What is grief? Simply put, grief is an emotional response to any major loss. This means that grief is a common part of the human experience. We will all have loss in our lives, we will all suffer the loss of those people we love, loss of roles, loss of abilities, loss of relationships, loss of titles, and so on. If we love anything, we will experience loss.
Loss is tricky for us; it is unpredictable and uncontrollable. When loss happens, we stop recognizing our surroundings; we experience difficult and heavy emotions. The experience is one of being plunged into a world made strange.
Loss has Three Major Effects on Us
Disruption to Our Life Narrative
When we suffer a major loss, our life story is challenged. Before the loss we had a connected story about who I am, assumptions held about my world/my relationships, my sense of purpose, and my role in this drama. Then life is made strange by loss, and all these basic assumptions in our story stop making sense. In this process what matters to us and who matters comes under review. We must consider who am I now and to whom do I belong.
As our narratives fall apart, we start to experience deep sadness and longing for what was lost and the world we had before the loss. We may start to feel emotionally out of control. The smallest things can set off a cascade of tears or flood us with rage/guilt.
Increased Sense of Threat, Danger, and Anxiety
In our lives, we all have secure bases. These are the people, places, pets, things, etc. that provide us with a sense of safe haven. When life becomes challenging our secure bases provide us with shelter and support. Our secure bases also give us the strength and courage to take risks. Often what is lost is one or many of our secure bases. This effects our nervous system, we experience increased fight, flight, and freeze. We feel on edge and hypervigilant. We may even start to retreat way from others feeling that all relationships have become unsafe
There is good news. Often the answer to grief is the process of mourning. If grief is the emotional response to a life made strange, the process of mourning is rewriting our life stories to integrate our loss and develop a path for moving forward. When we mourn and let our emotions come close, we seek out other and new secure bases, and we learn to feel safe again in our bodies and in our world.
3 Helpful Skills for the Mourning Process
Willingness to Have our Emotions
Emotions are meant to be felt and felt in the body. When we feel overwhelmed by emotion it can be helpful to ask how does this sadness (or other named emotion) feel in my body? Can I get curious about it? Where in my body is it? Is it more to the left or right, the front or the back? What is the quality of the feelings, is it heavy or light? Does it have a color? Notice where in the body I am holding tension as I experience this emotion. Am I able to relax that tension? Emotions are like waves they can build but then they will crash, as we feel them, they move through us.
Pause and Breathe
The part of our brain that is responsible for fight, flight, and freeze can be regulated by the breath. As we notice our breath and breathe with intention, we calm the brain and help it to feel safe. One such way of breathing is called four-square breathing or box breathing. You simply breathe out of the mouth for a count of four, keep your lungs empty for a count of four, inhale through the nose for a count of four, keep your longs full for a count of four. This can be modified and personalized. Instead of counting, say a prayer such as “Lord please help” can be used, or “I’m here right now,” or “Peace be still.” With increased practice, this skill can help to stabilize us in our grief and increase our overall sense of peace and security.
Clarify and act on your values
When life becomes strange due to loss it is very easy to lose track of a sense of meaning and as a result, we stop doing many things that made our life worth living. It can be helpful at such time to clarify our values. Ask what, regardless of circumstance, if I can access would make my life worth living? This might be love, or nature, or creativity, faith, hope, fun, etc. When we can clarify our values, they become a trailhead for our actions and provide a path for moving forward after loss. Our values help us to identify the next right thing for us to do.
Grief is common and mourning is challenging. We at Heart ‘n Home feel that no one should have to do this alone. We provide services to our patients and their families to help them prepare for a loss and continue helping after a loss. We companion with families for 13 months after the loss providing group support and individual counseling.
Watch Garrett further explain the differences between grief and mourning.