Wednesday, June 8, 2016

"Normal" Grief Would Be Nice

I'm co-facilitating an ambiguous loss group right now so I've been thinking a lot about grief'lately. After the last group it hit me that over the last few weeks everyone had made at least one comment regarding the ways they should be grieving and expressed feelings of frustration, guilt, or failure about not grieving in that way. This idea that there's a particular way to grieve is something I've noticed in other people as well as myself. I've had thoughts that maybe something was wrong because my grief experience was longer or looked differently than others. We have ideas that grief should last a certain amount of time or should manifest itself in different emotions that occur one after the other. There's this picture of what "normal" grief looks like that we grow up believing is the only healthy way to process grief. As I've thought about it I've been realizing how unhealthy that rigidity is, especially with complicated or ambiguous loss. We would all choose to experience this "normal" grief; that's there for a short time, runs its course, and leaves us to go back to an unaltered life. But in my experience that's almost never how it works. The things we think won't bother us are the things that plague us during the day and keep us awake at night. Even when we can prepare for a loss grief can drown our well planned out ways of coping and leave us feeling hopeless. Then there's the surprise losses that come out of no where and knock us down so hard we're dazed and confused about what's up and what's down. All of that on top of it never going away, which no one wants to admit happens. We're also individually complex people. We all come from different backgrounds, grew up learning different ways of coping with life, live by different philosophies, and have different strengths and weaknesses. With all that, there's no way there would be one path to correct or normal grieving.

The dream of "normal" grief slapped me in the face a couple years ago and shook up my understanding of grieving in new ways. About two years ago I started to get sick. At first I thought it was stress but after several weeks suspected it was something more. 6 months later after taking a leave of absence from work, going through numerous tests, feeling miserable most of the time, and watching my strength slowly diminish to the point where I couldn't walk down the block I finally got a diagnosis of Celiac Disease. I knew life wouldn't be the same and that I would most likely experience some grief but thought the relief of feeling better and having answers would be far greater than the grief. Some days that was true. Other days I'd walk past the bread or beer isle at the store and start to sob. I would have never guessed something so ordinary and basic would have such a strong effect on me. I thought it was weird (I mean, it probably looked plenty weird) and it scared me. I thought "What is wrong with me? Who has a melt down when they see a loaf of bread? I know what's wrong and how to fix it so why do I feel this way? It's not a severe like other illnesses, so why can't I move on like a normal person?". As I digested the experience I realized that this was part of my grief journey. It wasn't what I was expecting but it was clearly something I wasn't going to escape. Once I realized that I stopped fighting how I thought it should be and tried to experience things in the context of my grief journey. It was mine and not someone elses grief so of course it would look differently. If I cried because I couldn't eat something then I cried. If I got angry when waitstaff didn't understand my dietary needs I'd be angry and email them later about the need for more awareness. I started to learn how to acknowledge it as grief and sit with the horrible, uncomfortable whirl of emotions because I was no longer trying to compare it to this idea that grief needed to look a certain way. It became a healthy, natural response to the loss I was experiencing. I could be both happy I was going to get better and have feelings of loss around how my life had changed. Two years later the still grief pops up at times (as grief usually does) and I have to remind myself that my grief journey continues. It's a part of my path now and I can both have it while also having a life outside of the grief. Some days that comes more naturally while other days it's a struggle to not go back to judging myself. Depending on your experience this may be the biggest challenge you will ever face or something that just takes some time to master. Again, different for each person and different for each loss a person experiences.

Our society likes to have concrete, well defined steps that lead to getting what you want. How often have you read or heard things like these are the 8 steps to make you happy, if you work hard your life will be good, if you follow these steps you will achieve success? We like things to play out in a predictable and tidy way.  I'm sure there are a few who could say their life has followed that pattern yet most people I've met don't have that luxury.  Life is messy and unpredictable even when we make carefully planned steps. There's also an idea that we can all do and experience the same things in life regardless of who we are or what we've been through. Yet if we look at our siblings we see that, even though we had the same up bringing and similar experiences, we turn out very different from each other. So, shouldn't grief also come with curve balls and differences between people? Or is that the one thing in life that follows a predictable pattern across all people? My experience and work with others points to the opposite. We never know what grief will bring us until we experience it. We can prepare and hope that what we've set in place will be beneficial for us yet we never really know how we're going to respond, how deep the grief will run, and how it will sit with us long term until we're living with it. That to me is the normal part of grief. It's normal to be surprised by what grief looks like in your life and the misery it brings regardless of how big or small the loss may be to others.

That said, there are similar feelings and experiences that can happen in grief that pull us together. For example, we may feel sadness to varying degrees and if you've experienced grief sadness you know what that feels like in your body and mind and how that may differ from sadness in other areas of life. Those similarities can draw us together. We can support each other even though our grief journey's will all look and play out differently. I argue that having a "normal" grief experience doesn't actually exist so why should we try to hold ourselves to something that's not real. What does exist is your unique grief journey, which will look different than other people's journey, and the connection we can find in others who know what grief feels like.
Thoughts by Alissa Kaasa

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