Throughout our lives, we will be called upon again and again to let go of those we love. This “letting go” may take place in several contexts and for various reasons, people geographically move away, a friendship may end abruptly through conflict, a spouse or a partner may die. As we move from one stage of life to another, we are grieving what was and making room for what is next.

“Grief is just love with no place to go.” – Anonymous

Things come and things go. This is the very nature of life, and we cannot change it. Many of us fear the natural and inevitable experience of loss, and as much as we fear the loss itself, our greater fear is often that we question our ability to “handle” the myriad of feelings which come with it. When we are unable to grieve, the process may stall, come to a standstill, go underground or manifest itself as depression or a physical illness. We now call this state of being unable to move through grief “Complicated Bereavement Disorder.”

Grief is a natural, mental, emotional, and cellular process which takes place in the human brain and body automatically in response to loss. In order for this process to be completed as it is meant, leaving us eventually with a state of peace, acceptance, and sometimes greater wisdom, certain “scaffolding” or foundational realities must come first:

1. Physical Safety

The mind and body will always prioritize our physical safety first, and any threats or perceived threats in the environment put an automatic pause or stop on the grief process.

2. Emotional Safety

We are sensitive beings, and even more so when in pain. If we sense we’re being judged, that no one cares about our feelings, or otherwise feel unsupported, grief simply will not occur. Not here. Not now.

3. Validation

Seeing our loved one’s body, finding that missing person, and otherwise acknowledging the loss is real and that it matters. Validation must come from others and also ourselves.

4. Time

Time is essential, yet time alone does not heal us. We cannot hurry grief, but we can definitely block it or slow it down. When we do this, the process will continue and manifest in a variety of symptoms, from disease to anxiety to withdrawal from life.

5. Empathetic Presence

We are created to need each other, to share our pain, receive comfort, be seen and understood. We are not meant to grieve alone.

6. Removal of the Blocks to Healing

We can unknowingly complicate our grief with behaviors and beliefs which are an effort to avoid painful feelings. Examples include isolation, drinking and drugging, working too much, avoiding talking about our loss or the person, or philosophizing about the death. We have to be willing, as one teacher put it, to “Get out of our own way.”

Grief is the process by which we heal.

A friend told me once, as I literally dropped to my knees, unable to stand as I experienced one of those first moments of realization that my beloved father was gone, “Your heart and your body know the way.”

Culturally, we continue to have misunderstandings about grief, and well-intended advice still suggests we can control it, hurry it, soften it, or avoid it altogether.

“It’s time to move on.”

“He/she wouldn’t have wanted us to cry.”

“Be happy they’re in a better place.”

If these foundational supports are not available, the likelihood of being able to move through the grief process successfully is small.

Although there is some controversy about whether there are actual “stages” of grief, it may definitely be said that there are a number of predictable subjective feeling states that we will negotiate and hopefully “pass through” on our journey to peace and acceptance.

We can conceptualize “complicated bereavement” as the inability to complete a particular part of the process.

Briefly, the “stages” of healing from the death of a loved one, and any other painful life experience, including trauma, will be as follows:

1. Shock

This can look like numbness, disorientation, chronic shock or PTSD

2. Denial

Denial is our brain protecting us so we don’t have to acknowledge fully. It is a knowing, but not knowing.

3. Bargaining

Bargaining is an attempt to try to undo the reality. It often looks like “If, then” statements. “If I just call, I’ll find out it was someone else.”

4. Guilt

Guilt gives us a sense of control, even retroactively. Or may offer something we need to learn to become wiser.

5. Sadness/Sorrow/Mourning

Loss is very real in these moments. It may show up in physical waves of grief and tears.

6. Anger

Anger is a feeling, not a behavior and it doesn’t have to “make sense.”

7. Acceptance and peace

As you reach acceptance and peace, it is important to allow yourself the grace and permission to revisit previous stages as needed.

Each stage has a purpose, and the body does indeed “know the way through.”

It will let us know if it is “stuck” in the process by creating symptoms to get our attention: headaches, depression, anxiety, gastrointestinal distress, panic attacks, sleeplessness. We can reach out for help, and by doing so give ourselves validation that we are in pain.

If we surround ourselves with loving and caring people who truly listen, secure a sense of physical safety with our surroundings and within ourselves, and share our pain with others without imposing a time limit and expectations, we will heal. (Learn more about Onsite’s Grief and Loss Workshop)

A teacher of mine once told me “There are two kinds of pain in the world. Pain that leads to more pain, and pain that leads to healing.”

The pain that leads to more pain is of course the “hamster wheel” of avoidance, running, distracting, and trying to outrun or “rise above” our past and our experiences.

The pain that leads to healing is grief, and if we are willing to allow it, rather than resist it, we will eventually find relief from our losses, finding that love and wisdom have arrived with us at the completion of that journey.

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Cindy Westcott serves as the Clinical Director of Milestones at Onsite and has over 29 years of experience as a licensed clinical social worker.

She is a Level 2 EMDR trained clinician and also utilizes other innovative therapies such as Internal Family Systems, Gestalt and Ego State Experiential therapies, EFT, and more to address the acute and long-term effects of childhood and other forms of trauma and abuse. Cindy has spoken locally, regionally, and nationally on topics including cultural diversity, women and empowerment, adult children of alcoholics, eating disorders and trauma, in addition to other topics related to grief and trauma recovery.

Cindy will be presenting at the iCAAD – May 2020: Combatting Existential Despair: Finding Hope & Meaning in the Midst of Global Suffering

It seems like we can’t pick up our phones or turn on our televisions these days without hearing about some sort of global tragedy. Our days -- and our minds -- are filled with news of mass shootings, terrorist threats, and the catastrophic effects of climate change. It’s getting harder and harder to silence the voices that seem to telling us “there’s nothing we can do” and “the world is dark and hopeless.” In Combatting Existential Despair, Cindy Westcott will share how we can build hope and resiliency in a world that is desperate for it.

Onsite curates transformational emotional health experiences with the best therapeutic and clinical minds in the country, connecting the world through empathy, self-awareness, and resiliency.

Onsite Workshops – World-renowned, life-changing short-term workshops designed to help you explore and rediscover your purpose and the story that formed you.

Last year Onsite launched the Grief and Loss Workshop, a six-day intensive, small-group therapeutic workshops designed to help individuals who have experienced the inexpressible grief following the death of a significant loved one. Get more information about this program here.

Milestones at Onsite – Holistic and specialized longer-term residential program for individuals adversely affected by symptoms of unaddressed trauma including anxiety, depression, co-dependency, and PTSD.