Grief is a normal part of human psychology. You wouldn’t know that from watching how grieving people are treated, though. There is a growing trend to consider grief a pathology, and to treat it as though it was a mental illness, or a personal weakness.
Had a death in the family? You might get a day off work to go to the funeral. They might even let you take sick leave for a few days, or a week. Beyond that, though, you are expected to show up and be productive, as though nothing happened.
Anything else that might cause grief – the end of a relationship, death of a pet, loss of a home, and so on – you don’t even get one day off work to process your grief. (Of course, there are caring and empathetic employers out there, who don’t follow these norms, but we are looking at the culture overall, on average.)
Friends aren’t much better, often. They bring casseroles for the first few days, come to the funeral and say the right things, and then they expect you to get on with life as normal within a week or two. If it’s the end of a relationship, or the loss of a home, they might even start immediately with bypassing comments like “look on the bright side, now you can find something better …”
When it comes to grief, we are expected to manage it in our own time, and mostly on our own.
Remember that there is no statute of limitations on grief. You are entitled to grieve in your own way, in your time, for as long as you need.
What is grief?
Grief is a set of emotional responses which happens whenever we are required to let go of a future we have invested emotional energy into. The more emotional energy we have invested in a future, the stronger the emotions of grief will be as we reshape our emotional landscape to erase that future.
We invest emotional energy into a future by imagining it, making plans, or just unconsciously expecting it to happen. As an extreme example, we might hate and fear an abusive parent, and be planning to escape from home as soon as possible. At the same time, we unconsciously expect that parent to be there every morning when we wake up. If that parent dies, we might be relieved that the abuse is over, but we will still experience grief because of our deep, unconscious expectation that our parents will be around forever.
The emotions which arise when we are grieving can be confusing, because they can appear contradictory.
It is important to remember that the emotions of grief are markers for our process of letting go of a future, and they don’t need to match up to anything real that is happening how, or that happened in the past. The emotions of grief are “free floating” – they don’t need a particular object. In fact, the grieving process goes faster when we actively prevent the free-floating emotions from latching on to any person or event.
Stages of Grief
While grief is described as having “stages”, we don’t pass neatly from one stage to the next. We switch around between 2-4 stages at any point in time. The proportions change over time. The early stages are a bigger percentage at first, and the later stages come to be the biggest proportion as time passes.
The denial phase comes first, and generally passes within a few days. In this phase, we simply forget that the loss has happened. We repeatedly remember, with the same force of shock as when we first heard the news.
The denial phase can be extended indefinitely if the loss isn’t due to death. We can remain in denial about a relationship break-up for much longer than a few days. While we hold the belief that our lost future may still happen, we maintain that future as an object in our emotional landscape, and the grieving process slows down. It may even stall completely.
Free-floating anger is a significant element of the early stages of grief. When someone has died, particularly if they did nothing to cause their own death, it can be disturbing to find ourselves being angry at them for dying. This is completely normal, and it will pass.
When a relationship has ended, it is easy to attach the anger to our ex, and make lists in our mind of the ways in which they wronged us. While this is a seductive process, it is not a healthy way to grieve. The anger will move through much faster if it remains free-floating, without any particular object. In truth, we are angry that our anticipated future has been taken from us, and it really doesn’t matter how that future was taken.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described the grieving process which takes place when a person is told they have a terminal illness. She described a stage she called “bargaining”, where people construct “deals with God”. If I become vegan, my cancer will go away. If I forgive all my enemies, I will be cured.
When someone has died, we can’t bargain with God in quite the same way. This stage manifests as obsessively going over the past in our mind, over and over. On some level, we are hoping that we can find a way to make it turn out differently. Of course, we can’t.
However, if we happen to find something specific we did, or didn’t do, we can attach this emotion to that memory. Again, as with anger, it is much more healthy to allow the guilt/bargaining energy to remain free-floating. Punishing ourselves emotionally for doing or not doing something gives us the illusion of having control over the loss. These illusions are temporarily comforting, but they keep us trapped in unresolved grief.
When we think of grief, it is the sadness we most easily understand. The sadness can last for a long time. It will appear from moments in the early stages, amongst the more intense denial, anger and guilt. As time goes by, if we don’t attach the more intense emotions to anything, sadness will become the dominant emotion.
Sadness can manifest “out of nowhere”, when we have been moving through acceptance for quite some time. This is normal. Reminders such as birthdays, holidays, and objects with personal significance can trigger sadness, even decades later.
Acceptance is the emotion which manifests when we have reclaimed enough emotional energy from the lost future to start creating something new.
Even after we have felt acceptance, we will still cycle back through the other stages. Over time, we will spend a greater and greater proportion of our time in acceptance.
Grieving a Relationship
When we have ended a relationship, we will be required to carry on living as normal while we grieve. We may be pressured to throw out mementos, start dating again, or make other radical changes.
It is very important to give yourself time and permission to grieve fully before starting to move forward. In the chaotic emotions of grief, we may not make the best decisions for our long-term future.
That’s not to say you should be a hermit for a year or two. By all means have a rich social life, including dating and romance if it feels right for you. Just be prepared to excuse yourself if you find yourself doing things that aren’t yet comfortable for you.
Often, in the course of a relationship or a break-up, we lose touch with our true self. Some people are completely out of touch with their true self from childhood, and rely on partners to give them direction and certainty. Others have a good connection to their true self, but find it is disrupted by stress, conflict, too many compromises, or betrayals.
Whatever else happens after the end of a relationship, it is essential that you re-establish your connection with your true self. This is your “inner wisdom”, the guide which will help you navigate the next stage of your life. The relationship or the break-up may have disrupted that connection, and you will need it for the next stage of your journey.
If you are someone who has always struggled to “find yourself” or to “go within”, times of grief are a golden opportunity. When everything is thrown into chaos, you have an opportunity to rewire your brain in new ways. Rather than going back to coping strategies from earlier in life, you can find your core – your inner strength – and create a new life which suits you much better than anything you have experienced in the past.