Grief: A Template (part 2)

When you lose someone, you may hear things like,
“Time heals all wounds.”
“I know just how you feel.”
“You’re doing so well. You’re so strong.”
“You’ve got to pull yourself together and move on.”

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Well-intentioned people may try to comfort you with cliches. Good-hearted people may try to relate your loss as shared, or to a loss they once experienced, but their words might miss you and your experience. This might feel connective, or it might feel alienating even offensive. You may only be able to reply with a ‘thank you’, or you may not be able to say anything at all. There may be awkward and uncomfortable silences, where nobody knows what to say. Words may become useless, and yet somehow the world keeps turning and you still exist. Still, it may remain incomprehensible, but it is also something you know.

And sometimes, instead of feeling apart from them, a belonging is felt, and you experience being a part of them. You may feel connected and held by the love around you. Maybe you feel your own love for the person you lost, and their love for you. Maybe you feel a sense of okay-ness or wholeness, connected by something greater. Maybe here, the pain you’ve known is met and soothed by a healing force or existence that brings ease. Or, maybe you will feel a combination of these experiences. Or maybe none of these experiences.

You’re not doing it wrong.
There is not a right way and there is not a wrong way to grieve.

In pop culture, I see illustrated a more accurate portrayal of people coping with grief than any model of grief I have come across.

What’s normal?
Life falls apart.
They…

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…feel crazy, isolate themselves to avoid more pain and loss, pretend everything is okay, become angry and bitter, over-work, create art, volunteer, start to pray, cease to pray, get a tattoo/s, dance, avoid all mention or memory of the person, use drugs, dream of them, “see” them in crowds, stop sleeping, experience memory loss or amplification, obsess about death, obsess about the one they lost, feel guilty for not thinking of them, run marathons, write books, talk to the dead, behave recklessly and fearfully, experience physical pain, talk to friends, get sick, self harm, abuse alcohol, feel numb, get depressed, spend more time with family and friends, plant a tree, feel more connected to nature, blame the unblamable, have strange emotional responses, sob and cry and scream, break things, think magical what-if thoughts, feel stuck and unable to comprehend going on, fulfill promises made, become an activist, repeatedly listen to old voicemails and watch videos and look at the pictures of their loved one, feel guilty for experiencing joy and pleasure, dread the death anniversary every single year, write an album, get sober, have an identity crisis, get a support animal, leave themselves and search, live in imagination, keep their memory with them in lockets and rings, escape into video games, have strained relationships with close friends, move away, celebrate the loved one’s birthday, rage, make an altar or a box, sleep a lot, feel suicidal, join a support group, quit smoking, start smoking, keep rooms or belongings like museum pieces, destroy all physical reminders, get angry for being left behind, sleep in their loved ones clothes, have a lot of sex, join a gang, leave the military, create community, replay the last moments over and over, feel powerless, get lost in overwhelming chaos, minimize and compare their experience, judge themselves, feel they are doing it wrong, and they love themselves…. All of these coping mechanisms are normal, natural responses to the pain of disconnection and loss.

There is no one or right way to experience this kind of pain. In animals, we see species-specific evidence of grief and mourning:

  • a group of 27 adult giraffes holding a vigil for one dead baby giraffe

  • elephants coming back to the remains of family members, visiting their bones and at times rocking them back and forth

  • a mother orca swimming with her deceased calf for 17 consecutive days.

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In grief, both humans and animals exhibit behaviors adverse to survival: retreating from socializing, sleeping and eating less, withdrawing, exposing oneself to danger and prey.

If anything, our animal friends illustrate and normalize the pain of loss. They mirror back to us how strong grief is, necessitating coping mechanisms and behaviors tied to suffering. There are forms of coping that are socially accepted as healthy; some even admired. There is still not a wrong way to grieve. There are consequences to forms of mourning and soothing one’s pain that are more harmful to one’s health than others. Some people may need help relating to their pain, this is normal.

Therapy is not for everyone, but it can be a place to help hold your experience, to share the weight of your sorrow – however it shows up. The truest most accurate model of grief comes from within you. Therapy cannot and will not take away your grief. A therapist cannot hand you a healing template, but they can help you build and understand your own. They can help you to build a relationship with your grief, and bring kindness to your struggles and coping. They can help you to be with the reckonings and the paradoxes, and support you in your right way.


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Will S.E Williams is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with the Center for Mindful Psychotherapy. Will offers holistic and depthful therapy that is both affirming and collaborative. To learn more about Will’s practice, please visit http://sewilliamstherapy.com/.

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