If there is one emotion that I dread the most, it is grief.
Of course, no one wants to experience the intense pain and sorrow of losing a loved one. But I tend to greet grief in the worst way possible - I try to mask it or bury it by throwing myself into my work.
I’ve read enough of the research to know that this is an unhealthy - and ultimately ineffective - response to an experience that none of us can avoid. But knowing that still doesn't make it easy to face such a dark feeling.
“Busyness is an anaesthetic,” Julia told me. “And probably along with drugs and alcohol it's the most common. That's where people can really stay stuck in their grief, when they block the natural grieving process.”
Julia has worked with grieving people for decades. She began her career trying to help parents who’d experienced the profound loss of a baby or a young child. She saw that confronting the full, raw force of grief was a far better option than seeking some way to blunt it.
Much of our modern culture tries to keep death at arm’s length. Hospitals have taken dying and death out of our homes, and medical science has lulled us into the misplaced belief that death can be delayed, even into advanced old age.
“It is fascinating how we kid ourselves,” says Julia. “It's this magical thinking.”
We tend not to talk about or even think about death. So it’s not all that surprising that we’re unprepared for the pain of grief when it does strike.
Julia says we must confront the reality that death will eventually part us from our loved ones – and by acknowledging that fact we can make sure we have the kinds of conversations that will make the grief of those left behind more manageable. We can tell people we love them right now, or settle silly feuds and disagreements.
As Julia put it: “The thing that will predict good outcomes for the survivors is having those vital and tender conversations. They are the bedrock of what you will revisit for the rest of your life. And if you miss that opportunity, if you don't resolve the things or ask the things that you need to, they start to go around and around in your head endlessly.”
Grief may be a tidy word, Julia explained, but “it’s a very personal, messy and chaotic business, that brings up in us a lot of competing and conflicting feelings”.
Many of us underestimate the complexity of grieving – sometimes assuming we can pass through emotions like denial and anger in a set pattern and within a certain timeframe (a few weeks for a work colleague, a few months for a grandparent, maybe a year for a parent or partner). But the science shows that there’s no “normal” way to progress through the grieving process. Indeed, worrying that we are getting grief “wrong” or taking too long to recover is deeply unhelpful.
But what can we do to take care of ourselves during the tough process of bereavement? In my next newsletter, I’ll share specific things Julia thinks we can all do to navigate the very personal journeys that is grief.
And not just for the pain of bereavement after the death of a loved one, but the other things we need to grieve - the loss of friendships, marriages and careers, and even the little things we’ve lost during this ongoing pandemic.
As you’ll see next time, the common thread of all these strategies is that they don’t rely on dulling or dodging the painful feelings.
“The paradox is that by allowing them, over time you do heal and recover and have hope again and love again.”
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