Many of us remain stuck in the grip of grief for years without realizing it because we’re on automatic pilot. It’s not our fault. We were never given tools necessary to navigate the turbulent waters that spring from the inevitable changes, storms, and roller coaster of life. But there is hope with a way to ride the turbulent seas to calm and contentment. It’s possible to transform the grief into an opportunity for deep soul-work, emerging stronger and more resilient to sail into a fulfilled life with joy and happiness. I know because I’ve experienced it personally. Let's explore how to do it. Here's my journey from grief to healing.
A Personal Grief Journey
My mom had just died in a cancer hospital 45 minutes before my birthday. The night before I had prayed to let the suffering end so she could go peacefully, and then I felt guilty for wanting her to finally die. I also felt ashamed for being resentful and nasty to my mom during the preceding months when I had to care for her instead of playing with my friends. But now the reality was here, and my young teenage brain couldn’t quite process what had just happened. I was told to leave her room and sit in the waiting room while my dad made the funeral arrangements. There I was alone, isolated, and confused. Most of this time was a blurred blank for me, but I do remember hyperventilating and then going totally numb. While I recovered my normal breathing with the assistance of the staff, the numbness never quite left parts of me.
We had to bury my mom the next day because Yom Kippur, the highest holy day in the Jewish religion, was in 2 days, which meant she needed to be buried before the holiday. I travelled to my mom’s funeral the next day on my birthday. (For years, I had an anniversary reaction on my birthday.) Yom Kippur then arrived, which according to tradition wipes out the official 7-day mourning period. So, I immediately went back to school like nothing had ever happened. Only it did, and I was now a motherless child. I felt there wasn’t anyone I could turn to because the entire family was grieving, and I believed outsiders couldn’t or wouldn’t understand. The emotions lay smoldering deep inside. There was so much that had been left unsaid, unfinished, and unprocessed. This pained, confused state of complex emotions and feelings of numbness remained into my adulthood when it finally erupted into physical illness and emotional turmoil. I became an anxious, joyless overachiever who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in my forties. I was disconnected from parts of myself with a vague sense of something missing in my life. It was only when I was able to be “complete” with the grief that I began to heal.
There is no “getting over” grief or a specific timeline to be “done” with it. That’s why it’s so important to understand how to navigate the grieving journey by feeling the emotions and pain while ceasing the endless suffering. There’s a saying that “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” Grief is universal, but how each person experiences it is different. In my case, I suffered for years with the shame, blame and guilt that triggered my parasympathetic nervous system to “shut down” parts of myself. It protected me so I didn’t have to feel the full extent of the pain. But the undercurrents manifested in all aspects of my life without me being aware of the long-term effects until mid-life.
I was finally able to heal when I acknowledged my emotions, allowed them without judgment, and completed unprocessed communications. And most importantly, I forgave myself for being a vulnerable, confused, young child. Doing this is deep soul-work, but well worth it.
Incomplete grief is an accumulation of undelivered communications, large and small, that have value to you, including things you wished you had done differently, better, or more. The grief doesn’t need to involve death; it could be loss of a dream, relationships we never had but wanted, or any other loss. In my case, I was unable to apologize to my mom for my behavior before she died.
On the other side of grief is always love and care for what was lost. When undelivered communications are acknowledged and delivered, it frees us to transform and experience unhindered love. Communications can be delivered regardless of whether our significant other is physically departed; even if alive, the communication doesn’t have to be delivered directly. We can also deliver the communications to wounded parts of ourselves. In my case, I forgave my grieving inner child with kindness. This opened my ability to “complete” the grief. Completing is not forgetting; what we are completing is our relationship to the pain and suffering, as well as anything that was left unfinished from the loss.
RAIN for Transformative Grief-Work
How do we begin to complete the grief, transform, and heal? There are many different methods. RAIN (Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nurture) is one way I find particularly useful:
Recognize – The first step is identifying the loss and consciously acknowledging it.
Allow - After recognition, allow the experience to be there just as it is without trying to fix it. Allow the sensations in the body and the emotions to come without judgment or wishing them away. You may mentally whisper, “this belongs, too” or any other phrase that resonates with you.
Investigate – Call on your natural curiosity and desire to know the truth for a more in-depth attention to the present experience. You may ask yourself, “What most wants attention?” “What has been left unprocessed or unsaid?” “What am I believing?” “Is it really true?” "Who would I be without the suffering?" Step away from cognitively conceptualizing and focus on the “felt-sense” in the body to allow the answers to emerge naturally. Sometimes this takes practice.
Nurture – What do you need to nurture yourself with kindness and compassion? Perhaps it’s writing in a journal about your feelings, expressing yourself through music, art or dance/movement, contacting a friend, seeking the support of professionals, quiet time, prayer, recalling bittersweet memories, allowing yourself to experience moments of joy to help you cope, or anything else that feels positive and nourishing to your soul.
The grief journey has many layers and pathways to healing. Don’t go it alone. Find a grief counselor to help you navigate. You can also schedule a complimentary call with me to explore the deep soul-work of healing and transformation.