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The Process of Grief

My Mum passed away recently – the first person very close to me to pass away. I come from a very practical family, and towards the end, that’s how we all were – practical. It’s easier to deal with the day-to-day tasks. That’s not to say there weren’t tears. There were. Lots. There was also lots and lots and lots of love. We’re so grateful we got the chance to say goodbye before letting go, as not everyone does.

Then I had to deal with my grief.

As a coach and mindfulness teacher, I have practice at understanding my emotions. I’m used to sitting with difficult emotions and letting them ‘be’. I consider myself reasonably in touch with my self awareness and my feelings.

However, this level of grief is a new experience.

Our brains are wired to make sense of situations based on previous experience. Our brains say ‘how did we deal with this before?’ and then access the actions we took beforehand. When you don’t have the experience, the brain can flounder.

How am I ‘supposed’ to grieve? Are my emotions normal? What should I expect?

I don’t know if you spotted the language of grief that I used above – don't worry if you didn’t, as it’s terminology we use all the time: ‘Letting go’, ‘dealing with grief’ and so on.

The language we use implies that grief is something that we have to make better. The language implies an active action that we have to take to return to normal.

Society has a limited span of sympathy. There are expectations for grief – the length of time you should grieve, the behaviour you should show. However, there comes a point when society, on the whole, moves on, and expects you to move on as well. Sometimes this is for practical reasons. You may be lucky to have compassionate leave from work. However, after a period of time, you’re expected to be back in the office and behaving ‘normally’ and professionally. You may not be expected to feel normal, but you’re expected to keep this to yourself. Sometimes it’s because the lives of our friends, colleagues and family move on too.

These expectations differ between cultures and also differ throughout history. Gone are the days that social acceptance was based on the 12 months of mourning, dressed in black.

However, what hasn’t gone, yet, are expectations.

This isn’t to say that society is unfeeling. It would be easy to think that society and its individuals are uncaring for moving on. However, our brains are wired (again) for protecting ourselves and moving on. Where we may be going through a grieving process that slows down this ability to ‘protect’ ourselves, it’s natural for other people. On a personal level, we are hugely caring of our loved ones. We don’t like seeing them hurting, and we would do what we could to help them through.

My first important point is this: grief is a process. It's not a problem to solve. It’s not something to try and hurry through and get out of the way.

Grief is a process whereby we get used to the idea that our loved one has gone, work out how to live life without them, and then live that life, keeping them in fond memory. You can’t escape this process.

You may be familiar with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross 5 stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Did you know that these were originally conceived for terminally ill patients back in the 1940s? It was in 1969 that she adapted them for grief. Each stage is still very legitimate and appropriate. However, modern thinking states that we don’t necessarily go through each stage one at a time, like a tick list – we could experience any of them, in any order, for any length of time. We may experience more than one at once, or even repeat stages. Grief can be messy – but it’s the process that’s important.

My second important point is this: you can’t hurry grief - it takes as long as it needs to take. You have to be patient.

There is no right or wrong length of time for grieving. There is no set time limit for grief. Each person’s grief is a personal journey. It’s influenced by a whole raft of factors such as the relationship you had with your loved one, the manner of their passing away, your personality and upbringing etc. None of this is ‘right’ and none is ‘wrong’. It’s personal. And because it’s personal, it takes the time it takes. You can’t rush it – it's not a to do list to tick off.

My third important point is this: you never forget, you just grow around it - you’ve lost a piece of your life’s puzzle. You can still see the picture, but there will always be a piece missing. That doesn’t mean that you don’t move in a forward direction – you do. That doesn’t mean you won’t be happy again – you will, and that’s ok. However, your loved one will simply be there in your heart and your memories. They may become more of a whisper than a shout, but that’s ok.

If you can understand and accept these three points, perhaps you’ll be able to shrug off society’s expectations, and concentrate on your own personal journey. This may ease your expectations of yourself as well, and therefore make the process easier.

You are moving forward, even if it doesn’t feel like it sometimes. You don’t need to ‘arrive’ at some magic point in the future, when everything is back to normal – normal will be different. If you’re aiming for this magic point you may not even realise you’ve reached ‘the new normal’.

So, stop with the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’. Just let yourself be. Let your emotions and feelings and behaviour be. Accept them, don’t judge them, don’t criticise them. Yes, you may need to turn the volume down at work. However, just let your grief journey take as long as it needs to.

I’m following my own personal grief journey. As it’s personal, I won’t share it. I’m aware that some people will see me laughing and joking, or perhaps having days out from ‘peopling’, if it’s all too much. But I know that that’s ok. I know that’s what I need along this journey to my own ‘new normal’

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