12 April 2021

What Being A Social Worker Taught Me About Grief

Written by Stephanie Hairston

As a social worker, I helped people work through grief in many different settings. I worked in hospice for a while, but issues related to grief and loss were a common focus no matter where I worked. They were no less central for the people I saw at community mental health clinics, crisis response programs, or substance use treatment centers than they were for my hospice clients.


One of the greatest challenges of being a human being is dealing with loss, especially the loss of people we love. We resist change in every form it finds us in, and death is the most painful kind of change. The hardest challenge any of us ever face is accepting when someone who was at the center of our universe is no longer there for us or with us.


Loss always hurts, but how we deal with it determines whether it breaks us open or shuts us down. A broken heart can be, or become, a full heart. A numb heart can't become anything else until it feels again. As long as we avoid the pain, the heart is a closed chamber where no healing can reach and where no further growth can take place.


While mental health issues have many causes, unresolved grief was at least one piece of the puzzle for most of my clients. The things we do to avoid grief can cause complications that only compound over time. For some people, unresolved grief can contribute to depression or anxiety; for others, it can lead to substance use disorders. For some, the result of grief resisted is subtler, not so much a disorder as a life less fully lived, where joy is rare and everything is gray.

Ultimately, what I learned about grief as a social worker was that it's an unavoidable part of being human, but that most of us go to great lengths to avoid it. We fight and we resist it. We blame ourselves, because guilt and regret, as hard as they are to feel, hurt less than simple loss does. But the only way out is through.


There is no one right way to grieve, and healing grief doesn't have to mean "moving on"—some relationships, and people, stay with us, in our hearts, forever—but grief has to move through us. We have to follow it on the journey it takes us on and get to the other side, or else we get stuck. To heal, we first have to feel the sadness and pain. Everything else comes after.


Where Does the Journey of Grief Take Us?

The grief journey begins with acute grief, the initial period after a loss when our emotions are at their most intense. It's not unusual for the first reaction to grief to be shock or disbelief. Before we can feel anything, we must first process the grief intellectually and give our brains time to register that yes, this person is really gone. As soon as we do this work, the feelings start to come.


Sometimes the sadness is soft and receptive, and sometimes it's like a roar, searing and fiery and loud. Sometimes the sadness dances with anger. At other times, it takes turns with tender hope or even happy reminiscence. The only universal truth about grief is that it is a process, not a state.


The famous "five stages of grief" described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross illuminate contours of the grief process, but they've been misunderstood. People think these five stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) are supposed to always happen in the same order, or that everyone always goes through all five of them. But not even Kubler-Ross herself meant for them to be understood that way. Not everyone bargains or gets angry, for example. These stages make for common scenery on the road of grief, but not all routes lead through all of them.


That said, there is a general truth to the model, which is that people who resolve their grief successfully move from acute grief to integrated grief, or from pain to peace and acceptance. Integration is what happens when the emotions you feel about the loss no longer keep you from participating in life or from feeling joy or hope. You come to terms with the loss; you move from fighting or arguing with the pain to feeling it acutely, and then, finally, to weaving it into the larger emotional tapestry of your life. The sadness may still come and go, but it eases up and weaves in with feelings of love and appreciation.


When you've integrated your grief, you still sometimes feel sad, but you can now smile when you think of that person. You can feel and enjoy their presence in a different way, as part of you, as an emotional or spiritual presence. I agree with Dustin—and Dr. Tony Walter—that the real purpose of grief is not to "let go" of the person you've lost, but to "find a secure place for them" inside of you. You must discover the new reality this person has in your life now that they can no longer be physically present.


Common Grief Traps

Think of grief as a river. Its natural action is to flow. But while grief is powerful, we are clever, and we have all kinds of tools and mechanisms we can use to stop its flow. We can build a dam that keeps the water of grief pooled up out of sight and the rest of life "dry."


When we do that, though, we also dam up the core of our emotional energy. We block the waters of joy as well as the waters of sadness. We can eventually stop up the entire course of our lives if we build that dam well enough. We can stay stuck in a gray, dry land for years.


From what I've seen, learned, and lived through, I would say that these are the five most common grief traps people use to block the flow:

  • Using alcohol or other substances in excess to numb or alter natural feelings.
  • Withdrawing from other people and the world to avoid talking about the loss.
  • Obsessively trying to "re-write" what actually happened to deny realities about the loss.
  • Focusing on details or aspects of the loss that generate or maintain anger and blame.
  • Refusing to do healthy things that feel good as a form of self-punishment.


One of the most healing things we can do for our grief is to tell the story of the person we lost and what they meant in our lives as fully and completely as possible. Grief traps are generally anything that keeps us from doing that.


Of course, the easiest way to not tell the story is to avoid thinking about it whatsoever, which is what we do when we use alcohol, other substances, or other compulsive behaviors to numb or distract ourselves. The trickiest grief traps, though, are the ones we fall into when we think we're "dealing with it" by thinking about it all the time, but are actually trying to deny what happened.


One common way we do this is by focusing on "what ifs." We come up with endless scenarios for how the loss could have been prevented, often blaming ourselves or at least casting ourselves in the starring role in the story of How This Person Could Still Be Here.


Sometimes, we blame another person. The hardest is when someone actually is to blame, fully or in part, for another person's death. But there are ways to find justice that don't require us to hold on to anger. The greater stories of our loved one's lives are more important to memorialize than the details of blame. We have to find those greater stories in order to heal.


The hardest grief to work through is complicated grief, which occurs when your relationship with the person you've lost was complicated. For example, you might be grieving an abusive parent with whom you later partially reconciled, or a sibling who died as the result of self-destructive behavior you spent years trying to get them to stop.


Navigating and healing from complicated grief is challenging, and it often requires professional help. But there is one simple truth about it: you have to find a way to tell the actual, full story of that person and what happened in order to heal. Leaving things out doesn't honor that person; making peace with the whole truth of who they were, and who they were to you, does.


What Helps Us Heal

There are ways we can cope with grief without trying to block or stop it. Think of these less like a dam and more like a little boat you can pilot down the river. These coping methods make sure you keep moving with and through grief until you reach the ocean of integration, healing, and acceptance:

  • Talk to as many people as you can about your grief and about the person you've lost.
  • Do something creative to honor their memory and to make something tangible you can touch, see, or share to remember them by.
  • Keep doing the things you've always enjoyed doing, even if you can't do them as fully as you usually do.
  • Reach out to a therapist or other professional for help if you need it, especially if you're dealing with complicated grief or a violent or traumatic loss.
  • If you have spiritual questions, seek out professional clergy, a book, a practice, a program, a group, or a peer who can help you work through them.


Thinking and talking about the loss are necessary to heal. Grief is a natural process, not a disorder, and doesn't always require therapy to address. But it's hard to work through grief without talking to someone. Peers, friends, family, or members of a faith community can often provide the understanding and support you need.


However, to avoid common grief traps, like getting lost in anger or trying to "re-write" the story of what happened, sometimes you do need professional help. When your grief is complicated, or your loss was traumatic, you need to talk to someone who can engage fully with you in exploring all the complicated, difficult feelings that friends and family might shrink away from or try to shut down. Any time you feel frustrated or hurt by responses from friends and family, it can help to reach out to a therapist, support group, or clergy person, depending on your specific situation and needs.


But not all the work is done through talking. Sometimes, to make a space for a new kind of relationship with the person you've lost, you have to actually make a physical space for them. You might want to set up a shrine or memory corner of photographs and mementos from your relationship, for example. You might want to draw, journal, write a story, or find another a way to put your memories, thoughts, and feelings about them into something you can see and hold.


It can also help to spend some time doing things you used to do with the person who has died. You might even want to try an activity they loved to do that you've never tried before. It can help you remember them clearly and understand them better. But it's also possible to get a little lost if you don't keep doing the things that you love, and that make you who you are. Over time, you'll start to feel that person there with you, in your heart, and be able to integrate your awareness and memory of them with your whole life, not just the activities specifically focused on them. You might be moving on to a new phase of your life, but you're taking them with you.

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