Grief is messy

One of the first things I tell my patients that have experienced a type of loss is that grief is unpredictable and, oftentimes, quite messy. You may have learned about how people move through the seven stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), but we all know the truth: it isn’t a linear process. 

If you’ve lost someone or something you love, you know the process can be all over the place. There is no roadmap… one moment you may feel numb and the next you may be hit with a wave of great sadness. All of this is normal and completely OK, but that doesn’t make it any easier to navigate. 

Whether you’ve experienced the loss of a loved one, a job, a pet, or your routine, it’s important to give yourself permission to grieve. Instead of judging yourself, try to approach your feelings surrounding loss with acceptance and kindness. Check in with your body. What do you need? Perhaps you’re craving extra sleep, a day off of work, a snack, or connection with a loved one.

Seeking out meaning 

Whether it was the loss of my beloved pet or my dear parents, my stages of grief never happened in perfect order and honestly I don’t think they are ever complete. Grief expert David Kessler talks extensively about the importance of finding meaning in grief, which really resonated with me. This stage includes a focus on gratitude, commemorating someone, being aware of the brevity of life, and looking at the ways in which who or what you lost impacted you. 

I was reminded how complicated grief can be when I lost my cat, Tiger, last year. She was tiny, yet fierce, and so affectionate. Sadly, she had chronic asthma and pneumonia that we went to great lengths to treat. When she began to suffer, our family had to make the difficult decision to have her euthanized. 

I missed her terribly after she died, especially around her meal times and in the evenings. Our pets have been such a comfort during this uncertain time and life isn’t the same without them. I still find myself experiencing waves of grief and wishing that Tiger was sitting on my lap. Some days are fine and others I really feel her absence, so I take time to focus on the gratitude for all the joy that she brought my family. It doesn’t look perfect, but it makes a big difference.

Your grief toolkit

Here are resources to help you navigate the ever-changing feelings surrounding loss. 

  • Try the 4×4 breathing exercise: 
    • Gently inhale through your nose for a count of four
    • Hold the breath for four
    • Exhale slowly through your mouth for a count of four 
    • Hold at the bottom of the exhale for four, and then repeat
  • Identify your support system: Who can you call in the middle of the night when you’re feeling vulnerable? Who can you text to relive happy moments?
  • Focus on positive memories: Create a memory book of your loved one or past experiences. 
  • Journal: Write out all of the ups and downs that you’re experiencing. This is your place to get mad, get sad, and get the feelings out.
  • Meditate: Take even just a few minutes to sit with the ever-changing emotions.

The death of my father when I was 9-years-old was the most difficult loss I’ve experienced. Not only did it change my daily routine, but it also affected my relationship with my mother and brother. Looking back, I can say that his passing has shaped who I am today. There are still times that I miss my father, especially during big life events like when I got married, but I think I’d rather feel this pain than not feel anything at all. It reminds me of how much I love him and creates a more colorful, multi-dimensional life. 

We’ve all experienced tremendous losses over the past year and yet many of us have not been taught how to grieve. Some cultures have set rituals and ways to process loss, while others may have less defined ways of responding. We simply may not know what to do with our feelings, so we pretend it isn’t happening at all. No matter what type of loss you’re processing, you deserve support. Reach out to a friend, a family member, or therapist and give yourself permission for it to be as messy as it needs to be.

By June Mitchell, LCSW
June has been in the social work and mental health field for over 20 years. She has clinical experience working with people who are coping with depression, anxiety, and grief. When she’s not seeing patients, June enjoys spending time with her family, traveling, playing tennis, and snorkeling. She’s recently found joy in gardening and meditation.