Making Sense of Grief

Last night my husband and I were sitting comfortably on our sofa in preparation to watch a movie when I heard him say, "Oh my God."

"What is it?"

"There's been a shooting, in a WalMart. At least 20 people are dead."

I turned off the TV, like I did not even a week before when I heard of another shooting at a Garlic Festival 15 minutes from where I once lived in California. I closed my eyes and prayed for those people, for those families, for the hatred in the shooter's heart. It was the only thing I knew to do in that moment.

Today marks the two year anniversary of the death of my favorite person in the world; my grandmother. Every day for the last two years, I have felt her presence with me. I am one of the lucky ones. I have worn at least one piece of her jewelry everyday for the past 2 years. I carry her with me always. As I sit in my favorite coffee shop and hear the big band music on the speaker, I smile and know she is especially with me today. They never play "big band" music. Big Band music was her absolute favorite.

I called my mom on the way to the coffee shop this morning to see how she was doing. She was debating about going on a trip to a museum with some friends or staying home to cry, to feel, to miss. She said, "I think it's okay to let myself feel, to cry."

As a therapist, I was proud to hear her acknowledge this. I've seen so often the alternative, the numbing, the stuffing, the prevention of feeling and the outcomes, none of which are good.

We are surrounded by grief on a daily basis.

Grief doesn't make sense. Truly, it makes no sense.

The most well known model attempting to make sense of grief is the Kubler-Ross model. This is the Stages of Grief model, which suggests that grief occurs in a series of 5 stages. Those stages being:

  • Denial

  • Anger

  • Bargaining

  • Depression

  • Acceptance

I recall learning the Kubler-Ross model in school as a successive and temporal model, with one stage begetting the next. This could not be farther from the truth about grief.

Sometimes we never experience all 5 stages. Sometimes we get stuck in one, we feel more than one at the same time, or we go through one and then another and then revert back to the previous.

The truth is that grief is messy. It is not linear. It does not make sense.

How do we make sense of it? How do we make sense of a classroom of children being shot and killed? How do we make sense of car accidents or freak accidents? How do we make sense of stillbirths when the nursery is all set up and the diaper bag is packed? How do we make sense of any of it?

I do a lot of work with people who are suffering as a result of grief. As a nation we experience an inordinate amount of grief stemming from violence and addiction, but the United States does not have a monopoly on grief. Grief is a part of the human condition, just as suffering is a part of the human condition.

Grief is often cumulative, with one loss bringing to mind other experiences of loss. We often reserve grief to tragedy and death, but the reality is that most of us are grieving on a daily basis. Some of us are grieving lost relationships, losing our jobs, the death of pets, the loss of our own expectations and dreams.

Grief is perhaps one of the most universal, complicated, and non-linear experiences we have as humans. do we get through it? How do we grieve in a healthy way? I'm not sure there's a real answer to this question, but what I do know about grief is this:

  • Ignoring or shoving down grief by avoiding, numbing, and not acknowledging often makes it build and is physically and emotionally toxic.

  • There is no one way to express grief. Some of us cry and some of us laugh.

  • There is no set time table for grief. Don't expect to feel normal in one year. Sometimes the pain eases in that time, but sometimes it feels just as fresh and that's okay.

  • Allowing yourself to be happy and move forward after loss does not mean that you are forgetting or dishonoring the loss.

  • Support can help tremendously. This can be talking to friends or family about memories or your pain, seeking therapy, meeting with a Hospice counselor, or finding support groups can be tremendously healing.

When grief is more than grief:

Complicated grief is a prolonged and chronic experience of grief in which:

  • You struggle with carrying out your normal routine.

  • You isolate from others.

  • You feel life isn't worth living without your loved one.

  • You feel tremendous guilt and self-blame for the loss of your loved one.

  • You wish you died along with your loved one.

  • You have intense longing and intrusive thoughts or images of your loved one.

  • You go to extreme lengths to avoid reminders or your loved one.

  • You have extreme anger and bitterness for the loss.

The difference between depression and grief:

  • With depression, you have intense and overwhelming feelings of guilt.

  • You are unable to have moments of joy or pleasure from things that you once enjoyed.

  • You are unable to function at work, home, or school or perform your normal activities.

  • You see things or hear things that other people may not hear or see.

  • You have persistent thoughts of death and feel that life is not worth living.

  • You wish you had died with your loved one.

  • You feel numb and disconnected from others.

  • You are unable to perform your normal aou are able to have moments of happiness or enjoyment even while in the midst of grieving.

Help is available, and though it will not change the factors leading to your grief, it can aid in your healing and how you handle your grief. If any of the above listed symptoms are true for you, it may be time to seek help from a licensed professional. Below are a list of resources that can help:

Find a bereavement helpline:

Find other support:

  • Find a GriefShare group meeting near you – Worldwide directory of support groups for people grieving the death of a family member or friend. (GriefShare)

  • Resources – Find support in the U.S. for adults and kids grieving a loss. (HelloGrief)

  • Find Support – Directory of programs and support groups in the U.S. for children experiencing grief and loss. (National Alliance for Grieving Children)

  • Chapter Locator for finding help for grieving the loss of a child in the U.S. and International Support for finding help in other countries. (The Compassionate Friends)

If you’re feeling suicidal:

Seek help immediately. Dial 911 or go to your local emergency department.

Call a suicide helpline:

  • In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255.

  • In the UK, call 08457 90 90 90.

  • In Australia, call 13 11 14.Or visit IASP to find a helpline in your country.

Additional resources for grief:

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Disclaimer: The information shared on this website is intended for educational and marketing purposes. It is not a substitute for seeking help from a licensed mental health or medical professional. If you or someone you know is in need of immediate assistance dial  911.