Grief: Processing Loss and Making Meaning

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Written by Emily Phan, LMFT

This year has been remarkable, beginning with  hope as most New Years do, but followed by unprecedented global suffering and trauma. At the beginning of the year, a loved one mentioned to me that they already felt “off”, somewhat defeated,  and coined 2020 as “the year of death”. This caught me off guard and I was surprised by her candidness with such a negative catch phrase at the start of the new year, but it did not take long before her premonition, or even just her early observation, seemed to become even more true than she imagined. 

Grief is often talked about as occurring in stages, and while I believe that most of the stages are true representations of our emotions and responses, I think that it is often more accurate for us to think about grief as moments. Grief is not linear; we do not move from one stage to the next, but so often we experience moments of grief’s emotions in a more fluid manner.

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Sometimes, we experience more than one of these stages in the same breath. We may have a moment of acceptance and then be completely confused when we start to feel denial once again. Time may start to help us heal and then seemingly out of nowhere we have a triggering thought, feeling, or memory that can catapult us back into a bargaining phase all over again.

While grief is common in outpatient therapy, this year it has been a more frequent companion during sessions. Many people seem to find comfort in areas of faith and holding on to their belief that their loved one is in a better place, with no pain and in the hands of their Creator. Some individuals may find peace in their cherished memories, and by challenging themselves to live up to the example of the person who passed; honoring them through intentional actions or picking up where they left off. It can be helpful to remember how your loved one would want you to continue on in your life without feeling stuck in past moments.

Where does the individual who experiences the loss of an abuser, or at minimum the loss of an unkind person, fit into grief? Complicated emotions and inner conflict can arise when the deceased is someone who does not seem to be deserving of your grief. It is incredibly important in this moment to be kind to yourself; give yourself grace and remember that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Each relationship is different and grief can therefore be different in every relationship. It may feel confusing to feel loss for someone who was cruel, it can be just as confusing to feel relief when someone dies, even when that person made your life more difficult.

It is ok to let go of the external pressure to respond in a particular “right” way. You may have moments of remorse because death signals finality and the end of any possibility of reconciliation with the person who hurt you. There is a saying to not speak ill of the dead, but the tendency in most cultures moves to the extreme by glorifying the dead and forgetting or dismissing all of their misgivings and shortfalls. It is ok to remember someone in their death in the same way that they lived their life. This honesty does not have to create a sense of resentment and bitterness, but it can be freeing to speak the truth and then to learn from it.

To remember how someone made you feel can create change in how you make others feel; intentionally being kind to others, when you experienced the deceased as intentionally cruel. Recognize that other people may have had a different experience with the person who passed and accept that as their truth without it taking away from yours. It is ok to have an atypical response to the loss of an atypical relationship.

In this “year of death”, cherishing the moments of positivity and joy can still bring a sense of that “anticipated promise” you felt at the start of 2020. Finding light in small things and in relationships with the people around you can be a saving grace. Focus on what you CAN do in situations instead of feeling overwhelmed by what you can’t do; what you can control versus what is out of your control; what is certain in a world of uncertainty. Be kind to yourself.