Good Grief

Mar 19, 2010   //   by Steve Wooding   //   A Slice of Lemon, Articles  //  1 Comment

IN SHORT: Losses, great and small, bring grief that if denied will lock us into limbo between past and future; we need to allow ourselves to accept the loss and grieve before we can move on to whatever life has in store next.

“You can clutch the past so tightly to your chest that it leaves your arms too full to embrace the present.”

[Jan Glidewell]

“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of overwhelming grief… and unspeakable love.”

[Washington Irving, 18/19th century American writer & author]

(1069 words: approx. 6-10 mins to read)

Roughly a year ago a good friend of ours told us she was dying. She has a terminal form of cancer, and the general prognosis was that she had until February this year left. She is still going and fairly strongly too, but as you may expect that announcement carried an emotional weight that many of her friends and family are still coming to terms with.

The time will come for friends and family to grieve, and grief is a good thing.

We all go through changes of one sort or another, changes that mean one phase or stage of our lives is ending and another is beginning. Just in case you’re wondering, I’m not talking about ‘this world’ and ‘the afterlife’ – I’ll leave that for sermons..!

What I am talking about are changes that mark a significant shift in the people we’re with, the place we live or work, or the life we lead in general. These changes can come from moving from one job to another or one home to another, as many of us have done. They can come from finishing a university course and leaving behind the lifestyle and friendships we developed. They can come from starting a family with the arrival of your first child, and the shift in priorities and lifestyle that come with it. And yes, they can come from losing someone significant in your life, whether through death or simply because they move away or the dynamic of your relationship changes in some way.

Whenever we lose something meaningful we experience grief, and grief is a good thing.

There’s a small problem though and it’s simply that most of us don’t associate grief with anything other than death, so we tend not to recognise it in other ‘smaller’ losses. But it’s still grief, just not as intense – a ‘little grief’ if you will.

Grief has a positive and useful purpose, despite it not feeling pleasant or positive whist you’re going through it. However, grief isn’t actually a single emotion – it’s a mixture, and grieving isn’t a ‘thing’, it’s a process.

There are three important steps to grieving, though they’re not necessarily separate stages and may overlap.

1. An emotional response to the loss

The emotion we feel during the first step is usually sadness – fairly obvious you may think. However, when you remember what you DO when you’re sad, it starts to make sense.

Sadness has us step back from our normal routine and spend time thinking about what things used to be like, before this happened. This gives you a chance to go over that stage in your life, that place, that relationship, and pull out of it all those things you want to carry with you. It’s almost like sorting through a room full of stuff to find the best, most useful bits and pieces, or looking through a pack of holiday photographs to pick the best ones and put them in an album. It gives us a chance to reflect and create positive memories.

Our sadness might also be preceded, followed by or mixed with anger and / or fear.

We may feel anger because we feel the loss is somehow unjust, unfair on us or them. Perhaps we may not understand at first how they could leave us, or because we couldn’t or didn’t control the situation. Maybe we blame someone else for the change that’s happening.

And fear can come simply because we’re not sure what the future will hold, or how we’ll cope without the person who’s left or the things we once had or did.

All these are natural responses and should not, indeed must not, be denied as and when they surface. However, when they do arrive they need to be handled carefully and appropriately. Otherwise emotions like anger, if vented and expressed without control, can cause unnecessary hurt and pain. They also need to be given adequate time to be processed, like a broken leg has to be set and given time to heal properly before trying to walk on it again – you risk breaking it if you’re impatient or deny what’s actually happening.

2. Uncertainty during the transition

Change or loss brings a period of transition which can either be resisted or accepted. Our natural tendency is to try to keep as much of life as possible just the same as it always has been, simply because it’s familiar and easy. But when change comes, especially when we lose someone close to us, life often changes radically and there’s only so much that can be maintained as it was before. The more significant a part of our lives was played by what we’ve lost, the less can be expected to remain constant.

Unfortunately, the longer we try in vain to hold on to a past that is passed, the more pain we cause ourselves and those around us who’re affected too. Instead we need to acknowledge that there will be some uncertainty as we work through the area of life that change, that loss, has impacted and discover what has to be let go of, what can be tweaked a little, and what can actually be kept.

However, it’s important for anyone grieving, irrespective of the ‘size’ of the grief, to have some continuity, to have something or someone that provides a thread of certainty – a rock of sorts – during the transition. This could be a person, a place, a routine, a faith – something stable that can be relied on not to change.

3. Acceptance of the new stage of life

As the emotions of grieving begin to subside, new patterns are slowly but surely established, and we start to move into a new stage or period in life. We develop an acceptance that this is the way things are now, that this is ‘normal life’. And that acceptance brings with it a transformation of the painful recollections of loss into positive, useful memories that we can recall with gratitude and perhaps even joy.

All this takes time. But most important of all, it takes an acknowledgement that you are grieving, no matter how small or large, how incidental or deeply intense it may seem. The important thing is to allow it to take that time and to be patient with yourself.

Above all, grief is a sign that you care, and that can only be a good thing.


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