Dear Therapist: Is there a right way to grieve? (Opinion)
Dear Therapist: My mother died two months ago. We were extremely close. My friends are worried about me because they say I’m not processing the loss. I don’t know what that means or how it would change anything. I’m sad and angry but maybe I’m doing something wrong? Is there a right way to grieve?
Dear Unsure About Grief: The short answer is no, there’s no singular right way to grieve. You are the one who is in pain, you are the one who is experiencing the loss, you get to honor your own way of grieving – regardless of what anyone else thinks you should or shouldn’t be feeling or doing.
The longer answer, however, is that every person deserves to be supported in their grief. Grief pushes us to the limits of our human capacity to feel pain. Often it feels like it’s pushing us beyond those limits. If we try to hold all that pain on our own, it can hurt us.
I’m not sure either what your friends mean by processing your loss. If it’s about them expecting you to bounce back to ‘normal’, you can let them know that grief doesn’t work that way. If, however, they see you suffering but not talking about how you feel, then maybe they just want you to get the support you deserve. Talking about your feelings with someone who is supportive certainly doesn’t change the fact that your mom died. It doesn’t erase the pain. What it can do is allow you to face the feelings.
Grief comes with waves of emotions and physical sensations that flood through us. These waves also can dredge up memories, fears and old wounds. Core pains like abandonment, regret, rejection, guilt, emptiness, loneliness, shame, meaninglessness, worthlessness, helplessness and intergenerational trauma can come at us like a tsunami. This can all happen with any loss, from a loss that seems ‘small’, to a loss that has such a mix of feelings it’s hard to even know what you feel, to a loss like yours, Unsure About Grief, that most people recognize as significant.
Even if we are strong and resilient, trying to stay afloat on our own while being flooded with waves of emotions and pain can be too much. Trying to avoid these waves takes a huge amount of energy which ultimately depletes us and can lead us to numb ourselves or check out beyond what is sustainable for our health.
While taking the step to talk to someone supportive about your feelings may sound easy, it’s often not easy at all. If we are not accustomed to talking about our feelings, if we are more comfortable in the role of being the supportive one rather than the one who needs support, if we are scared about facing our feelings, if we have shame or self judgment about what we feel or don’t feel…all of these can be significant barriers to seeking support.
The good news is that you don’t have to jump into the deep end with any of this. Whether it’s with a counselor or with a friend or loved one with whom you feel comfortable, you can start by simply talking about how hard it is to talk about your loss. These conversations might feel awkward or clunky. It may take time to identify what’s actually helpful for you as a unique individual to deal with the waves and with whatever the waves dredge up. The point isn’t that you somehow do the whole grief thing right. The point is that humans are built to tolerate extreme pain around loss but we’re not built to do it alone.
Danielle B. Grossman, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, has worked with clients in the Truckee/Tahoe community for 20 years. She helps individuals and couples with their relationships, anxiety, grief, struggles with food and addiction. Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org or learn more at truckeecounseling.com.
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