Oh, Good Grief!
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.” –C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
Have you ever lost something? Or someone? I don’t mean like losing your keys, or getting separated from your mother in the department store… I mean truly losing something. Like a part of you has gone missing. That deep pain that escapes the ability to explain it to others. It’s like your life before the loss and your life after the loss are completely different. I know I have. What do we do with that kind of loss? And what if the pain has been hanging around for a while?
The first thing to know is that grief is a normal, universal response to loss. You aren’t broken because you’re grieving! To grieve is to acknowledge that your heart was open to someone or something that was very dear to you. That openness is a good thing, and it’s only natural to feel grieved when we lose something or someone we love.
In my reading on grief I’ve encountered the work of Dr. William Worden. He has identified four “Tasks of Grief” that I find to be helpful ways to think about the experience of loss. I like that they are considered “tasks” instead of “stages” because, in my experience, grief has not always followed a straight line… sometimes it meanders, curves, and even loops back around.
Task 1: To accept the reality of the loss
Loss is difficult because it forces change upon us. Life is now different. In order to protect our bruised hearts we may find ourselves acting as though the loss didn’t happen or that it’s not all that significant. Maybe you’ve even had well-meaning friends encourage you to minimize the loss. “Now that your mom has died, you need to be strong for your family.” “So what if that lifelong career goal is no longer an option? You didn’t really want those hours anyway.” “I know the dream of having children isn’t happening like you expected… but everything else in your life is so good! You’ve got to think about the positive.” “I know you’re sad about your breakup, but there are plenty of fish in the sea.”
Whatever the loss, it’s important to acknowledge that it has happened, and that life is now different because of that. Acknowledging these losses doesn’t mean that we are getting bogged down in misery. On the contrary; it’s simply acknowledging that these people, things, or hopes were important, and that we miss them deeply.
Task 2: To experience the pain of the grief
Sometimes it’s tempting to bury our pain and focus on other things. Who can blame us… grief hurts! Who wants to focus on that!! So maybe we throw ourselves into our work. Or maybe we say we’re doing fine, and just don’t talk about our loss at all. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about pain, though, it’s that the only way past it is to go through it… living around it just doesn’t work. Allow yourself to feel the pain. If we wall it off, it tends to wiggle it’s way out in other ways.
Task 3: To adjust to a changed environment
On the other side of grief is a new normal. Things aren’t the way they were, and we can’t expect them to be. It will take some adjusting, but you can find your place in this new world. There is still life left to live! Be proactive in searching out your new roles, goals, and relationships in the new normal.
Task 4: To withdraw emotional energy from the loss and reinvest it elsewhere
When you are ready, it is important to take the energy that was previously invested in your loss and reinvest it in other relationships or endeavors. Each individual’s grief is unique, so the time frame will look different from person to person. This reinvestment is not a betrayal of the one you lost–it’s living into your power to live and love and thrive again. Don’t let the loss keep your heart closed! It is possible to live a life so protected from pain that it also unintentionally insulates us from the opportunity to find life and strength and joy on the other side of that pain. Yes, living with an open heart is risky. There might be more loss ahead. We will probably get hurt again. This is certainly true, but choosing to reinvest our emotional energy is well worth the risk.
Whatever you do, don’t walk through grief alone! If you are feeling stuck in your grief, we at The Shepherd’s Staff would be honored to help. Please contact us if we can assist you along the way.
–Matt Thames, M.A., LPC
Oh, Good Grief!