Grief is about so much more than death. Knowing this can help us recover from the losses which hit us harder than expected.
Loss comes in all shapes and sizes: a missing set of keys; an opportunity lost that you were really excited about; a cancelled event; a family member moving away or a friendship fizzling out; the death of someone you love.
While a loved one passing away is one of the most harrowing life experiences, grief isn’t limited to death. It can encompass the loss of a friendship, belief, addiction, a treasured possession, a dream, identity, your health or even your independence. You can also grieve things that haven’t happened yet; for example, if your parents are about to get divorced and the makeup of your family is about to change.
Most people lost something important to them in 2020.
Some had loved ones pass away, and they might not have been able to say goodbye. They might not have been allowed to have a funeral or memorial service. They might not have been able to gather in person with others to reminisce and mourn together.
Restrictions also caused and affected other losses. You might have been impacted by the border closures, separated from family members or your home. You might have missed out on graduation or rites of passage in your schooling journey. You might have cancelled the holiday and much-needed rest you invested time and money into organising.
We grieve what we value, and sometimes we don’t realise the value of something until it is lost for good. For example, you might wonder why you feel so upset after your favourite television show is cancelled. But if that series helped you through a tough time in your life or was a connection you shared with your friends or family, then you are losing more than ‘just a show’.
The same can be said when celebrity figures pass away; if you were somebody who saw themselves reflected on screen when Chadwick Boseman entered the frame as the Black Panther, or somebody who was inspired by the ground-breaking advocacy of Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, these deaths can feel like a deep loss even though you didn’t know them personally.
Grief knocks you about and sometimes it is hard to know how to move forward—especially if you don’t give yourself the space to admit that what you are feeling is grief.
How do I grieve this?
Grief is not a straightforward process. There are five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—but that doesn’t mean you will experience every stage or experience them in order. You might also have a physical reaction to the trauma—fatigue; nausea; losing or gaining weight; changes to your appetite, sleep habits, energy levels or concentration; headaches; pounding heart rate; breathlessness; aching or finding your immune system compromised.
Because grief is unique for every person, there is no specified roadmap to find your way out of it. You might feel angry. Sad. Hopeless. Shocked. Guilty. Afraid. Frustrated. Hurt. Cynical. You need to put aside time to process every emotion.
As you make time to work through these feelings, you should also make time to put them out of your mind. Catch up with friends. Binge-watch a TV show. Get stuck into a work task which requires your whole attention. Savour some comfort food (but don’t develop a reliance on it). Resist the temptation to lean into alcohol and drugs—numbing the pain is not the answer. If you are really struggling, whatever the loss, reach out for help.
Don’t allow anyone to dictate what you can and cannot grieve. You might not be as sad about the death of a grandparent whom you had limited contact with, compared with the death of the pet you spent every day with and who comforted you through tough times. You may find it tougher to say goodbye to friends you only knew for five days at camp than your fellow graduating classmates. Forget about whether anybody else thinks you ‘should be’ grieving and monitor whether you are grieving. From there, you can start to work through it.
You should never feel like you need to go through the grieving process alone. Even if no one can fit the exact mould of what you have lost, that doesn’t mean they cannot help. Family, friends, work mates, coaches, teachers, leaders and mentors are all people you can reach out to—and, of course, God is there too. In Psalm 34:18, it reads, ‘The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit’. That doesn’t mean that you can whisk away grief with one prayer, but the Lord is with you, even when you are feeling strangled by grief, even if you cannot feel him there.
When you are feeling lost in the woods, it can be hard to forge on without knowing how far away the clearing is. Grief can be a journey of weeks, months or years—and it can be discouraging to know it might get darker before it gets lighter. It may get easier as the weeks go by, or it might rear its head from time to time. But acknowledging that you have suffered a loss which needs to be worked through will help you to move past it, or at least learn to live with it.
Don’t ignore or bottle up grief. Confront it. Schedule in time to sit with the loss and work through it. Speak to someone about your feelings, pray, take time to be creative (like journaling, painting or drawing—whatever is your creative language). Loss is unfortunately part of being human. But you can live through the pain, and you will.
Tips for supporting a friend through grief:
- Check in.
- Give them the space to grieve in their own way.
- Help them keep up routines.
- Keep inviting them to events, even if they will probably decline.
- Let them cry it out.
- Provide hugs and encouragement.
- Be a good distraction.
- Offer to go with them to seek support.
- If you are concerned about their safety, reach out to their family (or a trusted guardian/leader).