strong all the time. Sometimes we taste a glimmer of joy and yet feel the guilt of it because we’re “supposed” to be grieving based on the (non-existent) Book of Societal Conditioning, and so we rush to shut it down.
Allow yourself to hold opposing emotions together, lightly, but also allow yourself to pause the grieving. This liminal space of pause and rest is sometimes the safe harbour of emotions that we need.
I think that I’m finally done, then I break down and cry again
I don’t think the grieving process actually gets done done. My measure of having reached a certain point of recovery is that I can talk about it without crying or breaking up. I speak about it with self-compassion, reminiscing the good times, speaking from a place of tender-heartedness. This is not the same as detachment, but from a place of acceptance and integration into my new life.
``It's so curious: one can resist tears and 'behave' very well in the hardest hours of grief. But then someone makes you a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was in bud only yesterday has suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer... and everything collapses.`` - Colette
Expecting people around you to understand grief makes it harder on everyone
Nobody is going to fully understand what you are going through and what you are feeling. Sometimes we don’t even know! But if we start from that, it’s easier not to expect people to know what to say. Most people feel uncomfortable in such situations and chances are they’re likely to say something that may then trigger you.
Instead, tell people what you need. If you need groceries, or your pet taken care of, or a place to stay for a few days. Ask – you may just be surprised. I was causally asking a friend about her plans over the festive season, hoping to join her. Instead she cleared space in her home, and asked me to stay over for a few days, knowing how hard it is during such times. I am forever indebted to her.
You don’t have to explain it to anyone, or you may end up having to comfort them instead
Tell people when you are ready, on your own terms. It may be hard, especially for people close to you, but when the wounds are still fresh, any comment can be mis-construed as unkind. Likewise, some people are just not good with the uncomfortable emotions around grief, and are not sure how to process it as a bystander, leaving you with the job of having to comfort them.
Everyone who has an opinion will have an opinion. Listen, smile and just nod your head
Practice this. Hone your skills to smile and nod.
If you took on every suggestion – well-meaning or otherwise, it will be a very busy and tiring process. Everyone grieves differently. Some people find peace in meditation, I couldn’t possibly sit with all my emotions then. I instead found a lot of relief playing tennis and channeling all my anger and frustration outwards.
Others may have a tendency to spout what I call “T-shirt wisdom” – popular one-liners that may have absolutely no relevance to you, or are blatantly callous.
Smile and nod, smile and nod.
Get help if you need to, and allow yourself to receive help
This is something I only realised much later on. It never occured to me to reach out to grief counsellors, or support groups. I was told (again with the T-shirt wisdom) that time heals, so I was just waiting for time to do its magic, somehow.
One step at a time. Just one.
Some days and weeks feel really really long. When that happens, I break down the time into a single day, or even a single hour. And I ask myself – What do I need to do in the next hour ? Or even in the next 5 mins ? Sometimes it is as simple as taking a shower. That’s all I can handle in my headspace, and that’s all I do. And after the shower, I ask myself, what do I need to do now ?
Just putting one foot in front of each other, left – right, left – right. Repeat.
It IS possible to move forward (even if moving on sounds hard)
Amidst all the sadness and crying, the guilt and blame, the what-ifs and if-onlys, it is possible to move forward. Whether you get help from a therapist, or a support network, read lots of books or research online, I choose to be hopeful. Yes, it is a choice to want to move forward, not knowing when and how, but a conscious choice not to remain stuck in grief, and to live in possibility.
NB: While grief typically refers to bereavement, there are other life events that can result in intense sorrow and stress – for instance, divorce/marital separation, loss of job, illness, bankruptcy or eviction.
Tapestries of Grief : national festival that aims to let people explore and experience our emotions surrounding the loss of our loved ones
Child Bereavement Support (Singapore) : an informal network of bereaved parents that provide support and friendship
Pregnancy Loss support : organises regular Pregnancy Loss Circle and support groups
Books & Podcasts
Touching Two Worlds : A Guide for Finding Hope in the Landscape of Loss by Sherry Walling
A trauma psychologist explores the inner workings of her own grief―and leaves an invaluable guide for those seeking hope in the aftermath of loss
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön
In her most beloved and acclaimed work, Pema shows that moving toward painful situations and becoming intimate with them can open up our hearts in ways we never before imagined
Motherless Daughters by
Building on interviews with hundreds of mother loss survivors, Edelman’s personal story of losing her mother, and recent research in grief and psychology, Motherless Daughters reveals the shared experiences and core identity issues of motherless women
Pieces of You
A podcast about life through the lens of four fierce and resilient women who lost their moms too damn soon.