The legacy of grief: Coping with loss

There are very few things as certain in life as the experience of loss. We have all had, or will have, to say goodbye to someone who we cherish deeply — be it a partner, family member, friend, or mentor. The gap left by their absence is unfillable, so how do we cope?

From my own experience, grief is not something you overcome; it is something you manage. "Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything," wrote author C. S. Lewis about the death of his wife.

The void that sets in when someone you love dies seems to swallow everything, including the very self.

For me, it was a little like being thrown into the ocean without the appropriate equipment. First, there was the shock of impact with a cold, all-swallowing mass. Then, the awareness that I was quickly running out of air, and finally, the struggle to resurface for just one breath before being knocked back down by the next wave.

Grief is different for everyone, but it is a common experience across ages, countries, and cultures. There is no recipe for coping with grief, and no "quick fix" for the emptiness that accompanies it. Hundreds of people — from poets to psychologists and many others in-between — have been trying to explain and contain this deeply human experience for years.

Though we grieve, we live. So what should we know about grief, and what can we do about it to live as best we can in light of loss?

Acknowledge and accept your feelings

When someone you love has died, you will likely experience a plethora of very different and often contrasting emotions. These may come one by one — although there is no "normal" order — or strike us all at once, in a cacophony of emotional noise.

In The Grief Survival Guide, life coach and neurolinguistic progamming practitioner Jeff Brazier points to a range of emotions that we may feel while grieving, including anger, disbelief, guilt, loneliness, resentment, yearning, and blame.

These are all natural reactions in the face of loss, and they are part of our coping mechanism as we try to really make sense of death, and how it is affecting our life.

Another emotional reaction that Brazier lists is numbness. "Our body goes into a state of threat, [...] and our feelings then seem hard to access simply because our body is protecting us from the trauma we face," he writes.

Whatever we may feel, or appear not to feel, after someone's death, it's important to acknowledge and accept it. Rejecting or trying to "bottle up" our emotions for the sake of others — be that out of embarrassment or because we believe that our natural reactions may alienate us from others — is both unhealthful and unhelpful in the long run.

"Strength is allowing yourself to be vulnerable, to be real, and to answer honestly any questions you are posed on a daily basis on your emotional state."

Jeff Brazier

If you want to cry, then allow yourself to do it. There's a reason why humans have the capacity for shedding tears when in distress, and that's because crying is soothing, releasing and eliminating stress hormones.

The act of crying helps us to regain emotional balance and stabilize our mood.

Grief is not a linear process

Grief has traditionally been described as a linear process. There are several steps that a bereaved person must supposedly follow as they embark on the journey from pain and shock to complete emotional healing.

Dr. Susan Delaney likens our emotional capacity to a jar that grows bigger and bigger with time.

Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross influentially put forward the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Yet others emphasize that grief is an experience with many ramifications.

But it is nothing if not messy, unpredictable, and nonlinear. Dr. Susan Delaney, bereavement services manager at the Irish Hospice Foundation in Dublin, opposes the idea of "stages" of grief.

In a talk that she delivered last year, she explains that grief is neither conveniently structured nor possessing an "endpoint," as such. "There's no 'five stages of grief.' There never was," she says.

"[G]rief certainly doesn't occur in any linear way. We don't step through our grief in that way of having the flu. It's more like the figure of eight, people have good days and bad days."

Dr. Susan Delaney

Dr. Delaney likens grief to the image of a large dark mass in a jar: as time goes on, the dark mass (representing grief) doesn't get any smaller, but the jar (our emotional capacity) gets larger.

She argues that it's not that our feelings regarding the loss of someone dear disappear or begin to fade, but rather that we start to grow emotionally and become able to fit other feelings — for other people, or for passions for different activities — around our grief.

"We grow around grief, we become bigger," she explains. In the end, our feelings of loss become one small part of our enlarged mental and emotional space.

You won't 'get over it,' but that's O.K.

Sigmund Freud's early theories about grief talked about working toward severing emotional bonds with the person who has passed away. But who can — and who'd want to — stop loving someone just because they aren't around anymore?

Separation is painful, but the memories you shared with the person who died and the feelings you had for them don't just go away, and neither will they lessen with time.

As Dr. Delaney put it, "[T]here's no closure when we're talking about grief, because death ends a life, not a relationship."

"If someone mattered to you in life, they continue to matter to you after they die, you just have to find a different way to relate to them," she adds.

Performer and author Kelley Lynn, as expressed during a talk about her experience coping with the sudden death of her husband, also finds, "When it comes to the death of someone you love, there is no such thing as moving on."

Build on and around your grief

But the thing is, it's not at all about "moving on." Instead, it's about using your grief as a stepping stone, to build and create. For instance, you may want to raise awareness of whatever it is that caused your loved one's death, and create a legacy.

To help you come to terms with the loss of someone dear, try writing about your experience.

You could join or start a campaign. Or, if you feel comfortable enough, you could write a blog about your experience with grief and your memories about the person who passed away. That way, you'll not only make sure that they're remembered, but you might end up helping someone else in the process.

For me, grief was a gateway into writing, passionately and with my whole heart. Something that had been a private hobby became a real, tangible outlet, not just for me and for my own feelings, but also for those around me.

I shared my writing with those closest to me, and, to my surprise, it helped them to express and deal with their emotions in grief.

If you're not comfortable sharing your feelings, thoughts, and memories with others, then you may still want to consider starting a journal, but for your eyes only.

Drs. Wendy G. Lichtenthal and Robert A. Neimeyer, clinical psychologists, explain that writing about our feelings in the aftermath of a distressing event helps us to make sense of what happened and consciously include it within our life's story, allowing us to manage our feelings and grow. They say:

"'Storying' our experiences allows us to incorporate and organize disruptive life events into our self-narratives, fostering a coherent sense of identity and shaping emotional reactions and goals for the future."

'Create your own ritual'

To help us come to terms with our feelings — and especially with the incredibly loud absence of the person who is no longer with us — Dr. Kim Bateman, who is a clinical psychologist specializing in bereavement, suggests that we come up with personal rituals involving the person who passed away.

"When we're forced to say goodbye to someone in the physical form, we're also being offered an opportunity to say hello to them in our imaginations," she encourages.

An example of a ritual might be setting a cup of tea for the person we're missing — if, say, tea was a beverage that they enjoyed — and imagining having a conversation with them.

My own personal ritual is lighting a candle, if possible, whenever I visit a church or another religious sanctuary. Though for me, this doesn't have much to do with religion.

Instead, I imagine that I'm lighting a timeless path, tracing my footsteps in my journeys around the world, and that, a little like Hansel and Gretel, the ones I love and miss can follow this path to find me any time they wish.

"To create your own ritual, ask yourself what brought joy to your loved one. The more specific you can be with your answers, the better."

Dr. Kim Bateman

Rather than keeping you stuck in the past, rituals like this one will allow you to move forward and change your relationship with the grief you feel.

As Dr. Delaney noted in her talk, "There's no closure, you don't get over it, but you accommodate to it." Personal rituals can be a way of doing just that: accommodating to grief, and growing around it.

We don't just leave the ones we've loved and lost behind, so in order to learn to live without their physical presence, perhaps we should learn to weave their legacies into our lives.

Dr. Bateman cites "Separation," a poem by American writer W. S. Merwin. It's also a particular favorite of mine, and it goes like this:

"Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color."