When you experience loss or the ending of something important, it’s likely you’ll be met with feelings of grief.
Grief is a unique emotion, and every person experiences it differently every time. It’s a complex mix of anger and sadness, and sometimes includes fear, resentment and betrayal.
In recent times, our society has tried to hide illness and death from our consciousness. Think hospitalisation, aged care facilities, funeral homes. Once upon a time (not so long ago, in fact), elderly and sick relatives were cared for in the home. When someone died, their body was often left in the home for a period of time to allow for facing the reality of death and to deepen the grieving process. In most cases, now, we are lucky if we’re given an opportunity to view the body of a dead person to help us close that chapter of life.
We are not taught ways to handle grief.
Sometimes, we’re able to take a week off work to be with our pain.
Often, we take a personal day or maybe two and then ‘get on with it’.
‘Drowning our sorrows’ is commonplace, so much so that drinking at the pub goes hand-in-hand with funerals.
Avoiding Feeling Our Feelings
It’s important to face the feelings of grief that arise and go through them, rather than pushing them down.
Overeating, drinking alcohol, using marijuana or other drugs to suppress or avoid feeling your feelings are signs you’re not really allowing your grief to move. Other (sneakier) ways we avoid feeling grief include overworking, becoming busy in a project, supporting other people in their grief (while not attending to our own) and finding palatable distractions like playing music, reading books, or watching TV.
What Does Grief Feel Like?
When people grieve, they’ll usually go through waves of emotion.
Their sadness may be expressed as crying or sobbing. In the past, even the most despairing expressions of grief were welcomed in public in most societies.
Along with expressions of emotion, a grieving person may also experience:
- Lethargy and oversleeping
- Loss of appetite
- Comfort eating
- Lack of concentration
- Apathy, loss of interest in life or in certain activities
- Spiritual crisis – questioning of beliefs and values
How Long Does Grief Last?
It’s usual that these feelings and expressions will last up to a few months. Over time, the grieving person will start to experience easing of their deep pain feelings and life returns to a ‘new normal’.
Sometimes, grief can persist over a long period of time, and the person can feel as though they cannot think of anything else. Their life does not return to normal. Rather than finding that their grief eases over time, they may find their feelings becoming stronger and more painful. This is known as ‘Complex Grief’. It’s important to consult a mental health professional if you suspect you or a loved one are experiencing Complex Grief.
Facing and moving grief in the moment is the best way to shift it.
How Can We Move Grief Through The Body?
There are 3 key ways we can move grief: breath, sound, and movement.
Full, deep breaths that fill the lungs are important for moving oxygen though the body and keeping the nervous system as calm as possible.
Sometimes when we are feeling intense emotion, the breath can become panicked, shallow and rapid or gasping.
Simply bringing our attention back to the breath can help us regulate our breathing.
Remind a grieving person to ‘come back to the breath’ can be incredibly helpful. If you’re attending someone who is getting lost in their emotions, you may need to gently offer this invitation a number of times.
The natural voice of grief includes crying, sobbing, and sighing.
Another sound particular to grief is called ‘keening’, which is a mournful wailing sound. In Irish and Chinese cultures, among others, keening is ritualised and occurs at the graveside. It’s considered a meaningful way to honour the dead.
Physiologically speaking, sounding is fundamentally important to moving grief through the body.
The throat, tongue, vocal cords, and other tissues involved in vocalising are controlled by the Vagus nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the opposite of our ‘fight or flight’ system, and helps bring our body back into ease. Activating the Vagus nerve through sounding with the tongue and throat is a way humans and animals instinctively down-regulate their nervous system in times of stress.
Shaking is another natural way that we can calm our nervous system.
Dr Peter Levine, the Granddaddy of Somatic Experiencing, explains that animals shake after stressful situations as a way of releasing tension and trauma.
By shaking the body, we burn up excess adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones) and decrease muscle tension.
Shaking may occur reflexively in times of distress, but often it is absent. In these cases, it can be helpful to consciously wiggle and vibrate the hips and shoulders. Shaking the hands, arms, feet, legs and head can also be useful to get energy moving and burn up stress and tension.
Gently rocking the body, dancing, or walking can be of benefit.
If we are feeling anger or rage, we can use those emotions to direct more energy out of our body. To do this, you can set up a pile of pillows on the floor and bash into them with your forearms and fists. Be mindful of not hurting yourself (especially your neck and shoulders) if you choose to work with your feelings this way.
The energy of rage can be especially powerful if we use it to drive the release of our emotions rather than trying to suppress it. Find a baseball bat and beat the shit out of your fence, or go to a break room.
How Can We Support a Grieving Person?
When someone is grieving, the acute part of the process may last only a few days or it may last several months.
Your support should match where the person is at.
Over-caring can be just as harmful as not caring. When we are too quick to offer hugs or touch, or to get in the person’s face with our loving kindness, we rob them of the opportunity to really feel their pain.
Be mindful. Check in with yourself before you offer tissues or sweet, calming words. Are you trying to avoid your own discomfort?
Cups of tea are always welcome in spaces of grief. Mostly, they only get half-drunk. But that’s perfect, because then you have something to do again.
When someone you love is grieving, learn to sit quietly in reverence of their pain.
Cast your eyes downward – no one likes to be stared at while their face is covered in snot and tears.
Ask before you hug, touch, or physically comfort them if they’re in deep process.
Once the grieving has eased, respectfully share of your learning with others.
We deeply need more conversation and understanding around grief in our society. The more we talk about grief and how to process it, the healthier our community becomes.