The Big Ten Questions and Answers about Grief
Today we’re being very practical as we get to the heart of the matter and answer the ten “most asked” questions about grief. So, as Beethoven wished, “From the heart, may it go to the heart.”
Where does grief reside?
Oh, what a beautiful question. Grief resides in every corner and pocket of your being. When my son died, I was stunned to realize that grief is so physical. I literally felt like I had been run over by a locomotive. The body is shocked and overwhelmed by grief; the mind can’t compute the loss; the soul goes on a walk-about. You live in a state of dis-orientation and dis-connection.
How does grief change you?
“Change” is the operative word in this question, because grief absolutely does change you. Those changes, however, may be negative or positive, and that is up to each of us. Some people become bitter and hardened. It’s wisely said that “if you don’t transform your grief, you will surely transmit it”. Some people just check out and never really recover. Grief can be toxic. On the other hand, though, grief invites us to move from weakness to strength to pass through the necessary and universal darkness of loss. Indeed, few things are more empowering than claiming dominion over our lives and deciding to get well, to recover and thrive.
Which grief is the worst?
This question has a very easy answer: YOUR grief is the worst. I’ve sat in groups where a person is determined that his grief is the worst – the rest of us are just flailing about with our little broken hearts. Wow. Then there are others who believe that they don’t belong in the group because their grief “isn’t as bad as yours”. No. And no, again. Grief is not relative; we can’t compare or contrast it to anything else or anybody else’s grief. It has a life and a story all its own, and all we can do is honor it, give it adequate space, time and attention, and finally allow it to take us to a new normal. I know – that’s a cliché – but it’s true.
Who said, “Grief is the price of love”?
This quote is attributed to Queen Elizabeth II when she visited St. Thomas Cathedral in Manhattan just 9 days after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. It’s a famous and often-used quote, and I offer you a companion quote from Helen Keller: “What was once enjoyed and deeply loved, we can never lose, for all that we love deeply becomes part of us.” These quotes are like two sides of the coin of grief. Grief demands a price from us, AND it becomes a precious part of who we are for the rest of our lives. That’s the paradox and the gift.
Can grief make you sick?
It most definitely can make you sick – even very sick. In less than a year after my son died, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It was my body’s perfect manifestation of being a mother who survived her son’s death. They say it’s an unnatural thing. Many people are sick with anger, sick with depression, sick of life. Grief overwhelms the body. We must be very compassionate and tender with ourselves.
When grief is overwhelming, what can you do?
Because grief has a life of its own, it can show up in a wide variety of ways and in many guises. It can leave you numb or in shock, unable to believe what has happened. It can go sideways on you and get mean and angry. It can drain you of your own life. And grief can be, and often is overwhelming; we call these “grief bursts”. The best you can do when you’re overwhelmed with grief is acknowledge it – don’t ditch it and run – but stay with it, and above all, stay with the body. It sounds too simple, I know, but try just staying with the breath. See your breath as that bridge that connects you to your body, to that which you have lost, to life, to the deep well of peace that is within you always. Calm the mind – don’t feed the beast. You know what I mean by this: stay out of shame, blame, bargaining and so on. Stay with the body; feel it, move it; allow it to “speak” to you as it sheds layers and layers of pain and sorrow. Let the tears flow and let that energy move. Like heavy weather, it will pass. And know that there will be times like this. And there will be days like this. You will survive. Grief must be grieved. It is not a problem to be solved.
Why is grief so exhausting?
Grief is exhausting because it’s very, very hard work. Physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, grief demands attention. There’s very little energy left to do anything else. Everything is out of sync; joy has departed, and everything in your life is suffering: your relationships, health, career. The stars have left your planet and you feel lost and alone. Having said this, it’s no wonder that many folks cannot and will not take it on - until one day it’s realized that grief will wait for you. She’s like that.
What does grief do to your body?
Grief can have a hey-day with your body, including how it affects the heart, the adrenal glands, and the brain. Your immune system may be compromised, you may experience sleepless nights, loss of appetite and ability to think clearly. Inflammation often rises and, in short, your whole body is under great stress in trying to cope and function. The “broken heart syndrome” is real. It’s understandable that you feel poorly.
Are grief, sadness, bereavement and mourning all the same?
I like to think of these words as good neighbors who all come from the same country, speak the same language, and have a similar background but are slightly distinct from each other in the way they show up.
Grief is the natural reaction to loss. It has many faces, death being only one of them. Grief can affect our health, behavior, relationships and cause us to spin out in unexplainable ways. Sadness is a close neighbor to grief; it means we’re sorrowful or unhappy. We might be sad that we failed in a goal, or that we’re unhappy because an event was cancelled. It doesn’t quite have the same quality as grief, which has deeper layers. Bereavement is due to a loved one’s death. We might think of a bereaved widow – one whose husband has died. Mourning is the expression of loss. We might say that she is mourning the loss of her mother. Wearing black in some form has traditionally been seen as an expression of honor in the event of death. It is a symbol to say that we are in mourning.
Will grief ever end?
This is probably the #1 question. It certainly is the question that I asked over and over for years. So, the simple answer is yes AND no. It’s been said that time heals everything, but that’s not true. YOU are the healer, not time. Grief is a life-changer; we must honor that. If you can move through grief, as I have suggested, and not get stuck, it will season you; it will soften and tenderize you. Your heart has expanded, your strength has increased, and your compassion for the human condition has deepened you. Yes, the pain will subside; you will love life again, the stars will come back and you will laugh and love. Grief has re-shaped you; it brought you unexpected gifts, and you ARE the gift.