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The Thing About Grief…

Grief has this way of sneaking up on you. It could be a decade later, and you’ll hear a random song with one lyric that strikes a certain chord. And a memory will flood back. And you’ll realize you’ve never really healed. You’re just coping.

Then you’ll have guilt for still feeling the loss all these years later, when others have more recently lost a loved one and are in pain. And it’s a sobering experience.

So you tuck the grief away again, like a little sad friend that never leaves, and wipe away the tears and memory until the next time that sorrowful shadow decides to show up unexpectedly. And you gulp NyQuil and pray you can sleep. Because sleep is the only thing that’ll make you forget, at least for a few hours.

I Found Myself Awake at 3 A.M.

I found myself awake at 3 a.m. listening to “Between the Bars” by Elliott Smith. I hit repeat no less than 10 times. Somehow, this song had crept under my skin and seeped into my blood, rushing its way to my heart and making it ache all over again. Something about the sadness in his voice, or the way he sings the lyrics.

“Drink up baby…”

“The potential you’ll be that you’ll never see…”

“I’ll kiss you again…”

“I’ll keep them still…”

Or was it the fact that Elliott committed suicide at age 34?…. This song instantly reminded me of a person I’ve been mourning for 10 long years, who also committed suicide (at age 30), and who also may have had a bittersweet love affair with alcohol addiction, along with severe depression and other mental health issues.

It was enough to trigger me. And I wept until my eyes were swollen shut.

The person that I continue to mourn was my high school sweetheart, and my first love. He was there at age 16 when I was discovering my self-identity and questioning the world around me. He was there when I first found my love of music and songwriting. He was there when I first experimented with spirituality and found myself attune with nature. He was there during my first heartbreak, and we stayed friends even after he got married and had his own family. … And I was there months before he left this Earth, when I knew something was wrong, and I tried desperately to help him out of his depression, but failed.

When Ryan died, it was as if the girl I was before that day died with him. And this new woman emerged – shattered and bewildered with grief. The loss was not one I had anticipated. I thought we would end up being close friends until old age. He was one of my “chosen family,” and someone I leaned on over the years for support, as I had offered the same for him.

And now he was gone.

In those few weeks after his death, part of me wanted to go with him. I couldn’t imagine myself living in a world without this bright, beautiful soul in it. It was enough to stop me in my tracks and leave me frozen for what seemed like… forever. I was barely functioning.

That was 2011. Now I’ve entered my 40s, and it is 2022, and I look back at that time as if it was just last week. The wound is fresh. I still feel every ounce of the loss, and sometimes at 3 a.m., I’ll hear a song that’ll trigger me into weeping just as much as I did the day I received that dreaded phone call.

So what better way to express my pain than to create a Spotify playlist, where I could stream it and return to it whenever necessary?

The 6 Stages of Grief

A few weeks ago, I was part of a workshop of women who happened to be discussing the stages of grief. You’ve probably heard of the five main ones, but apparently a sixth stage has been introduced in a book called “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief” by David Kessler.

When considering the stages of grief, it’s important to remember that they’re not linear. They can happen multiple times, and we can jump between different stages during the process of healing. It can happen suddenly, or over years. And we’re never really done with grief. We just learn how to live with it. So just as an overview, here are the stages.

1. DENIAL: This is the initial period of shock right after you experience a loss and when you feel overwhelmed. Denial helps you cope with the initial event for a few weeks, as it is a natural defense mechanism. At this point, just let the body do what it’s supposed to do.

2. ANGER: This is a shift from survival mode into a questioning mode. You may ask questions like “Why Me?” Or you may feel retaliation and rage feelings, because “Life isn’t fair!” Allow yourself to feel the anger, so it’ll dissipate quicker. Let it out! Experts suggest physical activity during this time to release the energy of anger.

3. BARGAINING: This is a period of false hope. Think of the song “Running Up That Hill” by Kate Bush. She laments, “If I only could make a deal with God, I’d get him to swap our places.” You may find yourself negotiating to try to avoid the feelings of loss. Be careful of this stage, especially if you’re in an abusive relationship, because the abuser can boomerang or hoover you back into their web. If you’re experiencing a different kind of loss, you may feel false guilt or shame. You may ask a lot of “What ifs.”

4. DEPRESSION: When reality sets in, this stage is a deeper and more persistent sadness. It may feel like it’s never going to end. You’re now realizing the magnitude of your loss, whether it’s the death of a loved one or the loss of the dream of a life you thought you were getting. Let the sadness run its course. As the saying goes: “Feel the feels so you can heal.”

The women in the workshop with me offered some solutions during this phase to feel more uplifted. The suggestions may sound silly, but they’re worth trying. Sometimes healing is about self-care and small joys.

  • Water your plants
  • Pet the cat (or dog)
  • Take a walk
  • Cook
  • Take a bath
  • Cosplay
  • Listen to music
  • Sing
  • Dance
  • Try aromatherapy
  • Talk to friends
  • Write in a journal
  • Pray
  • Sleep

5. ACCEPTANCE: The fifth stage in the grief process is when you realize not everything is fine. You find yourself coming to terms with the situation and learning how to live with this new reality. You may have to readjust your life. Learn to love yourself. Explore your feelings and needs. Create a new life with new friends, hobbies, relationships, etc.

6. FINDING MEANING: Lastly, the sixth proposed stage of grief is about reflecting on the loss and finding meaning or even “beauty” that came out of it. For instance, without the loss, you may not have sought counseling to help you manage your emotions and grow spiritually. Or you may not have reached out to that group who shares your interests and is now a source of friendship and support. Or perhaps there’s an important lesson you learned from the experience, or something you learned about yourself.

No matter how you grieve, or how much, it’s all normal. It’s all going to be okay.

Go easy on yourself and let yourself feel however you are feeling. Cry. Scream. Punch a pillow. Or just sleep. Listen to your body. It knows what it needs.

And if you find yourself going back to that place of mourning over again, that’s ok too. In the meantime, depending on your personal situation, you may want to read the book “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Bessel van der Kolk. It explains therapeutic ways of releasing pain, grief, and trauma by connecting your mind and emotions with your physical body.

And if you’re trying to help someone else manage their own grief, remember to “hold space” for them. Stand beside them through their grief. Don’t try to fix things. Don’t try to interject your own experience into their story. Don’t make it about you. Just support them. Listen. Love them. Hold them close. And let them express their grief in whatever way they need to.



Photo from Pexels

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