Riding the grief rollercoaster

Processing grief enhances health

By Andrea Bodie
Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Every single person has been touched by grief – the internal thoughts and feelings that happen when we experience loss - in their lives. Everyone experiences grief differently, but it’s inescapable.

Grief also has a squirm factor. Many people are uncomfortable with even the idea of riding the grief rollercoaster – it’s not predictable, it has ups and downs and it can make us feel incredibly vulnerable and human - let alone hopping on and surrendering to the grieving process.

Health experts encourage you to reconsider the squirming and avoidance because acknowledging and processing grief can help enhance your health and wellness. In fact, along with being an energy drain and potentially isolating us from meaningful relationships, avoiding and repressing grief can actually weaken your immune system.

Health experts like Tim Wall, Director of Counselling at Klinic Community Health Centre, are willing to have tough conversations about grief so you know how to mindfully process loss. “Trying to avoid the grief or pain is what can cause the suffering,” he says. “As it has so often been said, “pain is unavoidable, suffering is optional’.”

While most people associate grieving with death, grief is possible when we suffer loss such as through an illness or a breakup. Even happy events like getting married or having a baby can bring up grief because transition can involve loss.

If grief is our internal experience, mourning is our external experience - how we express the thoughts and feelings related to loss. Mourning - acknowledging and expressing thoughts and feelings - is how we reconcile loss.

Navigating that reconciling can be challenging given most of us have responsibilities that don’t offer us the luxury to solely focus on grieving and mourning a loss. That’s actually good. Grief is processed one step at a time, one emotion at a time. It’s not possible to do it all at once. Nor is it wise.

“We can actually learn a lot from children and how they cope with feelings, alternating between hurt and sad to playing and experiencing happiness. Children don’t experience feelings all at once, all the time or one or the other,” he says. “They tend to move with their feelings as they arise.”

Both our internal experience and expression of loss need space in order to heal. And time…but time doesn’t heal, the work we do to acknowledge loss does. And the ride we take on the grief rollercoaster doesn’t happen within a prescribed timeframe, nor does it happen in a systematic order of stages.

“Perhaps it’s about allowing ourselves to be aware of our full range of emotions, sensations and thoughts without judgement – and letting things take a natural course rather than forcing them into a particular direction or path,” he says.

Grief can be unpredictable, because it isn’t necessarily linear. And acknowledging the reality of the loss can take weeks or even months. It’s important to balance the need to feel and mourn while moving on and completing the loss.

“What is predictable is that grief is unpredictable. We can prepare ourselves to a certain degree by knowing we have chosen to get on the roller coaster and go for a ride,” he says. “This roller coaster however has breaks that can allow us to at least slow things down when we feel overwhelmed. We all need to know where the breaks are and when and how to use them.”

There’s no prescribed amount of time it takes to process a loss. Everyone’s experience is unique. Reconciling life after loss, experiencing and completing the loss, and learning to live with things that are forever changed is tough. That’s why self-compassion, and compassion for those who are grieving, is important.

Grief offers wisdom. And so do tears, which allow our bodies to release toxins and can be healing. After a good cry, there is often space to make a discovery that wasn’t possible before the tears.

For many health care professionals, loss is a part of their work. In the next issue of Inspire, we’ll be looking at what to be mindful of with respect to loss on the job.