We often think of grief as what we experience when we lose a loved one. But grief is how we process so many types of losses in life. You may be grieving a person, a place, a relationship, a community, or even a sense of purpose. No matter the kind, it is essential to remember that grief is a serious process and can affect our mental and physical health in severe and sometimes unexpected ways.
If you are experiencing one of these less conventional types of grief, you may feel that you are overreacting or that your feelings are out of proportion. It is common to think this way when our experience doesn’t match what we are taught to expect from our families, cultures, and societies. But no matter how others may see your grief, it’s essential to recognize what feels real to you and process those feelings and experiences.
If it’s real to you, it’s real
There is no standard for what counts as “real” grief. Scientists have defined grief as the way that our brain processes loss and how we learn to adapt to life after loss. This suggests that we can experience grief whenever we lose something important. This can be a person, place, or thing that shapes our lives, gives us a sense of belonging, or is central to our identity. If you’re feeling grief, your brain is asking you for space to process.
It’s vital to recognize grief. If we try to suppress or ignore our feelings of grief, they will likely come back, often in profound and unexpected ways. So if you’re feeling grief, no matter how silly or unimportant it seems, the best thing to do is to acknowledge what you’re feeling and get curious about how you can process it.
Effects of Grief
Our minds and bodies are far more connected than we often think. Grief of any kind can have significant mental and physical impacts. It can increase your risk of various illnesses, from mental disorders like anxiety or depression to physical conditions like high blood pressure.
If you are experiencing grief, it’s a good idea to stay aware of your mental and physical health. Notice how you are feeling. Are you experiencing unexpected physical symptoms? Have you experienced changes in your sleeping, eating, or other daily habits? When experiencing intense mental or emotional strain, it’s essential to make space for your physical wellness as well. Take time to rest when you can, and try to listen to your body and give it the resources it needs, whether it’s medication, nutrition, movement, or anything else.
Grief can also have a significant impact on your mental health. Especially if grief is unrecognized or ignored, the body’s natural grieving process can turn into patterns of anxiety, depression, or other disorders. If you start to notice yourself engaging in unusual behavioral or thought patterns, seek help. Consider consulting a professional such as a therapist, counselor, or support group. Whether you are experiencing a mental disorder or not, having dedicated support can be extremely important for maintaining your mental health.
Rituals for Processing Grief
Throughout human history, our societies and cultures have developed rituals for processing grief. This is, perhaps, easy to see in the wide variety of funerary customs that have developed across different cultures. A funeral is an essential ritual for processing grief because it allows a socially acceptable outlet for releasing difficult feelings. It is a dedicated time to cry, speak about your feelings and what you have lost, and focus on the intense emotions and experience of grief.
But what happens when those rituals are not present? This can happen in situations like deaths from COVID-19 when large funeral gatherings were not possible. It can also happen in situations other than death, such as when someone suffers a severe and life-changing but not fatal illness. It can even happen in other situations of loss, such as when we lose a significant relationship or feel ostracized from a once important community.
If you cannot access a traditional ritual for processing your grief, it can be helpful to think of an alternative one. A ritual can be anything that you do intentionally to focus on your feelings of grief and get some sort of relief and closure. It may look like writing a letter you never send, gathering with others to acknowledge a collective trauma, or anything that helps you access your feelings. Even if it might feel silly, a ritual can be a great way to make space for your grief and allow yourself to feel it.
Feel all the feelings
Grief is a lot more than just feeling sad. The grieving process can involve strange and unexpected feelings, from anger to guilt to panic. It’s essential to make space for all of these feelings, even if they may feel selfish or wrong. It’s ok to feel angry at someone who has passed away, to long for something you know was bad for you, or to feel regret over things you cannot change. These feelings are all natural, and they do not define you. Allow yourself to fully experience them. You will be able to move through them more easily instead of getting stuck in spirals of guilt, shame, anger, or regret.
It’s also ok if you don’t completely understand your feelings. Grief can involve a lot of complex mental and emotional processes that can be really difficult to make sense of. So make space for those incomprehensible feelings. If you find yourself getting stuck on them, it might be a good idea to seek help. A counselor or other mental health professional can help you untangle your thoughts and develop new coping strategies.
Connect with others
This is far easier said than done. Grief can feel incredibly overwhelming and isolating. We may feel that we don’t want to burden others with our problems or that our feelings aren’t worth talking about. This is especially true in situations of unrecognized grief, where you may feel that your loss doesn’t warrant your feelings or that others won’t understand what you’re going through.
Connecting with others in a time of grief can look different for each person and situation. You may want to speak to a trusted friend or family member. You may want to seek out others in a similar situation to talk about experiences that you share.
If you feel like you have no one to talk to, try seeking the help of a mental health professional. Counselors, therapists, and other professionals work specifically to provide safe spaces where people can discuss complicated feelings. They are trained to help people through all kinds of significant events and mental health issues. When you seek the help of a professional, you don’t have to worry about burdening anyone you know or even understanding what you want to talk about.
No matter how you do it, community and connection are key when coping with loss. We cannot deal with everything alone, and there is no shame in asking for help. If you’re not used to being open with others, it can be a difficult process. Just start with whatever steps you can. With practice, you’ll learn to connect with others and share your experiences in ways that feel healthy and fulfilling.
How grief affects our relationships
Grief can affect our personal relationships in ways we may not even realize. If you are going through a grieving process, pay attention to how it affects your interactions with other people. Do you find yourself withdrawing from social situations? Are you noticing yourself becoming irritated or angry more often? Are you feeling guilty for not giving the attention or love to others that you would like to?
It is normal for grief to impact how we interact with others. It’s essential to be aware of this so that we don’t inadvertently hurt others or lose meaningful relationships. If you find that grief is causing difficulty in your relationships, be honest with your loved ones about what is happening. How much you share is up to you, but make sure to let the people you love know that you are dealing with a loss, and that you still care about them.
Taking time to address your mental health and grieving process is vital to maintaining healthy relationships with others. If you find yourself in conflict with the people around you, make space to ask yourself what your mind and body are responding to. Often, negative feelings are our mind and body’s way of alerting us that we aren’t getting something we need. When you address and take time to understand your feelings, you will be better equipped to communicate with others about what you may need from them and how they can help you through this time.
Grief and Guilt
Grief often comes with intense feelings of guilt and shame. Maybe we feel that we could have avoided a loss if we had done something differently or missed out on a chance that is now gone. We may even feel guilty for feeling grief in the first place, especially if we place a high value on always being there for others.
If you are experiencing grief, try to be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself for things you can no longer change and for mistakes you may make while grieving. If your grief causes you to treat others in ways that you regret, apologize, and have an honest conversation about what is going on.
Feelings of guilt are natural when experiencing grief, but it’s essential to address them. When unaddressed or reinforced, feelings of guilt can turn into harmful spirals or thought patterns that cause us to do harm to ourselves and others. As hard as it may be, being kind to yourself is often the first step to being kind to others.
Grief isn’t linear
Processing your grief will help you move through difficult feelings and adapt to life after loss. But the process of grief isn’t generally that linear. You may feel that you’re moving on one day and be consumed with sadness and anger the next. You may feel better for weeks, or even months, only to suddenly find your grief rushing back like an overwhelming wave. You may go through your grief rituals over and over again until you start to wonder why it’s not working.
If you’re feeling like you can’t move on or make progress, it’s ok. It’s normal for the grieving process to come in fits and starts, in waves, or even in circles. If we’re going to move through the grieving process, we have to allow for this unpredictability. If you’re feeling grief long after you think it should be gone, don’t feel guilty or ashamed, or try to stop yourself from feeling that way. Accept your process for what it is, and use your coping strategies, rituals, and other practices to process grief as many times as you need to.
If you feel like it’s impossible to move on or that your feelings of grief just won’t go away, seek help. While it’s normal to grieve for long and unpredictable periods, grief can also turn into something long-term and all-consuming. If this is the case for you, it’s essential to address it as soon as possible because grief can have severe mental and physical complications.
Every Grieving Process Looks Different
Even if two people experience the same loss, they may deal with it differently. This can be important to keep in mind if you see someone you know responding to a loss or traumatic event in a way that you don’t understand or that may seem wrong.
It is always impossible to know exactly what another person is going through. This is especially true in the case of people who may have difficulty being open about their feelings and their grieving process. A person’s grieving process can be influenced by their personality, unique thinking and behavioral patterns, life experiences, and the cultures that shape them. When we grieve with others, we all must make space for grieving processes different from our own.
One of the commonly recognized kinds of unconventional grief is called ambiguous loss. This type of loss is characterized by uncertainty and a lack of closure. There are two types of ambiguous loss. The first is when a person is physically present but psychologically absent. This often happens when a loved one experiences a severe mental illness or another life event that changes them dramatically. The second type is when a person is physically absent but psychologically present. This often happens when a person goes missing.
Ambiguous loss is particularly painful because it is difficult to reach the kind of closure that is essential in the grieving process. Ambiguous loss can often have serious complications, such as mental or physical disorders. If you are experiencing this type of loss, it is a good idea to seek professional help.
One of the common characteristics of ambiguous loss is the ability to keep up hope that the person lost will return. This can be especially painful, but it can also be comforting and serve as a coping mechanism to help an individual grieve. As with all other grief, ambiguous loss will look different for every person. It is essential to listen to your body and brain and understand what you need to move through the grieving process.
Historical or Cultural Trauma
Another common type of grief that often goes unrecognized is historical or cultural trauma. This can take the form of collective traumas like enslavement, genocide, political oppression, war, and all sorts of other traumatic historical events. This type of trauma and grief can persist through generations. Its effects are often felt by generations that did not experience the traumatic event itself.
In groups that have experienced historical or cultural trauma, grief is often an ever-present feeling. However, grief can become incredibly intense when something happens that retraumatizes the group, such as repeating historical patterns or cultural messages that deny the traumatic event. In this case, it is vital for group members, even if they did not experience the initial traumatic event, to process any grief that they might be feeling. While these types of grief often go unrecognized, they can be just as severe and painful as any other kind of grief.
When it comes to grieving historical and cultural traumas, processing your grief with other members of your community can be especially helpful. Others who experience this type of grief can understand and validate your feelings in ways that those outside the group may be unable to do. Consider looking for or creating community spaces where it is safe to process this grief and any emotions that may come up around it.
If you are experiencing a grieving process, it can be painful to even think about moving on. Moving on might feel like forgetting the person or thing that you lost or losing them in an even bigger way. But even in situations where the feelings of grief never fully leave us, life always goes on. We must learn to adapt to life without our loved ones, our former communities, or things that once gave us purpose.
Just like grief, moving on may look different for every person. Sometimes, looking to the future helps a person through the grieving process, allowing them to see that good things are ahead of them. Other times, keeping reminders of what they have lost close by can be helpful as a person moves on, reminding them that the memories of loved ones will remain a part of them.
Whatever it looks like for you, it’s ok to move on. It’s ok to move on fully or partially. When it comes to dealing with grief, the best thing we can do is give ourselves the grace and acceptance to deal with a world that is unfair, painful, and doesn’t make sense. When the time feels right, you will start to see the sunshine again and experience the process of adapting to life as it now is.