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An Important Reality for Navigating Grief

You, and the people around you, remain essentially the same.

Key points

  • While grief affects us in many ways, it does not change our essence.
  • We all grieve our own way, and no way is the "right" way.
  • The people around us remain true to themselves, too.
Fares Hamouche/Unsplash
Source: Fares Hamouche/Unsplash

Grief is so huge, so overwhelming, so all-encompassing, it feels like it does—or should—swamp everything else about us and everyone else. Grief affects our emotions, of course. Our sleep. It can mess with our physical health. It makes our thinking fuzzy (we call it “grief brain”). We might gain weight or lose weight, take on new habits (sometimes not the healthiest), or find ourselves isolating or socializing more than usual.

But you know what grief doesn’t change?

Who we are.

You grieve as you are

Have you always worn your heart on your sleeve? Then in grief, you might be a loud boo-hoo-er, a feelings sharer, a sad-song listener. You might join support groups and spill your heart to strangers who might become trusted confidantes. You might journal. You might want to talk talk talk about it to friends. You might want lots of hugs and there-theres.

On the other hand, if you’re stoic in life, you are likely to be stoic in grief. What’s done is done, there’s no point talking about it. You might want to just retreat to a quiet place and lick your wounds rather than share your feelings amid a bunch of strangers. How are you doing? Fine. That’s about as much as most people are likely to get out of you.

And that is fine. So while it’s not always easy to do, we have to give everyone space to grieve in whatever way works for them. It’s just not true that everyone needs to talk about it. For those of us who like them, support groups are lifelines; I can’t imagine managing without mine, and my therapist. But not everyone is me. We process how we process, and just because my way isn’t your way doesn’t mean either way is better. It''s also fine if you feel like talking sometimes but not others. I dropped out of my support group for a couple of months when I was feeling strong, but then I hit a rough patch and returned. They welcomed me back and it was fine.

We bring our wounds into grief

What’s more (and more annoying), the problems and issues we bring with us into grief are not superseded by grief—in fact, they are more likely to be activated by it. Those of us who tend to feel lonely will try to blame it all on grief, but there’s a chance that loneliness of some kind has been a lifetime companion. (For an interesting contemplation of this, check out Lonely: A Memoir by Emily White.) Not to downplay the loneliness of loss—of a spouse in particular, who was woven into every moment of our day-to-day lives—but have you ever felt lonely in a crowd? With friends? Do connections feel tenuous? Yeah, me too. Chances are we have some kind of childhood wound to thank for that, and grief is just ripping it open afresh. One clue to identifying when something from the past is being activated is to note times and situations where our response feels extreme.

I have been in a very rough place the past few months, and my tears felt out of control. They hit randomly, and they hit hard. In talking to counselors, I eventually came to understand (reluctantly) that I probably wasn’t wrestling only with pure grief, but with childhood trauma activated by Tom’s death. Which just seems … rude. Isn’t grief enough to deal with? Do I have to deal with all the old mishigas as well? Shouldn’t the problems of the past be crushed under the weight of my grief?

But no. The baggage I carried before Tom died didn’t magically vanish because I had something new to focus on. Under this fresh layer of grief, I’m still the same old me wrestling with the old issues that grief has now stirred up. The best I can hope for is that this new, keen pain will point me toward new roads to healing.

Our grief doesn't change others, either

Equally salient in this discussion is the fact that the other people in our lives are also no different from whom they have always been. The sister who dances on the edge of narcissism won’t magically become nurturing and you-focused because of the intensity of your pain. The friend who doesn’t hug isn’t the friend whose shoulder you can literally cry on. The relative who can’t seem to say anything without a little barb attached won’t suddenly become gentle.

While in some ways grief changes everything, in many ways grief changes nothing. So we have to stay conscious of what we know about the people in our lives and be discerning about whom we entrust with our pain. We can’t look for support from the weakest soul we know or try to squeeze tenderness from our driest friend. As my grief guru David Kessler says, don’t look for milk in the hardware store. Which is not to say we should drop anyone who can’t handle our grief. We simply have to know the parameters of each relationship and appreciate it for what it is. Maybe you have one friend who’s not into sharing deep thoughts but is always game to go to a movie. That’s fine. Sometimes it’s nice to just go to a movie and leave the grief outside.

(Although not everyone deserves slack, in my opinion. It may be that their response to your anguish puts a spotlight on qualities in the relationship that don’t feel healthy for you. I think it’s OK to step away from some people—perhaps just for a while, perhaps forever. In this ever-shifting sea of emotion, we do whatever it takes to stay afloat.)

So yes, loss is a seismic change in our lives. Grief feels overwhelming. But it is actually a layer of emotion and experience on top of all the emotion and experience we already carry within us. While it changes us in many ways, it does not change our essence, and it changes the people around us even less. Keeping this in mind can help us navigate these choppy waters.

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