Updated: Aug 14
None of us can go through our lives without grief touching us. But we don’t want to acknowledge it because it’s too fearful or maybe we think it won’t happen to us. Lock it away, bury it, don’t look at it until it hits you squarely in the face, or just get over it as quickly as possible. That’s what our society tells us. Yet, nothing is permanent, and everything changes, so grief is a normal part of life. When we carry incomplete grief, it festers and effects every aspect of our lives – physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Sometimes it’s buried so deep we don’t even realize its power over our lives. What we do know is that we aren’t able to bring joy into our daily life, something is missing, or we’re stuck in negativity and victimhood.
The task of grieving is about allowing ourselves to feel our emotions and then to rebalance so we can still experience joy and move forward in all areas of our life, even though things have changed. We never forget, emotions can still be there, but when we allow the grieving process we can transform and live a happy life, albeit different. The first step in navigating the deep waters from grief to transformation is knowing what it is, recognizing its effects, and understanding our reactions.
Grief is a natural response to loss and is accompanied by difficult emotions. John W. James and Russell Friedman in their book, “The Grief Recovery Handbook,” define grief as a “conflicting group of emotions caused by an end or change to a familiar behavior.” This broadens the definition from just the loss of a loved one to other changes - loss of a pet, job, financial security, relationship (including divorce, break-up, family splits), childhood trauma, empty nester syndrome, retirement, loss of a home, loss of dreams and hopes, loss of body image and functionality due to illness, illness of a significant other, the ills of larger society (racial injustice, climate change, political upheaval, etc.), and much more.
There is no unjustified grief or specific timeline to grieve. Unfortunately, our tendency is to judge what we should or shouldn’t feel by comparing our loss to others – “I have it worse,” “I shouldn’t feel this way because others have it worse,” or “I should be over it by now.” Let go of old beliefs about what we’ve been told grief looks like. Loss is very personal. How we feel and experience it is different for each person. We feel what we feel. Old beliefs and comparisons keep us stuck rather than move us forward.
Symptoms and Effects
There has been a lot written about stages of grief. Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross identified 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. However, she emphasized her research was with terminal patients and may not apply to others. While these stages can be helpful to know, not everyone goes through them, nor is it experienced in a linear fashion. Rather, I find it helpful to understand some of the common emotional symptoms and physical effects of grief so we can work with it.
· Loneliness and isolation
· Loss of Identity – who am I now?
· Shock, disbelief, or numbness
· Sadness and depression
· Anger, aggression
· Shame, blame
· Pretending to be fine
· Lack of focus
· Withdrawal from activities or overcompensation with excessive activities
· Aches and pains
· Gastrointestinal issues
· Weight loss or gain
· Chronic conditions
The results are we live in a “trance” of not being fully alive, separated from our true selves.
The Story of Senjo's Lost Soul
There were 2 childhood friends, Senjo and Ochu, who were in love and intended to marry. Instead, Senjo’s father betrothed her to an older man. Ochu was so upset that he decided to leave the village in the middle of the night. Upon hearing of his plans, Senjo joined him. They ran away together in a boat going down the river, married, made a new life, built a home, and had children. Still, Ochu would occasionally find Senjo crying because she missed her father and village. Eventually they decided to go back and bring their children. Upon arrival, Ochu went to her father’s house first to apologize for leaving with his daughter. When her father opened the door, Ochu explained that Senjo was in the boat waiting to be reunited. The father was in disbelief and angry because his Senjo was upstairs in bed unable to stop crying or speak since the day he left. Ochu then brought his Senjo to meet the other Senjo. The two met and merged into wholeness.
The moral of the story is that unless we reintegrate all parts of ourselves, we are in danger of losing ourselves, our “soul,” and can remain fragmented and cut off from a satisfying life.
How we navigate the waters of change and loss is directly connected to how fully we can heal, love ,and live again. Tara Brach, one of my teachers, talks about being an “apprentice to sorrow.” Being open to the messages of grief means we learn from it and move forward with a different kind of wholeness. This is deep soul-work for a homecoming to ourselves. Part 2 will discuss how we can work with grief. If you’d like to individually explore more, find a grief counselor. You can also schedule a complimentary call with me about soul-work.