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What are Transitions?
Transitions include any kind of change in our life, including loss through death, change in relationship status, moving, switching jobs, graduating, a diagnosis, or any kind of change in identity, to name a few. All transitions bring with them the possibility of experiencing grief, so please read this section even if you haven’t experienced any giant recent loss. If you find yourself deliberately wanting to avoid this section, it’s probably especially important to read it.
Grief is any of the completely normal and complex set of emotions that come up after a transition. Sadness, anger, confusion, numbness, fear, joy, relief…they’re all often part of grief. In some ways, you might feel “crazy” because life feels so different.
Allowing yourself to feel all of it, without distraction, is extremely helpful. Even if that means a lot of pain emotionally and physically, from the tightness of your body.
When you’ve just experienced a new loss, it can be very disorienting. I found it helpful to just focus on my body at first, keep the “meat suit” healthy, and then give myself whatever time I need to process the feelings.
Ways to keep the body healthy:
- Eat real food. When Peanut and Brice died, I barely wanted to eat anyway, so I ate foods that I knew were nutritious, enough to sustain me.
- Hydrate with water or tea, not high sugar or caffeine drinks.
- Sleep. Even if you can’t sleep, lie down rest when your body wants it. I found it helpful to take melatonin at night for the first few weeks. Meditating in bed helped me sleep, too. I used guided meditations in the Headspace grief pack. I found that when counting breaths I had to count only up to 2 or 4, because it was very hard to focus when grieving.
- Move your body when you can, go for walks, dance, stretch. We hold grief and trauma in our bodies. Let it move.
- Relax your muscles. Do a body scan, like in the meditation section, but do it lying down and relax your muscles, one at a time. You can go top to bottom or bottom up. Relax every muscle from the top of your head to your toes. Repeat as often as you need. This is helpful for sleep.
Any unprocessed grief might come back up when you experience a new loss or transition, so it’s important to take the time to integrate the experience, to “feel the feels” and let yourself mourn.
What is Mourning and How is It Different From Grief?
Mourning is the deliberate process of working through grief. We all experience grief in our own ways, and at our own pace. Don’t let anyone tell you how you “should” grieve. That said, it’s a skill to mourn in a way that furthers your own personal growth, so it can help to learn about what has been helpful to other people.
I have an article on many ways that we can mourn the loss of a dog or other pet, called “You’re Not Crazy, You’re Mourning.” Most of the material in there applies to grief from any other kind of transition, too. Please give that a read before going further in this article.
If you want to go more deeply into pet loss grief, or if you have a senior dog that you’re worried about losing, please also read this article I wrote about Peanut’s death.
I highly recommend the book, “The Grief Recovery Handbook: The Action Program for Moving Beyond Death, Divorce, and Other Losses including Health, Career, and Faith” by Russell Friedman and John James. I read it and also went through a class with one of their certified grief specialists. It was helpful and also validated that what I was doing to mourn was on a healthy track.
Even if you’re not actively grieving a loss right now, the point of their book is that you’ve had many transitions to grieve in your life already, and if they haven’t been processed, they’re holding you back. Besides, you will almost definitely experience more major losses in your life, so practicing how to grieve in a healthy way now will be helpful.
I’ll share some tidbits from that book, mostly things to avoid, and also a way to get some closure.
When you feel strong emotion from grief coming up, don’t avoid it. Let it come, sit with it.
- Beating yourself up for not making things differently
- Training dogs 🙂
- Getting in arguments
Of course, eating healthy food and getting some exercise are great. Reading can be useful. So is dog training. But just don’t go to the point of addiction and don’t use them to distract yourself from feeling and processing your emotions. I had to let myself have lots of time where I wasn’t busy, where my emotions could be fully experienced in mind and body, and the pieces of my heart could come back together in a bigger, more expansive way.
If you find yourself using a distraction to avoid a feeling, stop and get in touch with your emotions. If you’re going down a spiral of reworking the past, “I could have…I should have…” it’s okay to interrupt with “But I didn’t.”
Let it go, just like we do in meditation. I think those thoughts are a strategy to feel better in some way, but it ends up being destructive. For me, a healthier strategy to feel better was to go right into the pain, and experience it. Some of the best advice I ever got was “lean into the pain of loss.” When I refocus on the emotion underneath – the loneliness, the sadness, I turn off the stream of words and just feel it – it fades away relatively quickly.
For example, if my mind started running through scenarios of how I could have helped my husband live longer, I would interrupt and say, “But that didn’t happen. He died. And now I feel…(pause to scan my body and picture him, or look at a photo and let the feelings come) SAD. I miss him.” Then I’d cry it out or go through whatever other emotion came up. 10 minutes later, I’d feel better and go on with living. More about that in the Acceptance and Joy lesson, which is next.
The Relationship isn’t Gone, Just Different
There really is no such thing as closure, like you’re just closing up shop and done with ever thinking about the person, dog, or whatever happened before. But there is a sense of peace that comes from fully accepting that the past is not changeable from where we sit. What is changeable is how we access the past, how we think about it now, and what we learn from the experience.
When you lose a person, there is still a relationship, it’s just a radically different one. Whether you believe the other person interacts with you or not is your own spiritual belief. But there continues to be a sort of interaction with them in your own mind, ways you think about them.
Here’s a practice that I do that helps me a lot with my husband’s death. It meets my need to process the grief and also to continue to get emotional support from our relationship, even though he isn’t here on earth any longer.
When I have a question of what to do, especially one related to him, I write a letter. I have a notebook just for those letters. I spell out my issue and I end with a question for him. I sign it. Then I clear my head and write a letter back from him to me, answering the question. I try to write quickly and not overthink it. Do I believe it’s really him? Not really, but my spirituality is still evolving. I think it’s mostly a way to bring out my own wisdom.
This practice uses the fact that our minds develop a ‘construct’ of other people, “what would so and so do in this situation?” So I have this construct of him in my mind and I have ideas of how he might respond to the current situation. The letter exchange allows me to basically project my highest self onto this construct of him, so I can pull out my own truths from what I write.
It’s a technique that I borrowed from the book “Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia,” where she gets inspiration writing letters back and forth to “God.”
One thing that I found extremely helpful from reading the Grief Recovery book (and the live in-person course I took along with it) is the idea of writing a letter to the person in a specific way. So in addition to the letter exchange, I also wrote a few letters using their structure. The letter starts off with my apologies (for whatever I regret), then things I forgive (events, behaviors that I accept as having happened), and then any significant emotional statements. The letter concludes with goodbye.
Then, and this is the important bit, the letter gets read to a living person, a person who knows how to be a Heart with Ears. I think having someone who is alive to witness the words is really important. Even though it’s not the actual person, something about the process helps us feel heard, and the coulda-woulda-shoulda statements can be put to rest. I had people do this as part of a funeral ceremony for my husband and I think it was really helpful.
The book points out that we can do this with people who are still alive, too. We often have many things that we grieve with our parents or other people among the living. They warn against reading the full letter to them, however, because it might just bring up conflict. So they had us read the letters to neutral parties. I imagine SOME of the items from the letters could also be brought up using NVC.
Keep Talking About It
I love this touching conversation about death between Anderson Cooper and Stephen Colbert about the their own personal experiences with grief. Anderson Cooper lost his mother two months ago and his brother and father many years back.
Be brave, have real conversations, go deep whenever you can. Share this aspect of common humanity, let it help you realize that this is some kind of entrance ticket to being part of the human club. Turn to whatever spirituality or understanding of the world gives you a framework through which to comprehend the death, (though I’d personally hope you turn to one that doesn’t shame anyone, ever).
The more authentically we talk about our experiences with grief, the more easily we integrate them into our lives. Listen to this all, I especially connect with what he says at about 14:20 and on from there, about gratitude for our suffering, because of the compassion that it brings, allowing us to be the most human we can be.
- The Orphaned Adult: Understanding And Coping With Grief And Change After The Death Of Our Parents (Alexander Levy)
- I’ve also seen videos by Megan Devine and I found them useful, so even though I haven’t read it yet and I usually only mention books I’ve read, I’m going to add her book here. It has 5 stars on about 500 reviews: “It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand.”
Here’s a lovely guided meditation for grief by Megan Devine: