Grief. It’s not a topic most people like to talk about or know how to experience themselves.
If you have experienced grief — the profound loss of a loved one, the living grief of divorce or living with a terminal illness, to name a few, you’re likely being transported to those moments while reading this. If you have not experienced this kind of grieving yet, be grateful and hold those dear to you a bit closer today. Grieving is one of those profound, vulnerable experiences that makes us feel incredibly human and entirely mortal. It’s an experience that all people, in all cultures and religions, face. While all people approach it differently, most of us aren’t shown or taught how to grieve in life.
So, what do you do when loss happens? Perhaps a parent has passed away, or you are mourning the end of a marriage. Do you stay in bed, refusing to go to work or take care of your children? No, you don’t, even when that appears to be the most desirable option. The truth about grief is that we believe we cannot allow grief to overtake us. Most of us will put on our “game face” and not show the vulnerable, hurt and struggling feelings that overtake you like a wave with no notice. We choose our words and avoid those people and situations we believe could “trigger” us into that vulnerable position. We isolate to try to make sense of it all and try to heal what feels like a hole in our world knowing we can’t control or fix what’s happening. This is an impossible place to be for people who thrive at problem solving, moving quickly and feeling in control; there’s simply no hurrying or predicting grief. The emotions will sneak up on you in places you don’t expect – watching commercials, hearing a song, seeing pictures or flowers or any kind of “special” thing that mattered to that person. And it’s stealth. It doesn’t have a lead in or time to correct or control it – it takes over before you can “pull yourself together” and put on that “game face” at times. It’s awful. And it takes time. How much? Way longer than most people realize. And we judge ourselves and others for hanging on, not getting over it or not moving on in life as if there’s some prescribed amount of time you “should” be allowed to grieve.
Of course, some days will be better than others, and we must ride the roller coaster of emotions and stages that arise. Grief counselor Dr. Alan Wolfelt shares that, “In life, everyone grieves. But their grief journeys are never the same. Despite what you may hear, you will do the work of mourning in your own special way. Also, do not adopt assumptions about how long your grief should last.” His last point is especially important as our culture is not very accepting of the grieving process. As leaders, we may be frustrated with ourselves as well, wanting to get back to work and not lose time and productivity being sad. In reality, you cannot rush grief; you must feel your way through it.
When you think of grief, your immediate thought may be of the death of someone you love passing away. Living grief, however, is equally debilitating to work through. Illnesses like cancer and Alzheimer’s are examples of continuous grief due to the gradual loss of relationships, ability and familiarity over time. While the person is still living, you grieve their changes as they are happening. Additionally, some people with illness may not display outwardly visible queues. They look relatively the same, but inside their body is attacking itself and they aren’t able to do the things they normally do. Others not intimately aware may not understand and their judgment can be incredibly hurtful and isolating. When you or someone you love are struck with a debilitating illness, huge aspects of life (like how you parent, work, move and spend time) change and need to be mourned.
Divorce is also a form of living grief. Although you’ve ended the relationship, most of the time, you will still see and interact with your “ex.” It is difficult to define and adjust to your new normal while experiencing life as a single person again. Relationship author Brisa Pinho states, “Psychology agrees that when a major relationship or marriage ends, the person who was left may feel grief as painfully as someone who lost a loved one to death. Sometimes the pain can even be stronger, because the person who died to us is very much alive, haunting our every thought.” As a leader, you are being observed — regardless of your circumstances. How do you remain authentic with your experience and lead well during intense emotional times?
Grief from Loss
The grief we feel when someone we love dies often feels permanent and all-encompassing. It is a different kind of pain than anything else, and it was best described to me by a friend who lost her ex-husband, daughter and her fiancé in a plane crash: “It’s like losing a limb. You will eventually learn how to function without it, but you will never be the same.” Eventually you stop feeling sad every day, but there will always be moments when it returns sharply on a visceral level — often when you least expect it. After someone passes away you also begin the “year of firsts,” which are the many milestones your loved one is not present for. This includes birthdays, holidays, anniversaries and special dates between you and them. You will always have new moments when you feel the loss and you won’t often see it coming. As Author Mette Ivie Harrison shares of her young daughter’s death, “As our family has gone on, there are more things that my daughter has missed. In the first year, I only thought about baby milestones: rolling over, learning to walk and talk. As time has gone on, I’ve missed the first day of school, her first instrument, her elementary school graduation. And in the future, I will be grieving the loss of her first date, her first kiss, her marriage, her college years, on and on.”
Grief is unique to every person and a singular experience. Others may not understand and may expect you to get over your sadness after a certain amount of time. Most people will be supportive and acknowledge it for a short period, but shortly after that they’ll go back to their own lives and expect you’ve done the same. Don’t hold yourself to any agenda; you may never feel the same, and that is okay.
First, you move forward at your own pace, while being gentle with yourself as you define a new normal. “Don’t put a deadline on the end of your grief. You won’t know when and if it will ever be over,” shares Dr. Gloria Horsley, founder of the Open to Hope Foundation. In addition to riding the wave of emotions that you’ll be experiencing, connect with others who have shared a similar experience. They can relate to your experience and connect at a more meaningful level than those unfamiliar with grief.
After the initial shock of your loss it can be difficult to simply get out of bed. Over time, noting what you do accomplish and setting smaller, more attainable goals can help you feel more productive and motivate you to keep going. Lastly, I encourage you to accept help from others, especially if your tendency is to put up a strong facade. Make a list of chores or errands at work and home and allow others to do them for you. Everyone wins when contributing.
Grief is a journey, not a pitstop. There are countless ups and downs, moments of overwhelm, anger and sadness that strike out of nowhere. Eventually things become easier.