Grief Counseling: Keeping the light on

Most of us have experienced some form of grief in our lifetime. We know what it feels like and might even be able to describe some of the nuances of it. Many of us may feel lost when it comes to what “to do,” about grief. There comes in grief counseling. 

Grief is everywhere. It happens every time you experience the loss of something or someone important or that provides safety to you. This includes the death of someone (bereavement). It is the feeling of sadness, emptiness and loss that accompanies these life events. So, what really is grief and what do we do about it? I’ve had many great teachers in grief throughout my life, but none have been more important than some of the people I have served. Here are some of the gems that I cherish and reflect on as I recently lost such a teacher. 

Keep the light on

Traditions are so important to the grieving process. There can be great value in continuing to keep up this loving practice even well after that person is gone. This may come in the form of continuing to have conversations with that person, continuing to make space at the table, continue singing to them in the mornings, or continuing to keep the light on in their room. While you may wonder if this is trying to “hold on,” to someone or not allowing for “real grief,” consider:

Grief theory used to assume that we needed to detach from a person. Since the Freudian age, we have learned that true growth and integration after a loss means continuing a healthy attachment with that person after they are gone. This allows us to continue holding them in our heart and allowing them to shape us in some way as we continue to live life. We don’t have to deny that relationship. 

Create space and change place 

The pendulum of creating space for grief and also changing up your “place,” are worthwhile endeavors to find balance in. Perhaps this looks like keeping up a small area in your house of memorabilia of the loved entity you have lost and tending to it almost like you would your garden. A garden is even a symbolic way that some people I have worked with have tending to their grief. Again, having a dedicated space to continue practicing that tending to in the relationship can be vital.

You might also feel the need to balance this act of creating space with, perhaps, turning your dining room table 90 degrees up against the wall so that it eliminates the empty seat at the table and allows you to take a step forward into your new life, without having to always feel the empty seat. Not all avoidance of feelings are bad. 

A Willingness to feel

It takes a lot of strength and courage to open up and be willing to experience the pain of grief. This is usually the only way to remain open to the loved one’s connection and love, too. The willingness to open up to sadness, anger, anxiety and even relief or joy, can teach us a lot about ourselves. More importantly, the willingness to allow these emotions teaches us self-compassion and kindness. Many of the people that I have provided grief counseling to, often have an experience of pain due to yearning for their lost one and not feeling like they are able to connect with them or feel their presence in any way.

I usually address this through the ongoing willingness to feel as they may have unknowingly have been guarding against the full experience of the loss, and thus not allowing the full experience of a new connection. This was beautifully articulated to me in the following metaphorical gem by a recently deceased client of mine. She was expressing her own feelings of grief for a friend she had lost, and was feeling very ambivalent about reaching out to her friend’s family during her birthday because of the feelings that might accompany the call. 

Grief is like a heavy winter trench coat

She described what she was feeling as a coat that was weighing her down and restricting her movement. As we discussed her experience, we discovered that grief feels like you wear this coat all the time. Every time you try and take it off, it has a funny way of finding itself right back on you. We are tempted to try and shed it any chance that we can get so that we can move about life a little easier. It is constrictive, unpleasant to the touch, and horrid to look at. So what would happen if we were willing to drop the struggle and get to know what wearing this coat feels like and explore it? 

We might find that there is also something that would be lost if we were able to fully remove that coat. Maybe if we were to check the many pockets, there would be significant artifacts or items that we wouldn’t want to lose within that coat of grief. Those pockets had to be explored to name the treasures inside. As my client continued to develop her willingness to wear this coat, she discovered an avenue to dedicate something to her deceased friend and felt a conviction to act on this by sending flowers in her honor to their church.

The Waves of Grief are all a part of the same ocean

Our ocean of grief is made up of loss of control and loss of predictability. It has the salty sting of pain that crashes on us in waves. It feels like a free fall where we try and reach out to someone or something to help catch us. Unfortunately, this is the initial trauma we all face when we are born. The inability to express the pain of not understanding, and needing safety provided to us. We carry the need to find safety, predictability and control in life. When we suffer a loss along the way, it adds a ripple to the ocean, a wave, or sometimes even a tidal wave. To live with grief, means we find a way to surf these waves and recognize how our many griefs are connected. This is, after all, the human condition. If you love, you will lose. 

Not all grieving processes require therapy. However, if you find you’re struggling to manage your experience or feel you’re losing yourself in the waves, please consider reaching out. You don’t have to go through this process alone. Individual and group therapy can be very effective and healing. 

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