So, What the Heck Is Grief, Anyway?

Posted by Emily Piccirillo on

When you hear the word “grief”, doesn’t the word “sadness” immediately come to mind? Of course it does, right? Sadness is universal to the experience of losing someone or something we love dearly. It’s natural and unavoidable, like an instinctual necessity.

A Complex Concept

Dictionary definitions of grief reference “deep sorrow, misery, heartbreak, anguish, pain, suffering, torment, trouble and annoyance.” The best one I found also said “deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement.”

The truth is that grief encompasses much, much more and despite some patterns, it tends to be unpredictable. It involves an entire universe of responses even after the initial acute phase, including:

  • Physical: Insomnia, extreme fatigue or lethargy; loss of or insatiable appetite; rashes or hair loss; nausea/gas/diarrhea/constipation; back, neck or headaches; tinnitus; grinding/clenching teeth; chills or heat flushes; agitation, tremors or muscle stiffness; heart palpitations, changes in breathing or dizziness
  • Emotional: Shock, wildly fluctuating feelings, shock, sorrow, despair, anguish, loneliness, anxiety, worry, doubt, regret, guilt, shame, irritability, anger/rage, numbness
  • Cognitive: Disbelief, denial, avoidance, detachment, obsessive or intrusive thoughts, brain fog, confusion, memory lapses, inability to concentrate, distressing dreams or nightmares
  • Behavioral: Crying, avoiding social contact/isolation, withdrawing from routines, declining favorite activities
  • Spiritual: Searching for meaning or pursuing changes in one’s personal beliefs

Furthermore, once you start unpacking and exploring grief, pleasant words also start to come up —“satisfaction”, “courage” and “relief”, even “trust”, "surrender", “forgiveness”, “hope”, "happiness" and “joy”. Grief is truly complex and dynamic, as it evolves over time. It’s totally fair to call it messy, in part because it doesn't unfold along a predictable trajectory. While there is some predictability to the course of grief, it's more like a roller coaster or a spiral that continually crosses itself.

It's True Nature

Eventually the word “love” will appear. And for very good reasons.

So, on further review, instead of limiting our interpretation of grief to just sadness, let’s consider that grief — in fact — shares much of the same essential stuff as love does because both are born of a deeply valued bond. The main difference is that love is about connecting and holding on while grief is about separating and letting go.

Love and grief are united, complementary partners, much like conjoined twins or the sides of the same coin.

We’re all familiar with various expressions that happen to capture the duality of love and grief. Popular songs include lyrics like, “Joy and pain are like sunshine and rain.” A common adage says, “Grief is Love with no place to go.” This particular saying has poetic appeal because it captures the anguish of the absence that is so acutely felt, especially at first.

Forever More

You’ve likely learned by now that love never ends, even when we say a relationship does — while it changes or goes dormant, it endures outside of time. We continue to love those who have died, like it or not. Because grief is love’s innate partner, grief never ends either.

Grief isn’t a fixed entity or a distinct event; it’s an ongoing process. Some call it a “journey”. If we’re able to fully experience it — to heal through it, not avoid or minimize it — we can become reconciled to it. This means that we transform and integrate our relationship with the deceased into our identities in new ways. We allow the loss to change us as we pay tribute to it. The initial year after a death is filled with "firsts" as the bereaved anticipate and experience holidays, birthdays and anniversaries without their loved one. This cycle of milestones is especially difficult and it can help to plan for how you will honor your pet at those times.

It’s helpful to note that fear of grief is a natural reaction. But the nature of fear is resistance and it’s based in the false impression that if we allow grief to manifest, more suffering would be generated; it turns out the opposite is true — "What we resist, persists." When fear closes the heart and binds the spirit, it prevents the light of love to shine through the darkness.

The only real choice for healing our grief is to open ourselves wider and to soften around our loss. We don’t “recover from” or “get over” grief; instead, we develop a new equilibrium that reveals meanings and blessings to us. As we yield to grief, our bearings shift and energies flow, thereby presenting us with the possibility of making discoveries and affirming what matters most.

Grief’s special invitation is to actively engage in our experience of loss and to awaken to the meaning and grace it has to offer.

Whether we’re mindful of it or not, loss is continual — not occasional — in our daily lives so surrendering to and becoming comfortable with its presence, process and powers is a wonderful opportunity to find peace. It may seem counterintuitive, but when we accept and embrace grief, rather than resist it, we end up feeling better and end up living more fully in the present.

If you’d like, please explore detailed guidance and additional resources here. And of course, we always welcome your insights and feedback here.

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