Grief is likely to be one of the most intense emotional experiences any of us face in our lives. Grief is an often overwhelming, powerful instinctive response to a loss, and its power can be particularly significant when that loss is sudden or unexpected, or when we have lost someone or something utterly central to our life and wellbeing. Grief is sometimes expected and predicted, but equally it can take us by surprise in the depth of response or emotion we have for something or someone. Like a tidal wave of emotion, it can knock us off our feet and leave us floundering, unable to function and feeling like we might go under and drown in the swirl of what we are feeling.
We often underestimate what grief is about. Far more than ‘just’ an emotional reaction, grief is our experience of the need for our minds to do a massive work of processing, understanding and adjusting. It is about what we need to work through when the entire foundation of our life has been disrupted. And whilst it is focused on the loss that has triggered the response, it is often as much about wider questions that has left us needing to explore as well - if this can happen, what else might? Is anything stable or secure? Is everything at risk?
Grief is powerful, and it is also demanding. Think of it as a restructure of your mind, a putting back together of the foundations your life has been built upon. Very often whilst in the most intense periods of grief people report some of the normal functions of their mind just don’t operate as well as normal - so you might notice your memory is rubbish, or your ability to focus or pay attention to things is almost zero. Try not to worry - these are normal things to experience. If you are supporting someone through grief it is these things that may be the most useful things you can help with - the practical demands of everyday life, the things that need to be organised or remembered - helping with making plans, sorting out other members of the family, feeding pets and children, keeping up with washing or shopping or other chores.
We need to cut ourselves and our minds some slack in moments of loss and grief. It is a season of hard work, emotionally and cognitively - so it takes time. You may have heard about ‘stages’ of grief - but the truth is every loss is different, and even in the same loss, each individual’s journey through is different. Whilst there are common things people experience, when and how they hit can be unpredictable or inconsistent. Grief is about allowing yourself to respond, to feel, to experience the things you need to so that your mind can process. And of course, finding the support you need to enable that, and to keep you safe throughout, however long that takes.
So - everyone is different, but here are 5 things which you may experience as part of your grief journey:
Yes, this one is a bit obvious. But sadness ebbs and flows, from days it feels like a background ‘colouring’ of everything, to moments or longer periods where it hits so hard it feels like you cannot breathe. Try to find safe spaces where you can share your sadness. Great friends, moments alone, safe spaces of prayer and calm. Its normal to wrestle with your sadness, and to feel you have to fight with it and worry about letting it ‘take over.’ If you are finding the pain and magnitude of your sadness frightening, or if you worry you might be overcome with it, company is especially important - and some people find a therapeutic space for grief counselling can place safe boundaries around that expression of sadness, and offer professional guidance so you know you are safe in letting it bubble to the surface.
This is often more unexpected. But grief and loss are huge triggers for your stress system - the shock of what has happened, the practical demands of managing what comes next and all those questions it raises. Expect your mind to be in a slight ‘emergency mode’ at first. This means you might find your anxiety more easily triggered than usual. You might find it hard to relax - or find your mind ‘ticking over’ worries or needing to check that people or things around you are ok in ways you normally wouldn’t. When stress and anxiety levels are high, you might find some situations or spaces just too overwhelming or stimulating - so try not to worry about this. Allow yourself to take things slowly and quietly, and where possible create some space and time before you have to return to those more demanding places. Heightened anxiety can be quite alarming - try not to worry, your mind will settle. But if it is having a significant impact - if you are struggling to function or sleep, for example, do talk to your GP who will be able to offer more support.
This one is awkward. Of all the emotions that feel ‘acceptable’ after a loss anger is probably the one we least want to be part of the mix. But anger is a very important human response to things we did not want to have happened. Anger can erupt out of the blue, or be slightly misdirected towards people or things that are not really responsible for it. But it is important we do find an outlet for it, and perhaps a space we can try to work out where it is really
coming from. Unexpressed anger can be like blowing air into a balloon - eventually it will burst and all come out! If you feel anger rising, try to grab yourself some space to take a breath and calm down. It’s all too easy otherwise to get pushed into a rage or a rant and say or do things you’ll later wish you hadn’t. Manage the anger by finding someone who can hold it with you, and can let you express all the frustrations in your head without it having those negative consequences. And by the way - it’s ok to be angry with God. The Bible is full of examples of people who expressed their anger to God in prayer. So don’t feel bad about that - but if you’re struggling, do find someone who can help you - a priest, church leader, member of the pastoral team or just a really good friend who will pray with you.
Yes, this might leave you wondering what on earth I’m on about. But in the midst of all the whirl of emotion, particularly in the early stages of grief, the thing a lot of people find hardest to deal with is feeling … nothing. That stunned, flat, ‘going through the motions’ feeling so many people hit at some point can feel very disorienting. And well-meaning people around you might also be thrown by it. ‘You need to let it out’ or ‘It's important to cry’ or ‘It’ll hit you soon’ - these kinds of statements are often all around people, and may make it feel even worse. Sometimes feeling nothing is about your mind protecting you. When the worst has happened the first stage your mind goes through is one of managing shock. It's a time for making sure you and those you love are safe, hunkering down and retreating from the world - and it's very normal in this period to find your emotions shut down. Don’t fight it or be floored by it. Instead, recognise your need to care for yourself, or if you are supporting someone else, help them by caring for them and creating that calm ‘cove’ as a safe space in the midst of the storm that has hit so suddenly. But later on as we go through grief, nothing can be less ‘marked’ and just moments where we don’t really feel anything specific or special. And this can trigger guilt - after all, surely if you really loved that person you’d be more hit by their loss? You’d be less able to return to work or manage normal things? But actually, those moments of normality are often very important as your mind tries to function, and find the everyday anchors of life which are still there in spite of what has happened. So allow yourself those moments - the emotions will inevitably return at some point, so enjoy the respite and let yourself go with the routine that feels right.
5. Good stuff
Here’s something a lot of people talk about and find harder than they ever expected. Those tricky ‘firsts’ after a significant loss. The first time they smiled. The first time they laughed. The first time they did something and realised they didn’t think about that person for a moment, didn’t feel the weight of the loss hanging over them. As we journey through grief our minds start to let go - not to forget, but to find new ways of living without. And the first few times we realise that adjustment it can trigger - ironically - a rush of some of those more negative emotions again. But even early on in grief its important to recognise that in the midst of terrible sadness and darkness there are still some good things, In fact, if you can find solace in those, capture the little lifts in your mood like snatching a breath of air when swimming in a deep sea - those things can help to sustain you. The presence of a flicker of something good does not mean the sadness isn’t still there. It doesn’t mean you don’t care. Practice holding the two things together - grief and good things are not opposites. They can exist together.
Struggling with grief?
Here are some prayers that may help - taken from the Church of England’s resources for those going through loss. You might find these helpful to say on your own, or with a friend. Or, you might want to pray them over someone else who you know is struggling.
If focusing attention is hard, or the sadness feels overwhelming, you might find it helpful to light a candle to mark a moment of prayer and recognise God is with you. And if words are just too hard, remember God knows that. Psalm 38:9 (in the Message translation) says our tears are ‘liquid words’ and that God can read them all. Don’t feel pressure to say anything if it is too hard. Just know God’s presence with you and take a moment of quiet to breathe that in.
the shadow of death has fallen over me
because someone I love has died.
Be with me through this time,
comfort me with your presence,
and let me see the light of hope,
for you promise eternal life
through Jesus Christ your son,
who died and rose again. Amen.
Life is so strange just now – I don’t know what to do.
Comfort me with your presence,
Be with all who grieve
And give us strength and courage to face this and all the days ahead.
Lord of all love,
be with me today in the stillness
and comfort me as I remember my friend.
Be with me as I look back,
remembering all whom I mourn,
and be with me as I look forward
to the journey that lies ahead.
Give me the strength to talk of hope
and the courage to show love.
In Jesus name. Amen.