Is My Grief Normal? A Closer Look at the Elephant in the Room

Experiencing a big loss can leave our internal lives feeling a bit like a Jackson Pollock painting. This can feel so unpleasant that we take great strides to avoid thinking about or acknowledging death in our daily lives. However, this can make the grieving among us feel isolated and lost. When we’re conditioned to not talk about death, it’s hard to tell what grieving is supposed to look like, and many people feel they should be “getting over their grief” faster or slower or should be doing something different during their grief process.

There’s no right or wrong way to grieve

When considering how we deal with loss, often what comes up first is the popularly cited “Five Stages of Grief,” conceptualized by Dr. Kubler Ross.  She suggests a neat, organized process that individuals naturally go through to complete their grief work, before proceeding on with their lives as normal. While individuals may experience denial, anger, and depression during the course of addressing a loss, they rarely follow Kubler Ross’s neat steps. Research has found many theories of “grief work” are oversimplified. There is no specific period of time in which grief should be resolved. There is no sure-fire way through the bereavement process. 

That said, there are more healthy and less healthy ways to adjust after a loss. While it may be tempting to dwell in memory after the death of a loved one, it’s still important to attend to the present moment and future opportunities of life. However, you should not attempt to ignore the past either. Underplaying (or overplaying) the importance of the loss, or emotions after loss, can complicate the healing process.

The grieving process is incredibly diverse.

While most people have been to a funeral or two, this is a drop in the water compared to the many ways humans grieve throughout the world. 

Some funerals are seen as celebrations of life, highlighting the joy of one’s life rather than the sorrow of their death. Some cultures embrace the idea of death as a natural part of the wheel of life, while others identify death as a disease to be avoided and remedied at all costs. 

Differences don’t just exist across borders. There can be vast differences within cultural groups and even families in how members react to loss. While some individuals find comfort in dealing with all the “whys? and “hows? and “what’s next? that comes after death, others find comfort in simply expressing how they feel.

No emotion is off the table.

While the idea of a grieving process understandably suggests a period of overwhelming sadness, experiencing a great loss can run the full gamut of emotions. Negative emotions such as sadness, anger, fear, relief, desperation, and disbelief may come to mind more easily, but positive emotions are common too. Pride, love, humor, and hope often find their way into stories of loss.

We can’t control, or often even predict, what we’ll feel after a loss, but we can control what we do with our emotions and how we understand them. The period after any ending offers a point for reflection on the past. What was meaningful? How has my life been impacted? What do I do with that in the future?

Making sense of it all.

Ultimately, bereavement can be a long and confusing process, and there are likely aspects of grief we will face alone. After the death of a loved one, people often find themselves in never-ending social situations where everyone is very aware of the loss, but no one wants to talk about it. Sometimes – and more painfully – others brush aside loss with dime-a-dozen comments.

This can make isolation an additional struggle when facing loss, and, while at times helpful, reading about grief can feel more confusing if experiences don’t match those of the author. There is no shame in asking for help or even just seeking out a listening ear during these times. 

If you feel it would be helpful to have someone in your life to talk about a loss or grief, we’re here to help! 

About Sarah Hazelwood (Confer)

Sarah Hazelwood (Confer), MA, LLPC, studied art and psychology at Grand Valley State University and earned a Master of Arts in Mental Health Counseling from Aquinas College. She specializes in grief, loss, terminal illness, anxiety, stress management, self harm, religious and spiritual counseling, pregnancy/prenatal/postpartum, LGBTQ and gender issues, and identity formation and reformation. She sees teens, women, and elderly populations, and is supervised by Rosann Raftery, LPC, at Lifeologie Counseling Grand Rapids Cascade.

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