- Mental Health
The Positive Side of Grief
What is Grief?
Grief is a complex set of emotions that occur in stages following a significant loss. Most people equate grief with the death of a loved one, but grief can also occur after the failure of a marriage, a job loss, or the death of a dream. Grief is how we as humans make sense of personal loss and tragedy, and since loss and tragedy are complex issues in and of themselves, how we process them is also complicated.
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross published her famous Five Stages of Loss many years ago, and when I educated people on the grieving process, I used her work as a primary tool because it made understanding the process a little easier. These are the Five Stages of Loss:
- Shock & Denial- in this first stage, many people say they feel as if they are a robot, or on "autopilot". The brain is trying to understand what just happened and if what happened was really true. This is the body's survival mode and what allows people to take the first important steps to do what they need to do following a loss. When I worked in the funeral business, most of the people I encountered were in this stage and trying to make funeral arrangements. We estimated that people only retained about 30% of the information we were giving them and in the days following the funeral, we constantly heard "I don't even remember you telling me that". In it's own way, shock and denial can be seen as a "grace period" before all the other emotions start rolling in.
- Anger- this stage is very therapeutic and healing, even if it doesn't look like it on the surface. People may lash out at others who had no part in what happened, like someone who didn't attend a funeral, or a doctor. They may get angry over things that seem inconsequential. What's really going on during this stage is that anger is providing a structure to make sense of the loss; it's giving the sufferer a direction and purpose.
- Bargaining- this is the stage where we live in the past and try to analyze the events leading up to the loss. The grieving person has a lot of "What if" and "If only" thoughts. They may think there is something they can do to bring their loved one back and take blame for their loved one's death.
- Depression- this is probably the stage most people associate with grief. Sadness and depression are normal responses to a significant loss and the grieving person may be withdrawn and lose interest in things they once found pleasurable. People in this stage often look and feel like they are walking around with a cloud over their heads and they might feel as if they'll never be happy again.
- Acceptance- during this stage, people can accept the loss and start to move forward. Acceptance doesn't mean they are "over it", it simply means that they have accepted life will always include that missing piece. They may look for ways to honor their loved one, such as getting involved in a charity. Acceptance doesn't equal happiness either, but during this stage, people in grief realize that it's ok to have good days.
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What Could Be Positive About Grief?
Grief is undoubtedly one of the hardest things we will ever experience. Most of the time, it seems like it has no rhyme or reason, or purpose or time limit. But over and over, after talking with hundreds of people during my time in the funeral business, I saw so many people take a very painful experience and turn it into something really beautiful and meaningful. I saw people who took their grief and allowed it to change them for the better. What I found are 5 primary ways in which good things can come from grief.
People are impacted by grief in so many ways. For the person who is experiencing it, it is extremely personal and self-involved. For those on the outside, there is a sense of helplessness at wanting to ease the pain and suffering for the person who is grieving. That's why it is so traditional for people to send flowers or food to funerals because we all want to show our love and support for the survivors. There is also a cascade of cards and phone calls, and visitors dropping by. While all of that can initially be overwhelming for the person in grief, it also lets them know that they have support. Knowing that they have support makes the grieving person thankful for all the other people in their lives.
Over time the grieving person can start to appreciate other things, like the beauty of nature or the flavor of a favorite food. Once the veil of grief has lifted and life starts to have meaning again, often people will experience thankfulness for the little things that make life worth living. Part of gratitude also involves not taking things or people for granted and appreciating small acts of kindness.
#2- Change in Perspective
There's nothing like a significant loss to put things in perspective. We as humans get so caught up in the day-to-day insignificant matters of life that sometimes it takes a major event to shake us up and pay attention to the things that really matter. Suddenly it doesn't seem so important to hold on to old grudges and forgiveness takes place. So many times in the funeral business I saw broken families come together following a death and mend old wounds. Grief makes us slow down and think about life in a different way. Suddenly the stress of rushing around is replaced by a desire to "stop and smell the roses" because grief makes us realize the shortness and fragility of our time on earth.
We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.— Kenji Miyazawa
#3- Creative Inspiration
People try to achieve an understanding of loss and tragedy in different ways. Some people just muddle through, but some people express their grief and sadness through creative outlets. So many songs, poems and paintings are borne out of grief. Some of the world's best writers of all time channeled their grief into well known works. Emily Dickinson, for example, wrote at least 10 poems regarding grief and death. Hundreds of songs, from hymns to pop music came about because of a grieving heart. For example, Simon & Garfunkel's hit song, "Bridge Over Troubled Water", talks about pain and moving on after loss. Pablo Picasso's famous "blue period" paintings came about as the result of his grief over his friend's suicide.
#4- Courage to Try New Things
People who have been affected by grief sometimes find the courage to try things they never would have thought of before. Trying something new could be anything, from as small as trying a new restaurant, or as big as going skydiving. Loss makes us realize that life is short and is meant to be enjoyed. Sometimes just that thought alone can be the catalyst for conquering a fear or overcoming a hurdle that was preventing someone from trying something new. That fear or hurdle could have come from the loved one who passed who may have disapproved of trying that new thing, or it could be one of those "When one door closes, another one opens" moments. Grief often has a way of opening our hearts and minds to new possibilities that didn't exist before.
When someone you love becomes a memory, the memory becomes a treasure.— Author Unknown
#5- A Call to Action
Many, many times I have seen grief motivate people into taking positive actions, whether it was in the form of taking better care of themselves, putting estate plans into place or participating in a charity. Out of the hundreds of families that I served in the funeral business, one family will forever stand out in my memory. It was a young couple who lost their 6 month old daughter to complications from Downs' Syndrome. Although the baby never came home from hospital, she had a big impact on those around her. Her family formed a fundraising team for the Step Up for Downs' Syndrome walk in her memory and continue to raise funds for Downs' research. Another family I know lost their 10 year old son in a boating accident and they have a wildlife supper fundraiser every year to raise money for the church that he loved so much. Taking positive action is one of the biggest benefits of experiencing grief and loss because it honors the memory of the person that passed.
Grief and loss are as natural as breathing, and an unfortunate part of life. No one wants to experience deep, soul abiding pain, but through pain comes growth. Just like when a wildfire sweeps through a forest, it destroys everything in its path; for a while things are harsh and ugly, but then life creeps back in and before you know it, the forest is reborn. Good things can- and do- come from grief. Whether those good things come in the form of being thankful and not taking life for granted, letting go of past hurts and healing old wounds, a beautiful poem or piece of art, the courage to try new things, or the motivation to take positive steps, grief does give way to beauty in time. You just have to allow it to happen.