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Overcoming Grief: A Lifelong Endeavor

When the word grief is heard, the first thing that usually comes to mind is losing someone that passed away. The textbook definition of grief, according to Oxford Languages (n.d.), is an “intense sorrow, especially caused by someone’s death”. Grief tends to be associated with life loss; however, it is a phenomenon that everyone encounters many times during their life path. Life is composed of many chapters, starting with the child-mother primary relationship, followed by the acquisition of independency into early childhood, teenage years, adulthood, and the last stages of life leading to death. In order to step into the next chapter, it is crucial to grieve the previous one. Therefore, multiple reasons can lead to a state of grief; yet, in all cases, it is a challenge to overcome. Everyone copes with grief in very different ways just like Lyckhilm once stated (2001); accordingly, this article will explore the many ways grief can be navigated.

Before sharing some insight into recommendations to assist in the navigation of grief, it is important to understand the criticality of some directions that can tempt an individual during a journey through this sorrow. One of the most common situations related to mourning is denial. Sometimes, the loss of a loved one, or a specific situation, can hold a person back from being in contact with reality. It is difficult for some to accept the fact that they just lost someone. It is easy to sit at the funerals and still expect that the loved one will still enter through these doors. The suffering can be unbearable to the point where the individual can be stuck in their own reality and try to keep the memory of the lost situation, object, or person alive. Another direction that the mourner can follow while in the stage of denial will be to avoid reality and drown their suffering in unhealthy habits. For example, some can decide to consume an excessive amount of substances to help cope with their distress. The New York University Press (1994) points out while discussing the mourning theory and its relation to manic-depressive states developed by Melanie Klein, an Austrian-British psychoanalyst, the following: “Many mourners can only make slow steps in re-establishing the bonds with the external world because they are struggling against the chaos inside.” (p. 112). In fact, the first step that can be taken in a grieving journey can be simply recognizing the loss. Talking about how and what it feels like to confront loss or eulogizing the lost person can bring, for instance, a sense of relief. Moreover, some mourners change their furniture, clean their houses, redecorate their homes, or perform other activities as a way of establishing contact with reality (The New York University Press, 1994, p. 106). This step is crucial to begin the recovery journey. This process will take time. It may be hard and frustrating, but with effort, and a desire to get better, anyone can reach a point where the suffering will be tolerable.

Figure 1: Feeling unpleasant emotions and thoughts during grief is common (In Our Care Home Care Services, n.d.).

Based on cognitive behavioural therapy, Dr Sue Morris (2018), Assistant Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, suggests some efficient ways to deal with melancholia in her book Overcoming Grief which promotes positive psychology and resilience. Positive psychology studies what makes life worth living and focuses on the individual and social well-being of each patient, in order to enhance quality of life. In fact, the professor (2018) recommends is for a patient to compartmentalize their worries. Since it is based on cognitive behavioural therapy, the ultimate goal will be to replace negative thinking with some positive and constructive thoughts that will affect positively one's behaviour. According to Morris (2018), feeling a sense of control can help the mourner through their journey; however, the griever is not always aware of how they are supposed to regain authority. Therefore, she (2018) advises some elementary, yet efficient, exercises. Some may be familiar with the "Worry Box" and some not, thus it is an exercise that aims to group worries under different categories, for example, children, money, home, or any other category that can lead to stress or anxiety. This can enlighten the mourner to the context of the worry and help them prioritize the issues, identify what can and cannot be controlled, and allow them to let go of whatever cannot be changed, like bringing back what has been lost.

The next exercise Dr. Morris (2018) recommends is to write a to-do list. It can seem absurd to some, but it can be very helpful. In fact, prioritizing tasks and planning what can be achieved the next day can help the individual get in touch with the external world and prove that life can go on. Although, it is very important not to think too far ahead initially. It is true that the goal is to get better, to overcome the mourning phase; yet, it does not mean that it is prohibited to feel the pain. It is crucial to avoid expecting the achievement of high goals during this period to not end up disappointed and in a worsened state. At the end of the day, the loss of something or someone that is very important is real, so it is fundamental to take it easy and proceed step by step with no harsh treatment to one's self.

Figure 2: Validating and accepting one's emotions (Reimagine, 2020).

Another step suggested by the psychologist (2018) is to identify what is holding the person back from accepting the loss. This step of acknowledging the loss is crucial because sometimes there is something specific around the loss that can be stuck in one's head, and it can lead to a sense of regret, anger, or questions with no answers. Identifying these roadblocks will help the mourner see clearer ways to deal with their grief. Whatever type of pain, anger, or frustration is tied to grief, it is fundamental to acknowledge what someone is feeling and thinking and put those feelings and thoughts into words. Expressing emotions and acknowledging them will avoid the passage to harmful behaviours. In fact, people usually go for this type of action because they do not have the capacity to use words or to identify what they are currently feeling therefore, this is just a way for them to express themselves. Only after this is accomplished is it possible to overcome what is happening. Many therapists work on this method with their patients to avoid dealing with unhealthy and harmful behaviours later due to a lack of feeling or thought identification.

Dr Sue Morris (2018) is not the only one to write a self-help book on this topic. Julia Sorensen (2008), a practicing counselor and therapist, published Overcoming Loss to help others deal with their grief. As well as the previous writer, she suggests other interesting activities that can help mourners. According to her, the very first step to overcoming grief is to create a safe place. Sometimes, it is hard to be in a supportive environment or to talk openly about feelings; this is why the counselor recommends creating a safe place, somewhere the mourner feels comfortable expressing themselves. It is important to let out the anger, regret, or any other unpleasant feeling that was embraced in the grieving journey. Sometimes, people can find difficulties talking about it, so this therapist (2008) suggests choosing a personal way to express feelings to make sure that the mourner is comfortable with the process (p. 20). It can be drawing, painting, writing, or any other outlet that allows the expression of emotions. Sorensen carries on the idea of associating words with emotions. She suggests many activities throughout her text that allow the mourner to identify the right feeling and the facial expression and body language that goes with it. In her book, she inserts examples of feelings names, pictures of people with different facial expressions, and she even left an empty space to let the reader draw and write their own state of mind. Those simple activities are just a guide to help every mourner begin their grieving journey.

Figure 3: Identifying your feelings throughout grief (Psychology Tools, n.d.).

Grief is an unpleasant feeling that everyone experiences many times in life due to the loss of someone or something that meant a lot. This situation automatically turns the mourner's life upside down and will require a mourner to embrace their weakness and pain to overcome the shock. To avoid unhealthy and harmful behaviour, many psychoanalysts, psychologists, and professionals in the field of grief suggest useful ways to overcome the disagreeable state. Multiple activities and exercises have been recommended, but they all have the same goal: reconnect with the external world and identify feelings and thoughts using words or externalize emotions through expressive activities such as drawing, painting, writing, and many more. The recovery journey is not going to be easy or fast. It takes time. Pain will be felt, tears will fall from time to time, and a desire to quit everything will emerge, but it will get easier at some point.

Bibliographical References

Freud, S. (1917). Mourning and Melancholia. In James Strachey (Trans. and Ed.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, 243-258. The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis.

Klein, M. (1994). Mourning and Its Relation to Manic-Depressive States. In Rita V. Frankiel (Ed.), Essential Papers On Object Loss, 95-122. The New York University Press.

Lyckholm, L. (2001). Dealing with stress, burnout, and grief in the practice of oncology. The Lancet. Oncology, 2(12), 750–755.

Morris, S. (2018). Overcoming Grief. 2nd edition: A Self-Help Guide Using Cognitive Behavioural Techniques. Robinson.

Sorensen, J. (2008). Overcoming Loss: Activities and Stories to Help Transform Children's Grief and Loss. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Visual Sources

Cover Image: A person walking up a flight of stairs amongst clouds towards a light [Illustration]. Pathways Health.

Figure 1: A distressed man with his head in his hands with words of loss written on his shirt [Collage]. In Our Care Home Care Services.

Figure 2: (2020). Different emotions through facial features [Illustration]. Reimagine.

Figure 3: Connection between emotions in grief [Illustration]. Psychology Tools.


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