Let’s consider for a moment the unchangeable realities of aging, illness, physical trauma, and loss of loved ones. These are life events we cannot change, so we must adapt. It’s easy enough, of course, to talk about adaptation, but the process of moving from denial and heart-felt wishes for things to be different to serene acceptance is not always an easy one.
Grief Is Natural
Grief, although often terribly painful, is a fundamental reality of human life as is, with or without professional help, finding ways to live, and even flourish, with loss.
Difficult feelings like shame, demoralization, or despair mark loss of any kind — be it the loss of a life-long friend, a body part, a country, or a self-identity that has changed because of life circumstances such as divorce or changes in job status.
All of these changes require awareness of your feelings, mourning, and adaptation so you can move forward with a sense of wholeness and hope.
Barriers to Healthy Grieving
If you are reading this, you, like almost everyone you know, have probably experienced a difficult loss — or may be going through the grieving process right now.
Grief is difficult enough, but it is made even more difficult when you consider that we are often discouraged from grieving!
Why? Because in contemporary Western culture, people are expected to grieve “correctly,” even “politely,” which denies the sometimes messy and always human aspects of grief.
In a speed-driven culture, we are also expected to grieve quickly, sometimes even in mere days or weeks. This focus on speed is usually not for the mourner’s benefit, but because even people who love us most do not want to witness a disturbing grief experience.
Sensing these cultural pressures, many people do not ask for help, hide or “stuff” their grief, and ignore important symptoms that may, in the end, result in a prolonged and more painful grief process. Some people avoid facing their emotions and find themselves shutting down and withdrawing.
This tendency often gets worse as people enter late life and look back at their lives with a critical eye. Whether a person feels good about their life and the experiences — good and bad — they’ve had depends on how self-affirming and self-accepting they can be. Some people feel bitter, blaming themselves or others for their misfortunes or, even more difficult, see their lives as meaningless, and begin to focus on their fear of death.
When people of all ages are supported in remembering and reviewing their lives, and accepting the past along with their losses, they are then able to be more present, and feel satisfied with life and happy with themselves instead of self-critical or depressed.
New Approaches to Healthy Grieving
Current trends in psychology include “integrative” approaches that combine different methods such as art and music therapy, journaling, yoga and meditation and other techniques such as behavior therapy. These combined techniques allow people to experience and express their grief more fully, helping along the process to acceptance.
Cultural changes take time, but there are models of support focusing on ways to help people feel sad without feeling bad about themselves. Group and individual counseling provide safe and comfortable environments so people can share their experiences and mourn loss in their own way and in their own time — without fearing shame or judgment.
Challenging as it may seem, your happiness depends on being able to accept not only profound loss, but your own mistakes and their consequences as well. Understanding that both death and fear of death are intrinsic to being human, cultivating compassion for the yourself, and getting support when needed are important keys to working through grief and living a free and joyful life.
This post is part of a four part series adapted from my original article “Mourning and Body Memory: A Sensory, Integrative Approach to Psychological Health and Healing.” To read the full article, visit my website at www.drkaitphilbin.com.