The Truth about Loss and Grief

Grief and loss are universal traumas, affecting most living things to some extent. However, for humans – who think that things need to be fixed, and for whom hope is the last to die – having to accept that there is no hope (that our loved ones won’t return, that grief and loss can’t be fixed but rather need to be felt and heard and the pain allowed) can inevitably be one of the hardest things, and we can feel so overwhelmed by the experience.

There is never a right or wrong way to grieve or to react; some people break down, crying and being inconsolable; some remain composed, and then they may crumble with time or with a trigger of another death reopening wounds and unresolved grief. Some people feel numb and worry, or feel guilty that they should be expressing more ‘pain’ if they cared…however, their reaction isn’t a reflection of how much they loved or cared – it’s an expression of how they are trying to cope. We are all individuals and we all react – we all cope, and we all express ourselves and feel things in different ways. It is normal and okay to be you.

Loss and grief isn’t just about losing a loved one – it’s about loss in general.

This can be grieving the loss of one’s childhood; loss of identity or sense of self; a loss of security and trust in the world or people; loss of self-love or esteem; a loss of a limb; loss of youth, health, divorce and separations…heart breaks and break ups are a form of loss because we may never see that person again. or have them part of our life. Even when a loved one dies, we may be losing what it means to live life differently – the loss of who we might have been with that person, the loss of a shared life if we lose the love of our life. A loss, not just of our baby, but the chance of being a parent to our baby.

Animals are also part of our lives and who we love – they too are equally important and matter just as much. The unconditional love of a pet animal is precious.

If we have lost a loved one through suicide, we are left with a sense of abandonment and rejection, and it can come with feelings of guilt or blame that we should have noticed, done more, could have stopped it. This complicates grieving, just like when sudden death occurs – one can never be truly ready, and bereavement is difficult.

At times, death can be of comfort if we knew that the person was in so much pain and living was painful and unpleasant. If someone who has hurt us dies, we may feel relief and a sense of freedom that this person is no longer alive to hurt us or threaten us.

Psychologist Susan David writes that our cultural dialogue is fundamentally avoidant. This can be seen by the unhelpful comments others might offer: “At least they lived to be old”; time will heal”…people are uncomfortable with pain, and some may distance themselves from the person, suffering leaving them in greater pain and isolation. Our support network is so vital in getting through grief.

Author Megan Davis points out in her book: It’s okay not to be okay. We live in a culture that does not understand grief – take this into consideration. No wonder it can all feel so frightening and overwhelming. She states that unhelpful comments are really telling us to stop feeling so bad, therefore silencing our pain and our grief and not giving us the space and support needed.

She continues to say: “Grief is not a problem to be solved. It isn’t ‘wrong’, and it can’t be ‘fixed’. It isn’t an illness to be cured”.

Do not feel pressured into “healing” or “moving on” – do not pressure yourself. Give yourself the love and compassion that you need. Empathy drives connection; it is important to receive this and not sympathy.

Empathy and sympathy differ.

  • Empathy is walking in another’s shoes, entering their world from their frame of reference; it’s feeling with them, understanding their emotions and thoughts and meaning to things. It drives connection.
  • Sympathy is feeling sorry for the plight of another. It is a feeling of discomfort from the distress of others; it’s disconnection, seeing things from our own frame of reference. It can often feel patronising, and generates pity towards another. While pity makes a victim of the sufferer, empathy empowers them: “I have sense of your world – you are not alone, and we will go through this together”.

Sympathy can also be a feeling of care and concern for someone close, wanting to see them happier or better off, but lacks that real understanding and connection. It’s more to do with that uncomfortable feeling we are getting rather than it being about the other person and able to sit with them in their pain and suffering.

Grief and loss can generate many emotions: anger, sadness, numbness, hurt…and lead to things such as feeling anxious, depressed, difficulty sleeping or sleeping to much, PTSD, nightmares, lack of appetite, low energy, avoidance behaviours that can lead to addictions or isolation. Self-care and kindness to self are so important.

Twitter user Lauren Herschel‏ took to the social media platform back in 2017 to share how her doctor explained grief. This is known as the ‘ball in the box’ analogy.

I will use her drawings to explain it. The ball is grief which is stuck in a box with a pain button.

In the beginning the ball is massive because the grief is all consuming and massive. The ball cannot move without touching that pain button repeatedly. This is why we feel we can’t control grief and why the pain is so intense and just there all the time, It can at times seem unrelenting.

Gradually over time, our outside world which is the box will get bigger and the ball will get smaller in the box. This means it will hit the pain button with less frequency and so things will always hurt but we are not consumed by pain and grief no more. We are able to function in life. On days when we least expect it, the ball will randomly hit the box, because pain based on love, will never go away as love remains, but it get easier to manage.

Another analogy similar to this is the ball in the jar analogy.

This starts with a jar (the size staying the same) and three balls: one large, one medium-sized and lastly one small. If we are to begin to place the larger ball into the jar it would require a lot of strain and difficulty to get it in. This is initially how grief feels, because if grief is the ball and the jar is your world, you can see how the grief fills everything. There is no room (air) to breathe, no space to move around. Every thought, every action reminds us of who has sadly died. If we place the medium ball in the jar, it has room to move about a bit, we may perceive that after some time, our pain will no longer fill every bit of space in our life. If we then continue and repeat the same action, by placing the small ball in the jar, we may believe that like the jar, the grief will get smaller and diminish. At this stage, we are not so consumed by grief and it takes a small part of our lives.

This is a myth. If we are to take two extra jars, one large and the other larger and take the larger ball and squeeze it slowly into the least of the three jars, it would barely fit. If we place it in the next largest jar it has room to move around. That represents the grief more accurately if we see our grief as being represented by the ball. The ball itself doesn’t get bigger or smaller but remains the same. The jar represents our world, our goal is to make the world around us bigger because our grief doesn’t shrink and it’s the love we carry for our loved ones. By our world getting larger, we can work around the grief not eliminate it. In order not to be consumed by grief we need to make that world around us bigger not keep it the same.

There is no specific time for grief or loss – it is always with us. We just get better at managing our pain, and the world around us gets bigger so that we are no longer all-consumed by that sense of loss. People who have physically died live on in our hearts, and it’s when we stop remembering them or push memories away that they die fully.

As Megan Devine states:

“It’s okay not to be okay”.

Resources: https://www.distractify.com/p/doctors-ball-in-box-analog

https://community.macmillan.org.uk/cancer_experiences/bereaved_spouse/f/bereaved_spouse-forum/64421/ball-in-a-jar—an-article-on-grief

Book: Megan Devine : It’s okay not to be okay.