For over 30 years, I have worked with thousands of grievers. I have sat with widows and widowers, the young and the old. I have offered tissues to bereaved parents in their inconsolable grief. I have normalized, educated, listened to, witnessed, and championed those grievers who, through tremendous pain, still chose to lean in to life.
In the decades since my first book, Transcending Loss, was published, I continue to see misinformation and confusion around grief. Principally, this comes from the widely held myths that grief should be easy, that grief should be short, that grief ends with closure, that people should get back on with their lives unchanged, and that ongoing connection with the deceased is somehow pathological.
So here are 5 things everyone should know about grief. Most people don’t learn these lessons until life thrusts them onto the roller coaster of a major loss. However, we have the opportunity learn about grief for ourselves and to help a a new generation of individuals feel more supported and understood when it is their time to grieve.
1. Grief Hurts
Grief isn’t easy and it isn’t pretty. It involves tears, sleepless nights, pain, sorrow, and a heartache that knocks you to your knees. It can be hard to concentrate, hard to think clearly, hard to read, and easy to forget all the details of life that everyone else seems to remember. If you are grieving, give yourself permission to feel all of your feelings. Don’t try to talk yourself out of them or bury them. And give yourself time to tend to this powerful emotional experience. Let yourself have a hard time, knowing that this is the way toward healing.
2. Grief Lasts
Although we all want quick fixes and short-term solutions, grief won’t accommodate us. Many people want grief to be over in a few weeks or a few months, and certainly within a year. And yet, many grievers know that the second year is actually harder than the first. Why? Because the shock has worn off and the reality of the pain has truly sunk in. I let grievers know that the impact of grief is lifelong just as the influence of love is also lifelong. No matter how many years go by, there will be occasional days when grief ‘bursts’ through with a certain rawness. There will be days, even a decade later, when sadness crosses over you like a storm cloud. And likely, every day going forward will involve some memory, some connection to missing the beloved. Be accepting of the fact that loss is part of your life.
3. Grief Changes Over Time
If you expect to eventually be back to your old self, you will be quite disappointed. Grief, like all major life experiences, changes a person irrevocably. Think about it for a moment. Would you expect to remain unchanged after getting an education, getting married, having a baby, getting divorced, or changing careers? Life is full of experiences that add to the compost mixture of your life – creating rich and fertile soil. Similarly, grief teaches you about life, about death, about pain, about love, and about impermanence. While some people are changed in a way that makes them bitter and shut down, it is possible to use grief as a springboard to compassion, wisdom, and open-heartedness. Let grief change you.
4. Grief Is Filled With Love
While some might find it odd or uncomfortable to keep talking about a long deceased loved one, or find it disconcerting to see photographs of those who have passed on, it is healthy to keep the connection alive. My heart goes out to an older generation of grievers who were told to cut their ties to their deceased loved ones, to banish all remnants of them, to pretend as if they never existed. Honor your loved ones’ birthdays and departure days. Know that their physical presence may be gone from this earth, but that they remain in relationship to you in a new way, beyond form, a way based on spirit and love. Love is always stronger than death.
5. Grief Can Lead To Growth
Transcendence is the experience of gaining a new perspective, seeing life from a hopeful angle, holding pain in the larger context of love. Seeing one’s grief from an expanded perspective allows the grief to be bearable and gives it meaning. Perhaps it means reaching out to others who suffer. Perhaps it means giving to a cause that will result in helping others. Grievers who choose transcendence recognize that they are not alone, that they are part of the human experience, and that they are amongst all people who experience love and loss. They use their pain in a way that touches others and makes a difference. The pain is still there, of course, but it is transformed.
I invite you to reflect on these 5 grief principles, how they might be true for you and how they might be true for someone you know and love. Share this information and share again so that we might spread grief intelligence far and wide. Perhaps we can effect a change so widespread that all grievers will know what to expect and can be more at peace with this universal experience.
Ashley Davis Bush, LICSW, is a psychotherapist with over 30 years of experience working with grieving individuals. She is also a Reiki master and a trained spiritual director. Light After Loss: A Spiritual Guide for Comfort, Hope, and Healing (Viva Editions, July 2022) is her 10th book. Learn more at ashleydavisbush.com.