Loss & Grieving: Observations of a Grief Counselor

by Ally Fischman, MS, LCMHC, NCC

“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All of that unspent love gathers in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in the hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.”
– Jamie Anderson

This is not a blog with a bunch of research citations or PhD references. It is with great intention, and in an effort to pay tribute to the millions of people [us] who struggle daily in our experiences of grief and loss. This text will provide insight into how you can support the people you care about, and if you happen to be the person grieving, these words will help you care for and create compassion for yourself through your process. Grief is raw and real. As this will be.

It seems that only around the holidays does grief get recognized as the beast that it is, and also, seems to be ignored at the same time. As most of my clients would remark, grief is consuming no matter the season, temperature, or amount of light in the sky. It doesn’t matter if there is turkey on the table or everyone, together, dressed in holiday best. It doesn’t matter if cheerful music fills the radio channels or heart-warming commercials flood our screens. It doesn’t matter if months or even years have gone by. It doesn’t matter if people say you “should” feel better by now or, “life goes on”, or even if 50,000 people have said some form of ‘sorry for your loss’… grief still burns. Brighter than the fire in your holiday fireplace.

Grief is a collection of thought patterns, physical sensations, emotions, and behaviors that occur in response to loss. Contrary to popular belief, grief is not a feeling; it is the sum total of a variety of experiences that merge together to create what many would say is a very uncomfortable state of being. Grief is not pathological. It’s not abnormal or a disease. Grief is a normal part of the human experience, one that we will all experience at some point in our very human lives. This is why we don’t have a clinical diagnosis for grief, because again, it is not clinical! Here are a few important things to know about grief so that you can begin (or continue!) to explore your own losses in helpful ways and provide support to others.

Grieving and mourning are not the same thing.

Most people use the words “grieving” and “mourning” interchangeably, however, there’s a big difference. Grieving refers to experiencing all of the emotional and physiological sensations, along with cognitive and behavioral components related to loss(es). In contrast, mourning is the process by which we make sense of the loss, and integrate the loss into our lives. While grief can look very similar across people, mourning does not, and can take on a variety of forms depending on culture. In my professional work, I make a point to engage clients in exploring how they have mourned their losses, and we often find that the process of grieving comes much easier than mourning does. Tasks of mourning include the following: accepting that the loss has occurred, experiencing the pain of the loss (yes, all of it), adjusting to the world without our loved one/thing/vision, and finding a way to maintain a connection to them/it even though the physical presence is permanently changed.

An important question to ask ourselves: Have I really mourned my losses, or did I stop at grieving?

Most of us were not taught how to mourn, and less, how to respond to someone who has lost someone they love.

One of the most common concerns I hear from the bereaved involves what people say to them about their losses.

“They’re in a better place.”
“God has called them home.”
“At least they’re not suffering anymore.”
“It will hurt now, but you’ll get over it soon.”

While these responses are almost always well-intended, they fall remarkably short when it comes to providing comfort. Instead, these statements can actually engender resentment. Many people of religion are angry with God when someone dies. Often, the last thing they want to hear is that God had this “all planned out.” Perhaps that feels helpful in mourning, but not in grief. Others whom are not affiliated with a religion don’t know if their loved ones are in a better place because they don’t believe there is life after death. Sometimes the best thing you can do to support someone who is grieving or mourning is to simply not say anything, and instead, hold space for them to be as they are. Quiet, crying, angry, sullen, avoidant, calm… can you be present for any or all of that? If you feel compelled to provide verbal support, here are a few ‘go to’ statements that can be helpful:

“I’m here if you need me.”
“What do you need right now?”
“How can I support you?”
“This is such a difficult time.”
“This really sucks.”

Challenge yourself to hold space and know that your physical presence often means so much more than well-intended words.

There are losses that we experience throughout our lives that are challenging to mourn because we believe they are not “socially sanctioned.”

Welcome to what we call Disenfranchised Grief. Examples of this include losses as a result of suicide, of a celebrity, a miscarriage or stillbirth, the loss of a lover outside of marriage or a marriage itself to divorce or separation. Statistically, odds are you know someone in your life who has never fully mourned the passing of a loved one because of the shame tied to how the person was lost, or the relationship they had to that person. It is important to emphasize and make space for Disenfranchised Grief to validate that all losses are deserving of recognition, no matter the circumstances. You are not alone.

NEWSFLASH: No, you don’t understand how someone else feels.

Even if you’ve experienced 100 deaths or losses in your lifetime, none of them will be the same as someone else’s experience with loss. Want to know what sounds like nails on a chalkboard (and in case you happen to love that sound, insert any head exploding sound here) to the bereaved? “I know exactly how you feel.” “Oh, I lost my Grandmother too, I know how that is.” The truth is, the way people experience and express grief has a lot of moving parts. The way the person died to the nature of the relationship with the deceased will impact experiences of grief and mourning. Losing a parent to cancer at 55 feels much different than losing a parent to complications from old age at 95. If you are the bereaved and are reading this, I’m sorry that others assume they know what you are experiencing. They don’t, and that’s okay. If you are a person supporting the bereaved through loss, take a stance of non-judgmental curiosity when you are listening to someone else’s experience. Listen as if you’ve never used your ears before.

Grief and mourning are not linear.

One of my favorite early interventions is to draw the timeline that a person has given themselves to “get over” their grief. Although I’ve seen quite a variety of timelines, they all typically have one thing in common – an endpoint. PLEASE KNOW: There is no end to grief. There will always be hurt when we conjure images and memories of those we have lost. Remember, that is simply a sign of the fullness of our love or experience with them when they were alive. The more we pressure ourselves to avoid the pain of grief, the more we complicate our own mourning process, and by doing so, we can actually prolong suffering. Grief is a sign that we have loved in the first place. To turn our back on the pain of grief is also to turn our back on the love we had for the person we lost. Naturally, the holiday season is filled with triggers that remind us of our loved ones. This will be a reality, whether we like it or not. This year, if you find yourself trying to avoid the pain of grief when it arises, I encourage you to lean into it. Listen to it. See if you can transform that pain into an action you take to honor the person you lost. Grieve so that you can mourn.

Mourning doesn’t happen on it’s own.

We need to be active participants in order to adjust to the loss of a loved one.

I often use the image above to illustrate how grief itself never changes, but rather, we change to adapt to our loss. It is through mourning that we create more space for our loss to be a part of us. Naturally, humans oscillate between experiencing the pain of grief and doing restorative activities that help distract from the pain of the loss. Mourning can be stunted when we don’t oscillate; spending all of our time caught up in the pain of the loss or all of our time avoiding the loss as if it never happened.

A few ways to mourn in helpful ways:
Be intentional about spending time in both camps. Carve out a specific amount of time each day to recall memories of your loved one through photos or videos. Revisit places that you and your loved one used to frequent. Sit down with family members and recall memories of the person who died. Write the story of how your loved one passed. Make something in their memory. Donate to a charity they would have approved of. Talk to them in the present as if they were there and give them an update about life. You will feel this. It may be intense, hard, even uncomfortable – that means you’re doing it! And you can. Then plan time to distract yourself from the pain by reinvesting in your present life. Rekindle relationships, travel to new places, find time to take care of yourself in a way that is unique to you. Rinse and repeat. Over and over. Patient. Trusting. You’re doing it.

Be kind to yourself.

Lastly, and so importantly, many bereaved people struggle with self-compassion, and are more comfortable spending time in a state self-criticism. Paradoxically, most of the bereaved I’ve worked with believe that if they spend a lot of time caught up in should-statements like “I should have seen the signs,” or “I should have told them this or that,” it will help them resolve the guilt
they feel. Truthfully, these self-deprecating ‘should’ statements move us towards becoming even more stuck in guilt and shame. Grief and loss are hard enough. When we are able to hold ourselves and our pain with kindness, we are much more flexible in the face of all of the natural challenges that come with mourning.

In closing, a few things to try first: Be kind to yourself. Place a hand over your heart, breathe in and out, and acknowledge for even a single moment that loss is hard. Fellow mourners, I see you. I hear you. You, and your losses, matter. You can do this, and in fact, you already are.

Now, go mourn.