Grief: is there a better way to cope?
Grief can come in many forms, but it is often something we grapple with. While there is no one right way to grieve effectively, as a therapist I often see the challenges people face in processing their grief, and sometimes finding themselves stuck.
Grief is inherently complex for humans to begin with, but elements of the loss itself — sudden, protracted, tragic, traumatic — aspects of the relationship (close, intimate, dependency, conflicted) and the person grieving (attachment template, past loss history, resources available and resilience) can all impact the way grief hits.
To put the pain and challenge of grief into context, psychologists don’t even consider the grief process to have gone wrong unless you are still suffering heavily 18 months after the loss. Effectively, anything up to that time is considered to be an entirely normal human process. That’s not to say you should not seek help or support in the early stages, but rather we know that it takes time.
The grief wheel refers to five stages of grief: shock (numb, denial), protest (anger and yearning), disorganisation (confusion, restlessness, depression), reorganisation (developing new relationships, ways of living, and finding meaning in loss) and recovery. But it is a wheel for a reason — the grief process is rarely a linear, one-way journey to recovery, and we can loop this wheel several times.
When grief is an excruciating body blow, it can evoke some of the same responses as trauma. But our trauma response of fight, flight or freeze can be pretty tricky for grief. Fight may manifest as anger towards a system that let us down or our ex-lover’s new partner, while flight might manifest as extreme avoidance through being busy or ploughing our energy into someone or something else. Freeze can be like hitting the emergency stop button.
If freeze in the animal kingdom is a “play dead” response, then in humans, we might think of it as playing emotionally dead. We cut off, we numb, we dissociate and bury our feelings deep. Above all, we do not want to feel. This is a fairly ordinary and common part of grief and trauma, and frankly it is probably a necessary part of our survival.
However, we know that this freeze response in grief and trauma has a nasty habit of blocking our adaptive processing and recovery. We talk about riding the waves of grief because as much as feeling hurts, we need to do it some of the time in order to process and repair. If we don’t, it sits in our bodies festering and waiting to be triggered.
If you find yourself in freeze mode, your challenge might be to be gentle as you build up tolerance for grief and pain. You can start with honouring your grief or pain with some time to connect. If you are experiencing a lot of physical pain or distress, something like relaxing breath work, mindfulness and grounding techniques might be the best starting point. When you connect to your emotional pain, consider:
• Where do you feel it in your body?
• What thoughts and feelings emerge?
• How does it feel to connect?
Do this in a safe space, and plan some self-care or support for afterwards.
In time, you may want to build to journalling your feelings, art, writing “no send” letters to others, or even writing letters to your past or future self. Be gentle and compassionate to yourself. Grief is an inevitable cost of connection, and the only way through is to feel it and experience it.
• Gemma Harris, ClinPsyD, is Director of Corporate Wellness at Solstice, and writes on Instagram as @theexdoctor