In light of the recent Humboldt Broncos tragedy, where 16 people died in a horrific bus crash in Saskatchewan, with 13 others seriously injured, I felt it was important to write about grief and loss. When faced with a tragedy, we often feel helpless to comfort those in need or we may struggle to understand our own grieving process. Unfortunately, in North America we don’t typically deal with death or other types of losses well. There is a lot of fear around death and dying. We don’t know how to act or what to say around those experiencing such losses. For some, a lack of community or spiritual beliefs can result in isolation, greater length of grieving, and potential depression. Other than a funeral or memorial service, we lack ritual and ceremony to support us through these difficult times.
Types of Loss
When we think of grief and loss, most often we believe it is the result of the death of a loved one, but there are a number losses that can occur in one’s life that can be just as, or even more, devastating. You may be thinking, how could anything be more devastating than the loss of a loved one? It can because loss is subjective to the individual. How a person perceives an event or experience, how they deal with it, or more likely, are unable to deal with it, and how it impacts their feelings and beliefs about themself is going to be different for each person experiencing a loss. If a child dies, how grief and loss manifests for each parent will often be completely differently. The same is true for other types of losses other than from death. These losses are just as valid for the individual and should be acknowledged as such.
Here is a list of other losses that someone can experience placing them in the grieving process:
- Death of a Pet – don’t discount how devastating this loss can be for someone. Pets are like children. People will come into harm’s way to save their pet. When you receive unconditional love and years of companionship from your pet, when they die, it is overwhelming.
- Separation or Divorce – when you share your life, fears, hopes, dreams, and intimacy with your partner, your soul is bare and you allow yourself to be vulnerable. When this ends, you question everything you knew to be true about them and yourself and you feel exposed.
- Miscarriage – some women who have a miscarriage believe they don’t have the same right to grieve as someone whose child died that they gave birth to and raised. This is completely false. Whether that child was in the womb, was birthed and survived only minutes or hours, or was one-years-old or 30- years-old, you will grieve the death of that child and the lost potential for you and them.
- Loss of a Job – again time is not a factor. Whether you worked for two months or 20 years at a company, the loss of a job affects how you perceive yourself and your abilities to retain employment. This can be especially difficult for men who see their role as provider of the family.
- Loss of Identity – similar to above, when we lose a big part of our identity, we struggle to find meaning and purpose in our lives. If we are no longer that piece of identity, who are we? This can create an existential crisis about belonging and purpose.
- Illness or Old Age – a major life illness or aging can be difficult to cope with. There may be loss of mobility and independence. The need to have to rely on others. Financial strain. Isolation and loneliness. The need to recapture one’s youth and vitality leads to an inability to accept what is.
- Immigration or Moving – this results in the loss of family and friends, comfort, security, familiarity, language, and culture. Having to potentially learn a new language, way of life, and maybe even a completely different occupation creates hardship and emotional overwhelm. Even moving cities in the same country can result in feelings of isolation and loneliness.
- Catastrophes – whether this be from war, flood, hurricane, tornado, fire, earthquake, mudslide, tsunami, or famine, this often results in a loss of basics needs: food, water, shelter, safety, and security. Displacement from one’s home and a loss of basic needs creates feelings of hopelessness and uncertainty for one’s future.
Stages of Grief
Whether you are experiencing the death of a loved one, or any of the losses mentioned above, you will be experiencing grief. Many of you may have heard of the five stages of grief by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. They include: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Ignacio Pacheco lists seven stages of grief including: shock and denial; pain and guilt; anger and bargaining; depression, reflection, and loneliness; the upward turn; acceptance and hope; and reconstruction and working through. Click here for a link to the description of each stage.
Whether you choose to follow either of these stages of grief, it is important to recognize that these stages are not linear. You don’t just go from one to the other in a perfectly orderly sequence. You may go from denial to anger to some level of acceptance and then back to more denial and then depression. Nor do they have time limits. Each stage takes as long as it needs to take. These stages are just a guideline and can be used to support and validate where you are at in the grief process.
What is important to understand is that grief is different for everyone. Even though someone may have experienced a similar loss as you, you will both have completely different feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and beliefs about the experience. And, more importantly, both experiences are valid. This piece is key. Please do not judge or criticize someone for how they are experiencing their own grief and loss. Everything they are experiencing is true for them.
As a society, we are so quick to judge how someone else should behave in a specific circumstance, especially grief. This is what most people perceive as grief: uncontrollable tears, head and body turned inward, inability to eat, clothes and hair in a disarray, needing support from others, weakness. This may be accurate for some, but not for all. Some hold back their tears because they prefer to grieve alone. Some believe they need to be strong for their family members. Some are able to be at peace because of their strong religious faith and belief they will be together again. All these experiences are valid.
We have difficulty seeing others in pain because it is bringing up something in us. If there is a need for you to want to tell someone to move on with their life, that things could be worse, that you’ve grieved long enough, please check in with yourself first. There is something in you that feels uncomfortable with the other person’s grief. Maybe it’s your spouse who is grieving a loss, and you fear if they don’t move forward soon, it may mean the end of your marriage. Ask yourself any one of these questions: How is this person’s grief affecting me? What are my beliefs about this person’s grief? What do I fear about this person’s grief? This will help you to understand what is happening internally for you. When someone we love is going through grief and loss, we are also going through our own grief and loss, and often we fail to recognize this.
When we experience a loss, it will trigger limiting beliefs about what we think of ourselves. If you are experiencing a limiting belief, the first question to ask is: Is this limiting belief my belief or someone else’s? If it is your belief, acknowledge it and then ascertain if it is accurate or false. Often our thoughts and beliefs are completely false and inaccurate. If it is someone else’s limiting belief, whose is it? Mother’s? Father’s? Teacher’s? Often you will actually here that other person’s voice in your head. For example, maybe you got fired from your job and your limiting belief about yourself is: “I am a failure.” You recognize your father always used to say this to you. As such, you need to disregard it as it is not your belief to take on.
To help release a limiting belief, whether it be yours or someone else’s, is to acknowledge all the areas that disprove this limiting belief. For example, I worked at the company for 10 years. They are laying off 100s of people. I graduated from university. I own my home. Your limiting belief is coming up because you have a past unprocessed experience where you were emotionally wounded and it is still residing in your energetic body. These can be uncovered, cleared, and worked through with the help of a therapist.
Supporting Those Who Are Grieving
We can sometimes feel awkward or unsure of how to support someone who is grieving. Here are some suggestions:
- Be gentle, loving, and kind with the individual.
- Listen without judgment and without trying to come up with solutions. Holding space for someone in need involves being fully present and not distracted by bright shiny objects (aka your cell phone). Turn it off, put it away, and stay present and in the moment with the person you are there to support.
- Be comfortable with the person’s emotions. Let them cry for as long as they need to. Let them curse. Don’t try to placate them. Again, holding space means just being present. Imagine you are sending them love from your heart to theirs. Visualize that love radiating from your heart and flowing freely into theirs.
- Silence can be a very powerful way to communicate. Many people feel uncomfortable in silence and want to fill up the space with words. If the other person doesn’t want to speak, then honor that by being silent with them. This can go a long way to show support. In doing so, you are sharing their pain with them.
- Pray for the individual and all those involved to find peace and comfort. You can do this with the person or when you are alone.
- Different cultures have different meanings around grief and loss. Don’t assume their beliefs are the same as yours. They will also have different traditions and ceremonies around loss. Be open, don’t judge. If you are unsure of what they are experiencing, ask gentle questions for clarification.
- Often, our first impulse is to stop the pain a grieving person is having. We have no right and, truly, no power to take away someone’s pain. Honoring their painful process is essential to their healing because it returns power and control, which has often been taken from them.
- Don’t use trite clichés: “You’ll be alright.” “You shared so many good years together.” “You’ll find another job.” “You’re so strong.” “You can still have another child.”
- Ask the person what they need. Sometimes it’s just the day-to-day tasks they need support with. For example, taking care of their children for a few hours, taking their children to school or picking them up, taking them to a doctor’s appointment, or providing home cooked meals.
Supporting Yourself Through Loss
Maybe you feel like your world is crumbling around you, or that you are drowning in pain and sorrow, or maybe you are doing okay, but could use some support on those difficult days. Here are some suggestions:
- Be kind, compassionate, and gentle with yourself. How would you treat someone you love who is going through what you are going through? Do that exact same thing for yourself.
- Honor wherever you are at in the process. Your grief will take as long as it needs to take. You will have good days, difficult days, and in-between days. You may wake up in the morning feeling okay and then something happens and you feel like it just happened a second ago. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Just let it unfold as it needs to.
- Find a “comfort anchor”, which is an object or place that brings you comfort, grounding, and solace. For example, a soft blanket, a stuffed animal, a piece of jewelry, clothing, flowers, or being in the mountains or by the water. Something that helps to remind you what is good in your life. A symbol of love or hope (Janet Childs, The Center for Living With Dying).
- Engage in a “comfort task”, which is any activity that helps to bring you ease from a difficult day or create feelings of peace. Treat yourself and allow yourself to engage in some relaxation or play. For example, get a massage, have a bubble bath, bake, play cards or board games with your family, or go for a walk (Janet Childs, The Center for Living With Dying).
- If you have any spiritual or religious beliefs, this is a wonderful resource during times of loss. Engage in prayer, ask for support from God, Creator, your angels, the Archangels, spirit guides, or the universe. Freely and openly talk to them, tell them your pain, and ask them to support healing and peace for all involved.
- Your family and friends want to help you, but don’t know how. Tell them what you need from them. I know this can feel like even greater vulnerability with what you are going through, but reaching out for support can help ease the overwhelm you may be feeling. Here are some examples: ask them to pick you up some groceries, take care of your children for an afternoon, get out of the house for tea or a walk together, or come over for a visit.
- As difficult as it can be, acknowledge the loss and allow yourself to grieve. No one wants to experience emotional and physical pain associated with loss, but in order to heal, you have to feel it and go through it. There is no quick fix. If you don’t experience all aspects of the loss, and instead ignore your feelings, you will just bury them only to surface at a later date.
- Remember that holidays, anniversaries, and special days will be painful and may last from several weeks before and after the actual day the event occurred. If possible, you may decide to take some time off work. Engage in self-awareness around how you are feeling and how your body is doing. Notice that you may be more emotional or more tired. Take care of your emotional and physical needs.
- When someone experiences any form of loss, it can create loss of meaning and purpose in one’s life. Slowly, day-by-day, you will start to create a new “normal” from this loss. You will transform your life and when you are ready, you will find meaning from this loss and create new hopes and dreams.
Ritual and Ceremony
Many cultures have rituals and ceremonies around death, grief, and loss. In North America, other than a funeral or memorial service, it can feel like uncharted territory for engaging in rituals and ceremonies around loss. If we break up with our boyfriend or if we lose our job, there may be no ritual or ceremony in place to support healing.
A ritual is an activity that involves gestures, words, or objects that we engage in a specific sequence (Wikipedia). We engage in rituals every single day. We have rituals when we wake up in the morning and start our day and when we go to sleep at night. Rituals can help us to acknowledge the loss and support healing not only for us, but for all involved.
A ceremony is an event that holds ritual significance and is performed on a special occasion (Wikipedia). Historically, ceremony was present to acknowledge developmental milestones and life passages. Ceremony helps us to process the changes we experience as we go through a loss. Saying goodbye is important in a number of situations – whether that be someone who has died, saying goodbye to colleagues after you have lost a job, or saying goodbye to an identity.
If you are seeking more rituals and ceremony in your life around grief and loss, but they don’t exist, then create your own. There is no right or wrong way to create ceremony. The Center for Living With Dying discuss some things to keep in mind when creating a ceremony:
- What is the purpose of the ceremony?
- What is going to take place at the ceremony? What are the action steps?
- Would you prefer to be alone or who would you want to be there? Will they participate or have specific roles?
- What are you going to use in the ceremony (candles, music, photographs, mementos)?
- What symbols do you wish to use? What has meaning to you?
- Where and when will you have it?
The “general flow to creating a ceremony” includes the following:
- “Acknowledge the loss.
- Express the pain of that loss/change.
- Release the burden of the loss and any unfinished business.
- Perform a physical action to memorialize the healing/memories of the loss.
- Honor the love and meaning gathered from the loss.
- Celebrate life and what is good in present time” (Ceremonies of Leavetaking: To Say Goodbye).
Whether you have experienced the death of a loved one or another type of loss in your life, acknowledge the loss, grieve it, and honor whatever process and time you require to heal from it. Sometimes working through grief and loss is too overwhelming and difficult to work through alone. As such, you may need further intervention or support from a therapist. The experience that results in grief and loss can sometimes be exacerbated because it was traumatic. If this is the case, a therapist can provide therapeutic tools, such as EMDR, to support coping and healing from trauma symptoms.
Whatever you are experiencing with grief and loss, my wish is that you are able to go through it with ease and grace and find peace and meaning on the other side.
If you are experiencing grief and loss in your life and are struggling to cope alone, you don’t need to. Contact me to set up an appointment. Have more questions? Call me at 403-891-1384 to set up a free 15-minute phone consultation.