A colleague at the grief center where I used to work would often say that “grief is a room in your house you should visit, but you don’t want to live there.” He was talking about the challenge of allowing ourselves to fully engage and experience the various feelings that may arise when losing someone without becoming overwhelmed or stuck. Sometimes it is easier said than done. When the wave of grief crashes over us, we are left wondering how to cope.
Symptoms can be surprising: we may feel angry about unrelated events and issues or locate our emotions in secondary, seemingly less significant losses like the death of a pet. Or we may feel suddenly alone, distant from the friends and family we most need to feel close to in the moment. It can be difficult to see how or when things will get better. While there’s no perfect answer, giving yourself permission to feel the things that come up and trusting that you will experience some relief at some point can go a long way toward helping us get through these moments.
Another surprise for some of us regarding grief is that it is not a neat and orderly process like healing a broken bone. Very often grief has a fluidity, seeming to come and go for no reason. Sometimes it feels like it is both there and not there. One day we may be driving down the street having a perfectly tranquil morning and hear a song which reminds us of the person who has died. Suddenly we find ourselves overwhelmed with emotion. When it is very intense, it can even be described as a “grief attack.” At other times, the entire experience of loss and even our connection to the person who has died may seem remote. This can in turn trigger a kind of secondary sadness in which we fear that losing touch with our immediate grief could mean losing our bonds with our loved one. While all of this can be challenging, it is also normal, perhaps even universal. For most people, grief is not linear or ordered. It comes and goes.
Which gets back to the idea of “visiting the room” and not living in it. The healthiest approach to bereavement may well begin with accepting that there is no time frame or right way to go about it. We are simply learning to live with our loss and some of the attendant sadness that it brings. In time, most people find that while they are aware that the room of grief is a place in their house, they do not fear it. They feel that they can open the door, enter, cry and remember, but it is their door to walk out of and close when they are ready.