Recently, I have been facilitating a grief support group at a local church. Learning about each person’s journey with grief, through stories of resiliency, hurts and hardships, is inspirational. There is no way to capture the inspirations and thoughts from all group member’s stories in one post, but I have come up with five major takeaways:
Grief is NORMAL—Yet people think it’s not. It is very common to hear people criticize themselves for experiencing grief. The problem then compounds, as they not only are in anguish, but they judge themselves for being in anguish! It is important to realize that the process of grieving is entirely normal, including all the emotions that come with it. It is normal to feel sadness, anger, guilt, loneliness, anxiety, and denial, while also experiencing physical symptoms. Often people hide their grief. The fear of being brought to tears in public causes them to avoid social interactions completely. Or when asked how they are doing, they give the conditioned response “I’m good.” In addition to feeling judged for our grief, we can feel burdensome to others when we share about our grief, though sharing can be very cathartic and healing. I recently had a woman share that when she was in Confession, she said that she was angry with God for taking her son prematurely from her. The priest responded, “Well of course you are!” This was helpful for her to hear, because she realized she was in a very normal stage of grief.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve—A lot of people have heard of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ book “On Death and Dying” and her five stages of grief. They are very common to experience, hence Kubler-Ross categorizing them. However, sometimes people fall prey to believing they are grieving wrongly if they do not experience all forms, or in the “right” order. This is impossible to predict, and no one should feel they are grieving “wrongly”. A great example is crying: one lady criticizes herself for constantly crying, while the person next to her criticizes herself for never shedding a tear, while a third feels terrible for making those around her uncomfortable when she cries. I informed them that crying is not necessary during the grieving process, while also being perfectly normal and nothing to be ashamed about. Crying or not crying are perfectly good, and are what you may need at a particular time.
Grief is an individualized process—Grief is expressed in a variety of ways and in varying degrees. People’s grief is influenced by their personality and personal situation, including their proximity to the cause of grief. The death of a loved one, for example, will take a different journey for the spouse compared to a coworker compared to someone that experienced only a single encounter with the person. Another aspect that varies widely is where one finds comfort. Unfortunately, some very common sayings given to those in grief can be very irritating for those grieving. For example, “It is what it is” might be comforting to one person, while it may be the last thing another would want to hear. Or, “He’s in a better place now” may be helpful to someone picturing their loved one in Heaven with Christ, while it may be a harsh reminder that “I’M not in a better place without him” to another. Next depiction: a woman being told “This was just God’s plan for your son,” whereas the grieving mother disagrees saying, “I think Jesus is weeping with me at his death.” We must realize that regardless of the statements that we find comfort in, all are said with the best intentions.
Grief takes time—But can vary widely in length. No definitive time frames should be considered “normal” or “abnormal.” In Maureen O’Brien’s workbook “The New Day Journal” (the workbook used as a guide for our grief group), she suggests that most people grieve for a loved one 2-5 years. My group had mixed emotions on this timeframe. For those nearing that two-year mark, they find it comforting and hopeful. For those that have only been experiencing grief for a few months, they question how they will make it to that mark considering their suffering now, causing even more grief and feelings of hopelessness. In certain situations, I don’t think grief ever completely disappears. I think we learn to take it in strides, and use our faith to power us through, but that doesn’t imply that we stop missing those that we loved. It is important for those supporting people grieving to know this as well. Just because it has been three years since our spouse died, doesn’t mean our process of grieving is, nor should necessarily be, over.
If you are grieving, get help—This is not simply a plug for counseling. During our grief, we need to outreach our support systems. I have found that often one’s family members are the most difficult to outreach. This may be due to a need for vulnerability and humility in asking for help, or the feeling of needing to be strong for one’s family. This leads to hiding one’s true feelings. I like to suggest that those who are grieving start with your families. Often times, family members are looking to talk about their grief just as much as you are desiring. In addition to family, we need to be able to ask for help from our friends, priests, and even strangers that you meet in a grief group. There are numerous groups, resources, and centers, as well as private counseling that is accessible.