25301 Alicia Parkway
Laguna Hills, CA 92653
I had a woman call me the other day inquiring about grief support for herself and her family after the death of a family member
Her Mom had died several years prior and she doesn’t think she grieved very well back then. She really wants to make sure her family can talk through their grief this time. She mentioned to me over the phone that she wants to understand the “stages” of grief. This is a question, and similar ones, I get quite often: “What stage of grief should I be in?”, “Am I doing this right?”, “When will I be done grieving and find closure?”
Here’s a brief overview of how the popular 5 Stages of Grief theory come into being. In the 1960’s Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross wrote a book title “On Death and Dying” in which she detailed her theory, based upon her vast experience working with and interviewing terminally ill patients, of the five stages of grief. Her stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Over the past 50 years, most modern theories on grief have moved away from this linear model of thinking that we need to experience one “stage” of grief before we can move on to the next “stage”. We see grief as much more fluid, multi-determined and highly individualized. While a griever may absolutely experience any of these “stages”, he or she may not experience them in any particular order. We may even experience all of these “stages” and more within a single day or week. Members of the same family often experience grief in very different ways too.
That’s the danger of thinking of grief in a very linear, steppingstone way; “If my feelings aren’t mirroring this order then I must be doing it wrong.” The bottom line is our grief is unique to us and there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong way to grieve. Grief is our normal and natural response to a loss. It’s a process of adaptation - a life transition. While the sharp edges of grief usually soften over time, we will intermittently experience grief following a significant loss for the rest of our lives.
When it comes to grief, there is no rule book and no time frame. It’s as individual as our fingerprints. Theories and models are just that and nothing more - theories; they are simply tools to help us better understand what we are feeling. We feel a million things when we are grieving, including joy and those other feelings we label as “good”. Our grief is our grief; it’s never easy, yet it’s never right or wrong. It simply just is. There are moments of devastation and despair, but when we allow ourselves to sit with our emotions, we gain confidence that we are not a failure, that we are not doing it “wrong”, and that we are not going crazy. Rather, we begin to understand that grief is a part of life, and it is a storm we will weather.
Make space for your grief, carry it with you, learn to live with it and maybe, just possibly, even thrive despite it.
I was driving to work one chilly February morning and the radio talk show host mentioned that there were only 45 weeks left in the year. The number struck me; we had just begun the new year yet 45 weeks seemed so short to me when I heard it.
It’s amazing how mindset changes our perspective on things. If the radio announcer had said there are 315 days left in the year, I would have continued my drive into the office and never given it another thought.
45 weeks! What would I change? How differently would I live my life if I knew I had only 45 weeks left? I like to believe that I would live more freely, more in the moment. I hope I’d be better at focusing on the here and now rather than worrying so much about the future holds for me.
Over this past year COVID-19 has stolen so many moments, stolen our ability to be together, stolen our ability to be close to those we love. So many people are struggling with too many losses, struggling to make decisions, struggling to process so much that has been taken away from us. Through it all we’ve carried on and done what we can to alleviate the suffering. Yet, our resilience has come at a high price. Have we wished an entire year of our lives away? Have we lost 45 weeks? Have we sat impatiently waiting for our happiness to return yet ultimately sacrificing our wellbeing?
Martin Seligman, a leading authority in the field of Positive Psychology, makes an important distinction between happiness and wellbeing. He says that those who live with the ideal of a happiness principle focus just on increasing happiness (satisfaction) while eliminating things that detract from it. He suggests, in a world filled with things we cannot control that may decrease happiness and satisfaction, that it is crucial that we look to our wellbeing. This is about our relationship with our thoughts and feelings.
A sense of wellbeing, he says, is not just about having positive emotion. Rather, he says it is about a life that also includes engagement, relationships, meaning, purpose, and accomplishment. These things will not always be easy or bring us a sense of happiness. There will be moments of devastation and despair. But a strong sense of wellbeing will allow us to sit with those emotions and have confidence that they are not a failure, but a part of life; they are storms we will weather, with faith in our ability to survive.
Did we spend the last year searching for happiness in the midst of despair rather than focusing on our wellbeing despite it? 45 weeks gave me a better perspective on what is really important; engagement, relationships, meaning and purpose. It’s helped me realize that it’s time to focus less on what I should do and focus more on what I really want to do with the time I have. Thinking about death teaches us that life is a gift, a gift we need to give ourselves.
How do we make space for our grief while also being present during the holiday season?
Being present means we are mindful and aware of what is happening at this moment; our mind and body are both in the “now”. It sounds so simple yet for those of us who are grieving, we see the challenge in this right off the bat; how can I focus on the “now” when yearn I for the past and worry about the uncertainty of the future?
Often in our grief, we vacillate between thoughts of the past and the future, struggling to focus on our here and now; simply biding time until we feel a shimmer of happiness again. Maybe it’s possible to do more than just pass the time and truly engage in our present, even as we grieve.
The Dual-Process Model of Coping, developed by Stroebe and Schut (1999), theorizes that most people experience normal grief as a back-and-forth process between loss-oriented and restoration-oriented coping.
Loss-oriented responses include feelings, thoughts and actions that make us think about our loved one and recognize and accept the loss itself. Examples of loss-oriented coping include crying, talking with others about the death, visiting the cemetery or place of interment, and focusing on memories of our loved one. While restoration-oriented responses include learning new skills, taking on new roles, and forming new relationships that are post-loss life events that the bereaved experience. Examples of restoration-focused coping include learning to manage household finances, finding a new job, learning to cook, and accepting our new identity as a widow or widower.
A key component of this this model is that we continually shift our focus from loss-oriented coping to restoration-oriented coping and then back again, over and over. It focuses on the dynamic process of grieving that is natural to each of us, including oscillating between confronting our loss and avoiding it. By giving ourselves permission to experience both modes of coping, we maintain an emotional balance and work through our grief in a healthy manner.
What appeals to me is that this model explains that it’s okay to take breaks from our grief. Sometimes we are able to face it head on and other times we give it a backseat as we focus on life tasks. It ties in so deeply with the importance of self-care. So much of self-care is finding balance and being aware of our current coping abilities.
By focusing on the present, on the moment we are in, we actually cope better with our grief than if we try to avoid the painful emotions altogether. Here are some tips for staying present:
Are you on course? Are you finding ways to engage this holiday season in ways that are meaningful and uplifting to you or are you just going through the motions? I hope you give yourself the gift living in the moment this holiday season.
There are few periods that are as difficult for those who are grieving than the holidays, starting with Thanksgiving and culminating with the New Year.
Here are a few tips to not just cope with your grief during the holidays, but to engage in your grief and grow in it.
Admit the holidays are hard
Holidays are hard under the best of circumstances. We tend to eat more poorly, over-commit to activities, and struggle with meeting all the expectations we think others have. But when you’re grieving, what is normally manageable can become overwhelming. The beginning point is acknowledging that you can’t do everything and be everything that everybody expects.
Make your plans and check them twice
Give yourself the gift of anticipation. Determine where the most difficulties will lie. Mark down on your calendar which days are going to be most difficult for you. Just pinpointing those days helps suck the wind out of them. Renegotiate the rules – maybe pass the torch of hosting the meal. Take an active role in deciding how the day will go.
Consider the cost of withdrawal
Move toward people and not away. You might feel like avoiding people and putting limits on your socializing is surely a good idea. But be careful about avoiding others all together; the cost of withdrawal is high. Instead of always avoiding people, explain what you need and work to do some things others want just because you are in relationship with them.
Create something new
One thing that makes the holidays so hard is that at every turn we are reminded that what used to be is no longer. Holidays are steeped in tradition; use this time to create something new. New rituals, observances, or routines help you mark this new chapter of life. Donate to a cause, volunteer, use your talents to help someone else. Use symbols and ritual; light a candle, tell stories, make a favorite meal. In addition to traditional holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, anniversaries and other special days can be extremely hard. Creating rituals around these days can be comforting.
Contemplate your spiritual roots
Grief is a spiritual experience and the holidays have roots in who we are spiritually. Recapture that in your grief. Worship, reading, prayer or meditation might help you restore balance during the holiday season.
Take good care of your physical well-being
This can be especially hard during the holidays, yet it is incredibly important. Eat well – make sure your nutrition is healthy in content and avoid or limit caffeine, alcohol and processed sugars. Exercise – walk, play a sport, work out; move your body every day. Rest – remember your body knows what it needs. If you’re eating right and exercising appropriately, you might just find the sleep takes care of itself.
Reach out for assistance
The vast majority of us eventually do fine with our grief. If you are feeling stuck, reach out for support. Grief support groups are available throughout Orange County and online.
Our grief is never finished. Holidays and special days may bring a tinge of grief and sadness forever. Reframe your thoughts to see this as powerful and cherished gifts. Remember to “make a list and check it twice” – planning and preparing for these difficult days helps ease the anxiety associated with them. It’s ok to do what YOU want and not what you think you SHOULD do. Rather than avoiding grief, pursue an open relationship with it. Too often we set up strict structures for ourselves to feel control, to convince ourselves that “this is the way grief gets done,” and we miss the beautiful fluidity of moments and memories that burst up and surprise us with the pain and shimmer of past joy.
25301 Alicia Parkway
Laguna Hills, CA 92653
First, if you are grieving the death of someone you love, let me offer my heartfelt condolences to you. These are unprecedented times in which your grief is compounded by the uncertainty surrounding us.
When I speak on the topic, I refer to losing our “North” when we are grieving. When we are grieving our world feels turned upside down. Our task is to find our “North” again; not to recover because “recovery” means to go back to how things were before our loss. Rather, we enfold our loss into our lives. The end game is not to get over it, to find closure, or move on... it’s to find renewal. Grief has no timeline; it lasts as long as it lasts. We learn to integrate our loss into our lives, yet we will always grieve someone we love.
Grief, by definition, is a keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss; sharp sorrow; painful regret; a cause or occasion of keen distress or sorrow. Grief is a normal and natural response to the loss of someone (or something) important to you. Grief is a process of adaptation; a life transition. It’s individual – I may have some letters after my name, designating me as an expert, yet you are the “expert” of your own grief – it’s unique to only you.
So here we are, in a world of uncertainty, and I am struck by the fact that what we are feeling individually and collectively as a nation and a world sure feels an awful lot like grief.
While we grieve this global health crisis, it’s important for each of us to honor our own sadness and loss. We each are grieving individual losses such as work, social activities, school, and physically being with people we love. It’s easy to feel selfish or guilty for grieving individual losses in the midst of a pandemic the likes of which most of us have never experienced in our lifetime.
Brene Brown has a powerful quote, “You can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability.” Identifying and acknowledging our feelings is a positive coping strategy. It’s ok and perfectly normal to say, “Life is difficult right now.” Honoring our individual losses allows us to also seek out and recognize moments of gratitude in the midst of our pain. A little gift left on our front porch, walking the dog, listening to nature, watching an old classic movie, a long conversation with a dear friend. It’s ok to grieve our individual losses while allowing ourselves joy in the midst of our grief.
It’s so important for us to focus on what we can control in a world that seems wildly out of control. Ritual speaks when words fail. Ritual, symbol, and connection help us on our grief journey. As we shelter in place, we are missing many of our daily rituals and connection with others; our gyms and fitness studios, clubs, favorite restaurants, sports, family gatherings. Find ways to incorporate new rituals into your life. Facetime, Zoom or Skype with your golf buddies, join a free online yoga class, utilize technology to virtually share a favorite meal with family and friends. As I’m writing this, I am looking forward to my first-ever “virtual happy hour” with my neighbors.
As the whole world grieves, let’s allow our collective need for patience and grace. Don’t minimize your losses. Stay connected - practice physical distancing yet maintain social connectedness. We are resilient, we will get through this, and it will transform us. It’s our “new normal.”
Stay well and take care of yourself.
25301 Alicia Parkway