Simplify Magazine published David Fireman’s article, “Self-Care in the Face of Grief and Mourning” in December 2019. You can read it online at https://simplifymagazine.com/essay/self-care-grief For a 25% discount on single issues and subscriptions to Simplify Magazine, visit this page.
To simplify is a beautiful goal. And yet there are those profound and complex situations in life that defy simplification. Grief and mourning are certainly chief among such circumstances. Loss is anything but easy. But perhaps we can bring a simple mindset—that is, one based upon clear principles—to bear on bereavement to help pave a way through its many dark and confusing twists and turns.
Loss renders us vulnerable and temporarily destabilized. Old losses may be stirred in the context of current losses. Ordinary stressors often become amplified, and our needs cry out to be cared for by self and others as they, too, intensify under the turmoil that loss creates.
Just what is grief? What is mourning? Both are normal and natural healing processes that occur after a separation or loss. But it is worth defining them more carefully to illustrate their differences. Grief is acute. Mourning is long term.
Grief includes the cognitive, emotional, physical, and spiritual reactions to loss. Grief is anguish. Grief attacks the very notion of self, temporarily throws us into chaos and unbearable pain. It comes in waves that crash in at unpredictable times. It surges through us, and all we can really do to survive it is to soften our instinctive recoil against it, our resistance to it, and surrender to its overwhelming forcefulness while being held in the support of our family, community, religious or spiritual system, therapist’s office.
Mourning, on the other hand, may include upsurges of acute grief, but it is a challenging, multi-faceted, long-term process of coming to terms with a new reality without our loved one. Mourning includes many phases and tasks within it as we attempt to reckon with the new and strange landscape of our life. Mourning is the ongoing confrontation with and adjustment to the presence of an immense and insistent absence. Mourning is the path that may lead us to an acceptance of life’s most challenging dimensions.
Most of us aren’t prepared to lose a relative, friend, or colleague forever. We are not prepared to have death come to us, whether we’ve anticipated it or it comes suddenly or unexpectedly. We are sideswiped by the news, and it is as if, for a moment, time stands still as we absorb the information that a person we’ve known and loved has died. A life has ended, an individual once vital, healthy, engaged in their life is gone, never to return.
In its aftermath, this wrenching fact may leave behind a bedroom or a desk marked by personal touches, works in progress, voicemail and email mimicking a still active life. It leaves conversations unfinished and connections suspended in time. It requires us to face and shoulder innumerable tasks, including sharing the terrible news, preparing for funerals, completing work, paying bills, long before we even have begun to recognize what has really occurred, let alone begun to process our own reactions.
We live in a culture that worships youth, busyness, speed, beauty. In this context, sickness, age, dying, and bereavement are feared and shunted away. Until, that is, the reality of limitation or life’s truly temporary nature confronts us at some inevitable point. While our denial is understandable and, in fact, in many ways necessary, it is only the beginning phase of a lifelong adaptation, and therefore it is folly for us to insist on and cling to it. Our predicament is dreaded but clear: we are imperfect and mortal. The fact of being born into a physical body that is amazingly adaptable, but vulnerable in ways we dare not take for granted, unfortunately requires that we work on identifying and softening our denial systems. Perhaps we should learn to be more prepared.
Thankfully there is a change occurring in our culture’s view of bereavement and mourning. Not long ago, it was thought that the most important thing one could do is stay busy and get back to work as soon as possible after a significant loss. While some may need to push forward in the aftermath of a loss, for most of us, swiftly cutting the tie that binds us to our lost loved one and moving on is untenable. In fact, we have found that individuals who willfully suppress their emotions, without giving themselves a chance to begin facing their vulnerable states of mind, often wind up manifesting symptoms of physical illness, generalized anxiety, and depression.
Meanwhile, in the psychological field, clinicians and researchers are questioning our basic assumptions about how we’ve conceptualized bereavement. Unlike the old model based primarily on the notion of cutting the tie to the deceased, the new model of bereavement focuses on our normal developmental need to maintain the bond with the lost loved one, albeit a new, non-physical, emotional, and perhaps spiritual one. Humans don’t just pull back their longing to connect with the dead. Instead, we continue to relate through a natural need to remain connected in spite of the physical separation imposed by impermanence. In addition, the new model insists that grief and mourning are extremely personal experiences and therefore look different for everyone.
The Work of Grief and Mourning
Impermanence, love, and loss: these three are interwoven with each other to the point of being inseparable. In this world, all is temporary. We love and we lose. We unite and separate through time. In the simplest terms, life is joy and suffering.
Perhaps this is the reason cultures across the globe symbolize loss by rending fabric. The act ritualistically embodies the torn heart suffering after having been joyfully stitched together with others in life, but physically separated from them through the seasons of change and, ultimately, death.
If you’ve endured the death of a friend, colleague, or relative, hopefully someone was there who could witness your pain. In the case of grief and mourning, witnessing illuminates how our grief in the current situation is influenced by our beliefs and previous experiences of loss. A witness helps us honestly evaluate whether our grief is constricted or complicated by internal or external factors, and what that might suggest about our adjustment process. Support of this kind might eventually help us see a way through the seemingly impossible, to begin reconstructing life, perhaps leading to the choice to return to our former self and familiar patterns, and/or to contemplate and plan for a changed way of being.
In modern society the psychotherapist is often the witness who empathically helps us understand our personal problems and potentials, recover from traumas, explore pragmatic solutions to interpersonal impasses, and enliven our connection to our own soul. After a loss, the therapist encourages us to slow down and begin an honest, brave, self-respecting, albeit uneasy search for a way to survive and live forward with grief, by stretching beyond our characteristic coping patterns to bring us closer to a more authentic expression of our deeper self in the world. Therapy is a ritual container co-constructed by therapist and client to hold, protect, and dignify grief and mourning. Connecting with a witness in the form of therapist open the possibility of such ritual space and is itself an act of self-compassion.
But modern culture seems bent on using all and any means to distract us from life’s darker caprices. Perhaps it is a way of protecting us, but more likely it is an expression of dysfunction or an unwillingness to take into account the more painful and complex facets of transience, love, and loss—that is, of the full range of being human. Grief and mourning forcefully introduce us into counter-cultural, but spontaneous, recovery and healing patterns. For example, we are compelled by loss to slow down and even stop our daily activities to begin assimilating the new reality in front of and within us. Slowing down for the purpose of feeling and reflecting, while simple and sensible, is practically a revolutionary act. But rather than being a luxury, it is in fact a necessity.
Don’t be duped into thinking that taking care of yourself is a selfish or lazy way of being. Here are some strategies that have worked for many:
- Surround yourself with loving, listening, accepting people.
- Go into nature and use all of your senses.
- Listen to music that touches your wounded soul.
- Eat well.
- Write your thoughts and feelings in a grief journal.
- See a therapist who has deep experience helping with loss.
- Go to a support group to both give and receive nurturing and understanding.
- Exercise and stretch your body.
- Recollect and remember by interacting with personal effects and pictures.
- Always give yourself permission to change your activity if it becomes too uncomfortable.
- Create and enact rituals designed to contain and express the range and depth of your feelings.
- Tell stories about your loved one.
- Attend religious or spiritual services for cosmic connection and community.
Practicing self-compassion is a skill. Skills get better as we repeat them. While tips are useful, make sure they fit you and your inclinations. The best ways through loss are those that are meaningful to you. In grief and mourning, consider practicing skills that address comprehensively the different aspects of yourself, including mind, body, spirit.
Bringing It Home
Finally, a truly evolving and compassionate model would accept the requirements of letting go and holding on. We must be able to find ways to maintain our connection to the deceased through an extremely personal inner dialogue, which at times finds external expression. At the same time, in order to live forward, it is essential to relinquish certain aspects of the relationship. Life is, after all, for the living. A simple recognition of our natural need to grieve and mourn would help light the way through the darkness. Doing so requires making the countercultural move to slow down and take time away from normal daily activities with the intention to enter into and experience—perhaps in ritual time—our many reactions to loss.
Self-compassion is a series of steps taken over time to allow ourselves to feel and react to experience. In the case of loss, reactions such as rage, anxiety, dread, numbness, confusion, fear, relief, guilt, protest, and depletion are common. Furthermore, identifying someone who can offer the gift of witnessing our pain and who will resist well-intended but facile platitudes can help tremendously. That witness might be friend or therapist. Either way, he or she is there to help remind us that our many different reactions together make up the living legacy of loving through time, and they are both natural and understandable. Moreover, they are present to help build a protective ritual container in which we can safely express the range and depth of our emotional responses to the assault of loss.
Respecting and coming to know the pain and confusion of grief will set the stage for the way forward. We suffer through it all, accept it as best as possible, remember our connection, and go on. Mourning leads back into life.
David Fireman, LCSW, is the director of a non-profit organization called The Center for Grief Recovery and Therapeutic Services. He and his colleagues have been helping people work through the rigors and challenges of loss since 1985. Their approach is to meet the person where he or she is and provide a therapeutic framework and process grounded in empathy that is based upon social work, psychology, and counseling principles.