Grief: It’s Complicated

Jan 30, 2024 | Guidance

Some of you may have seen my Instagram post about grief last week. I wrote about the different ways grief can show up, how it’s personal and profound and has no time limit. I shared a bit of my own personal experience with loss. But grief is so much bigger than 2200 characters, so I think it’s important to elaborate on a few things.

A client- let’s call her Jessica- recently disclosed to me that her stepfather, who tortured her for years as a child, had unexpectedly died. We’d been working through her trauma together for almost a year, and although it had been a hard road, she’d started to uncover a powerful conviction to live her life more fully. Her stepfather’s death interrupted Jessica’s process to add a layer of confusion, her painful memories suddenly complicated by grief for her abuser. Before his death, her anger toward him had been justifiable and straightforward. She always believed that when he died, she would feel relief, maybe even redemption. But when it happened, all she felt was sadness, and guilt for feeling sad.

Disenfranchised. Unconventional. Ambiguous. Hidden. These are all ways to describe non-traditional grief. There are usually no mainstream examples that we can draw from, no readily available support person who understands and empathizes, no societal ritual that we can participate in. This adds to the sense of isolation and makes it challenging to express how we feel and navigate the healing process.

When we think about grief and loss, we typically picture someone human whom we loved and has died. We engage in cultural traditions, celebrate the person’s life, gather together to pray and eat, and collectively mourn. But not all grief is acknowledged, validated, and accepted through societal norms. I mentioned in my post that grief can come from a miscarriage, a divorce, a profound shift in your anticipated life path, or the loss of a pet, a job, or a significant relationship- even a bad one.

Many clients over the years have shared with me that they still loved their abusive partner, even when they were lucky to escape alive. As we all do, they invested significant amounts of time in their relationships, weaving their dreams for the future with the people they loved and trusted. Although it was the right thing to do, leaving the relationships also meant abandoning everything they had envisioned for their lives. It signified failure, shame, and the death of hope.

Grief for non-traditional losses can be just as poignant, challenging, and enduring as what we consider traditional grief. If you’re experiencing grief, seeking support from those who understand the nuances of your loss is a crucial step in finding solace and reconstructing a new sense of self amid the unanticipated changes. Reach out to empathic friends, family, or a professional. Find a grief support group. Read books on grief. You don’t have to navigate this journey alone.

If you’re supporting someone through grief, be empathic, patient, genuine, and non-judgmental. You don’t have to know the exact right thing to say or have had the same exact experience. Simply your presence and understanding mean a lot. Validate their emotions. Prepare a meal. Encourage them to express their feelings without pushing them to “move on” or “get over it.” Recognize that grief is an ongoing process that is unique to each individual and unfolds at its own pace.

After I listened to Jessica tearfully talk through her thoughts and feelings about her stepfather’s death, I responded that I was not surprised that she was experiencing grief. A look of shock on her face, I explained that she is a good person, a highly sensitive and empathic caregiver who feels deeply and loves fiercely. I reflected that her profound sense of purpose, her ability to make meaning from her suffering, and her determination to change her family legacy for the better, ingrained in her a love for humanity that did not permit her to rejoice in death. The strength of her character required grief over death, even when the person didn’t deserve it. I told her that the world needs more people like her.

Sending you peace and love, dear ones.🤍 

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