Grief and grieving are two of the most challenging emotions and processes to embrace. How to cope with grief? It’s hard to even know where to begin when you are in the process. I have cycled in and out of the 5 stages of grieving for the past six years. Bea’s diagnosis is progressive, meaning it gets worse with time, and that means I have had to find new ways to cope with grief. More specifically, the symptoms of grief and loss that I am continually experiencing.
WHAT IS GRIEF?
Perhaps there just aren’t words adequate enough to explain exactly what grief is. Although, I will do my best to describe it.
- Grief is feeling as if you are drowning in sorrow and you are just trying to tread water to stay afloat. Sometimes you may wonder if you should just quit treading and sink, because surely this is no way to live, right?
- Grieving feels like everything no matter how big or small is completely and utterly overwhelming. You do everything you can to take deep breaths and to do what must be done, but it takes every ounce of energy you have.
- Grief feels as if you are experiencing all of your senses at once and the intensity of them cranked up a million times. A commercial comes on the television for diapers could push me to tears during our grieving of infertility.
- Grieving is feeling like you are ready for the zombie apocalypse. You look like a zombie from lack of sleep and have the anger and grumpiness of those looking to stop the devastation.
Sound like a hot mess combination? That’s because it is! When your grief is combined with your spouse’s, family’s, children’s, or friends’, it is difficult to find the balance between everyone’s coping mechanisms.
5 Stages of Grieving and What’s Misunderstood about them!
These are the 5 stages of grieving:
What you aren’t told is that you can experience many of them at the same time! In addition, they don’t have to occur in that order. For instance, while grieving, I was so angry that we suffered through years of infertility only to be blessed with a child and learn that she would be taken from us by a terminal disease. By the same token, I would be crying one moment in the shower, followed by begging God to take me instead, and then shoving those emotions so far down that it was complete denial that this was even happening.
Denial is probably the least understood of the 5 stages of grieving. You see, it’s not always that we deny the existence that the loss happened. As my mother put it when my father passed away, “You go numb. Numb is easier than feeling all of this hurt.” That numbness is the body’s way of protecting us and letting us only experience what we are able a little at a time. Another example, yesterday I had to set up hospice care for my daughter. Today I must call and order a DNR and other legal medical documents. To survive this inconceivable task, my mind has laser focus. I have yet to experience the other stages of grieving with this new change of her terminal condition. I am not there yet.
Anger is a Force to be reckoned with
There are only so many acceptable ways to express your anger and cope with grief. Therefore, it is one of the hardest of the 5 stages of grieving. The traditional outlet of exercise is not always possible for those grief-stricken. Not to mention, those experiencing the anger stage may feel that their feelings are unwarranted, not beneficial to the situation, or pale in comparison to the experience of others. Anger is an emotion we can direct. It is dominant and strong, and that is easier to accept than the feeling of being weak and hurting. In addition, once you have moved through the stages of grieving, you may cycle back to anger out of guilt for “moving forward.”
When you are feeling angry, it is a natural to want to do something physical. Try this exercise to find a healthy release. Bear with me here. The good stuff happens around two minutes in!
Bargaining is found at the corner of guilt and prayer. It is when we hit the point of desperation and would promise just about anything to not be experiencing this. The morning after our daughter was diagnosed with Ataxia-Telangiectasia, I fell to my knees in the shower and begged, bargained, promised, and all but vowed to sell my soul should my child not have this condition. As things progressed, I tried to bargain my way out of the hurt of watching her deteriorate. This is a natural stage of grief and shows just how deep our love is.
Loss is depressing. I’m not sure I could ever understand someone who claimed otherwise. The intense sadness accompanying loss is all encompassing. Of the 5 stages of grieving, this one will consume you, and you will fear you may never find your way out of it! The moment it sunk in that my father was not coming back “as in never ever, not ever,” was the day it truly hit me how depressing the situation was. Becoming depressed doesn’t mean you aren’t coping, it is just a natural stage of grieving. Having the help of a professional is seriously beneficial.
Life after loss is a whole new reality. Acceptance is not about being “over” the loss, but accepting this new reality. Learning to adapt to that reality is what acceptance looks like. In practice it is the beginning of having more good days than bad. Everyone reaches this milestone in a different timeframe. Of the 5 stages of grieving, this is the one people doubt they will experience the most. As I tell my children, “You don’t have to like it, but you do have to accept it for what it is.”
What’s misunderstood about the process of grieving
I’ve said quite often that I should be up for a Tony award. After all, I must put on a happy performance daily for not just Bea’s sake but her siblings as well. On the inside I may be feeling exhausted, sad, or grumpy, but those feelings must take a backseat to making our children feel safe, loved, and as normal as possible. In short, the privately grieving me is a different version of myself than the publicly grieving one.
Without a doubt, those in bereavement make other people uncomfortable. They don’t know what to say and are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Moreover, those experiencing the bereavement are equally at a loss as to what to say. The entire situation leaves those struggling with grief feeling isolated and alone. This is completely at odds with the deep need for our emotions to be recognized. Double that statement down when the loss is a slow one as it is in our family.
A misconception is that grieving must have a clear beginning and ending point. Whether you are mourning the loss of a marriage, spouse, child, or friend, that grief is your way of staying connecting to those you lost. Moving out of active grieving can feel like dishonoring that connection. It can become a lifelong process to cope with grief.
While I do not speak for all of those mourning, I can speak for myself. Acknowledgement of the fact that what you are experiencing is hard and that you aren’t alone goes a long way in the healing process. That empathy helps to minimize some of the feelings of braving this storm alone. To the parents of the 300,000 children that were lost this year, you are not alone. Please reach out!
If you have a friend grieving the loss of a child, please read the next few sentences.
Parents who have lost a child, especially mothers, are at an “increased risk for a first psychiatric hospitalization as compared with nonbereaved parents. In fact, maternal risk of hospitalization remained significantly elevated 5 years or more after the death. Using Danish national registries, these investigators also found that mortality rates were higher among bereaved than nonbereaved parents, particularly for deaths due to unnatural causes (e.g., accidents and suicide) within the first 3 years after the child’s death.”
Be there. Be present. Friendship, love, and support are free and priceless to those that are coping with grief.
How to cope with the 5 Stages of grieving:
Understand that you are now a new person. It’s going to take time to feel comfortable in this new life and skin. It’s uncomfortable, but with a whole lot of time, slowly it will get easier. I didn’t say “easy.” I said “easier.”
It’s ok to feel overwhelmed with and by grief. Some ways to help get through feeling overwhelmed may include:
Exercise. I know! I know! Who feels like exercising when you feel like there is a giant elephant sitting on your chest? Um, not me. With that said, we can all benefit from this powerful pain in the butt (literally) tool. You can thank your neurotransmitters for your new waistline.
Going for a walk. See above but for those of us who find even the idea of cardio exhausting. Truth be told, it has major benefits like increasing blood flow, increasing your breath intake, and it removes you from a direct stressor.
Turn it off. Set down your phone, turn off the tv, and slow down. I get it. TRUST ME, I get it. Being alone with my thoughts can feel like walking into a dark alley. It’s almost asking for trouble, right? Sometimes, we all just need to turn it off and risk that alley. We need to acknowledge and work through our thoughts. While we are sorting them out, we can assess just how important each concern, worry, or feeling is and how we are going to deal with it.
Get some rest! You are welcome. I hereby give you permission to take a nap and allow your body to reset. Warning: If you have a significant other, child, or other grieving party make sure that they won’t be resentful of you for this. Come to an arrangement. He/She may also need time to do any of the above or a nap themselves. Be sure to be fair.
It’s ok to ugly cry. As a show of faith, I shall show you my ugly cry. Wouldn’t Brené Brown be so proud of my vulnerability that I am about to embrace? Sometimes you just have to tap the pressure release valve, ok? Men, hear me now. You have every single right to cry. As a wife, I am here to say, you get to experience your feelings of grieving just as much as we women do. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.
Practice mindfulness. You may prefer guided mindfulness. Head to YouTube for many options, and choose one that you find soothing and helpful prior to being in the position where you REALLY REALLY REALLY need it to be helpful.
Accupuncture, massage, herbal teas, essential oils, and all things crunchy granola oh my! Please don’t discount the proven benefits of these.
Write it down! If you feel you have too many tasks to accomplish, write each one down on an index card and then flip them all over. Pick one, and focus on that one. When you have accomplished that task, flip over the next card until they are all done. One task may not feel overwhelming but multiples certainly will!
Bring it on down. Everyone is talking, the tv is on, there is a dog barking, the dishwasher is running, and everything starts feeling too much. This is anxiety, and a way that I manage to cope with it is to turn things down. Turn off the tv, turn off the lights, give the dog a bone, send the kids to separate rooms giving everyone a mandatory time out, put on noise cancelling headphones if you must. In essence, stop yourself from overstimulating.
Find hobbies that help you cope with grief. Does escaping in a good book help? Would volunteering and channeling your inner humanitarian bring you peace? Perhaps the chance to take on a new hobby altogether brings about a challenge and shifts your focus.
Find your people and look for support groups, online or in “real life.” These people have been there or are where you are and may have seriously practical ways of helping you move past certain hang-ups and emotional hurdles. For example, how does a widow make her house feel like hers and not “theirs” to move forward? Talking with someone who has experienced this may be able to hand out invaluable advice on how to cope with grief.
When tensions are running high, it’s exceedingly easy to nitpick and not see the best in those around you or yourself. For instance, prior to grieving you didn’t mind picking up your spouse’s clothes off the floor. In contrast, now it pushes you past your limit and becomes a sticking point. What should we do?
Find a time when things are a bit calmer and talk about it. If talking isn’t going to work, write it down in a carefully penned letter. Draw up expectations and division of labor ideas. Work together and not against each other. Do not assume that it will naturally fall into a new rhythm or back to the way it was prior. Nothing is the same anymore.
Nobody’s grief or grieving feels, expresses, or looks the same. You absolutely may experiencing many of the 5 stages of grieving at once. I may feel fine and happy one moment and down on my knees sobbing the next. My feelings may or may not make any sense, especially surrounding birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries. Please be patient with yourself and to those who are steeped in grief. It’s not an easy path to walk.