Riding the Rollercoaster of Grief
Happy Halloween! I love how we wholeheartedly embrace Halloween in Toronto. And I’m also struck by the irony that, as a culture, we have real difficulty talking openly about grief and loss. My passion is to make it easier to talk about grief, but it hasn’t always been that way.
My own grief journey started one day when out of the blue I learned that my dad had been found dead in his apartment. In a moment, my world disintegrated into to chaos. My first reaction was simply shock and disbelief. And in some ways that was protective; I was numb…I functioned on autopilot, I was moving through a dream world.
In those early weeks, I found myself in the front seat of the grief roller-coaster. I was bereft, I felt guilty about things I had (or hadn’t said), at times I wanted to laugh aloud; this was unbelievable and couldn’t be happening. And then I had my first experience of panic attacks, this was incredibly real.
A couple of years later, my mom died suddenly, and though I was with her when she died, I found it a deeply disturbing experience. The rollercoaster launched again and this time I felt even more overwhelmed.
I realize now how unprepared I was and how unprepared people were around me. I became a traveler in an unknown land without a map or compass. Yet millions of people had made this journey before me, how come this was not shared knowledge?
Though I didn’t know it at the time, losing my mom was a watershed moment. One that inspired me to learn as much as possible about grief and loss, and to train to support others through their own grief journeys. What I learned helped me make sense of my own experiences. It also opened my eyes to how much myth and misinformation we are exposed to on our grief journeys.
If you are on a grief journey, supporting someone on their grief journey, or simply want to know more, here are some common concerns answered and some grief myths busted. I have also included some resources below and I’m happy to help you find more.
Grief is what happens after the death of a loved one.
Yes…and no. We definitely can experience grief after the death of a loved one. We can also experience grief after the death of someone we have a difficult relationship with. Other losses like changes in health, losing a pet, a job or a home, are all experiences that are likely to evoke a grief reaction.
‘I shouldn’t keep talking about my loss’
Telling our stories of loss and grief helps us make sense of what happened. However, sometimes, the people around us don’t feel able to hear our story. They may find it painful to see us in distress, or worry about triggering grief if they mention it. Finding a safe space to tell and re-tell our grief stories can be really important towards healing.
‘Why do I feel like I’m already grieving?’
Sometimes, we begin grieving well before a loss has occurred. This is anticipatory grief. For example, when a parent has advanced Alzheimer’s disease we may say ‘I’m mourning the loss of the mother I knew’. Anticipatory grief may not be well understood by those around us; and comments like “at least you still have your mom” can feel dismissive. It’s important to recognize that anticipatory grief is normal and valid.
‘I can’t talk about my loss’
In our culture, many losses are not validated by those around us. The term for this is ‘disenfranchised grief’: grief that is not “socially sanctioned.” Experiences such as infertility, losing a baby in pregnancy, or losing someone to suicide can be very hard to talk about and find support for. What’s especially challenging about disenfranchised grief is that it prevents us from (re)telling our story, which can lead to difficulty making sense of what happened.
‘I shouldn’t feel…[angry, happy, relieved, guilty]’
Grief and loss are associated with myriad emotions. Typically we think of sadness, anxiety, depression, guilt and anger. We have capacity to feel many different emotions at the same time, and grief can evoke shock, relief, regret, joy, numbness, frustration, abandonment and so many more feelings.
‘I feel I should be over it by now’
When I hear this, it is typically followed by a comment like, “my neighbour said she was over her husband’s death in 6 months, why aren’t I?”
There is no timeline to grief. The experience, duration and intensity of our grief is unique to us. In fact, not only is every person’s grief experience different, but each loss is different. So many factors play a role, such as whether we felt prepared for the loss, how we are able to talk about and get support for our loss, and the circumstances of the loss. Never feel pressured to conform to others’ expectations of how you express your grief.
How can therapy help?
Individual and group therapy can provide safe, supportive spaces to express your feelings, learn more about grief and loss, and make sense of your loss. Support groups can be a great way to connect to people who understand what you’re dealing. If you would like to talk with a counsellor, the Healing Collective has a great group of therapists who specialize in grief therapy.
Whether you are on your own grief journey, supporting someone else, or want to be more informed, I invite you to join me in creating safe spaces for conversations about grief and loss.
Susan Anstice, MSW RSW is a social worker and psychotherapist in Toronto, specializing in grief counselling and caregiver support. She is at The Healing Collective on Saturdays and by appointment.
Bereaved Families of Ontario offers volunteer facilitated support groups: https://www.bfotoronto.ca/
There are many great blogs and social media sites that focus on grief and loss. One of my favourites is Megan Devine’s ‘Refuge in Grief’.
Death Cafes are community gatherings that happen around the world. People gather to connect with others and talk about death, dying, and grief. For example: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-may-12-2016-1.3578623/death-cafes-serve-up-life-and-death-conversations-1.3578687
Sources and further reading:
- I wasn’t ready to say goodbye: surviving, coping & healing after the sudden death of a loved one. Brook Noel & Pamela D. Blair, 2008
- Grief, dying and death: Clinical interventions for Caregivers. Therese A. Rando, 1984.
- How to go on living when someone you love dies. Therese A. Rando, 1991.
- Grieving Mindfully. Sameet M. Kumar, 2005.
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary: www.merriam-webster.com
Tell us what has helped you in times of grief?