Grief is like the flu (but having it for a long time). When you get the flu, it leaves you with a variety of symptoms, including a runny or stuffy nose, a fever, or a sore throat. Do you get mad at yourself for having a sore throat, mad at yourself that you can’t just feel better or make it go away? Do you try to go to work and school and socialize and continue to live your normal life as if you are in perfect health? No! None of those things are helpful. When you have the flu, the only thing that you are supposed to do is just rest and ride it out until it goes away. You can take medicine to mask the symptoms or immune support supplements such as Vitamin C, but there is no cure for the flu. The only cure is just going through it; in fact, getting mad at yourself for feeling rotten (causing yourself extra stress) or trying to continue to live your normal life as if nothing happened will prolong the sickness and make it worse.
In our culture, we understand how to deal with physical ailments. The flu is something that we all experience at some point in our lives and thus we are taught about what to do when we catch it. Yet, we similarly all experience difficult emotional events in our lives- grief in particular- that leave us feeling rotten with a host of symptoms. Unfortunately, we are not taught properly how to deal with grief when it hits us (if we even talk about grief at all). Instead of resting and riding it out, like one typically does with the flu, a griever will oftentimes beat him or herself up for feeling grief symptoms and will try to continue to live his or her normal life as if nothing happened. It’s as if our society only validates ailments caused by biological pathogens instead of shitty-life-event-pathogens.
Grief is the reaction to a loss. It is oftentimes associated with the loss of a loved one, but it can incorporate really anything that one loses: moving (loss of a familiar environment), losing a job, or the end of a friendship, to name a few. It can even be a reaction to positive changes such as graduating from school, having a baby, or getting married. Symptoms of grief can be all-encompassing: emotional, mental, spiritual, and even physical. In her article, “Grief and How to Deal With It- A No-Nonsense Approach to Grief,” Avigail Abarbanel outlines an extensive list of events that can cause grief as well as symptoms. Here are just a few examples of symptoms that one might experience:
-exhaustion, low energy
-changes in apetite
-sleep disruption- sleeping too much, not enough, or not being able to stay asleep
-loneliness- feeling like no one understands what you’re going through
-dissatisfaction with life
-fear of “going crazy”
-worrying about not achieving or living up to usual standards
-feeling like a burden on others
-wanting to talk about the loss a lot
-wanting to be alone
-feelings of disappointment in the relationship because of the perception that your partner cannot understand what you are going through or that he or she isn’t feeling the same way as you
-anger at God
-thinking more about the meaning of life
-thinking more about illness and death
-feeling a deeper spiritual connection
There are more symptoms, and one might not experience all of them. The most important thing is to recognize that these feelings and experiences are normal- getting mad at oneself for feeling them is counterproductive. It can just be very hard when you know that what you are experiencing is normal, but the rest of the world doesn’t. If you are going through grief, try to educate your friends and family so that they won’t pressure you to just “get over it” or “get on with your life.” Would you tell a person with the flu to just get on with their life?
Just as taking Dymatap or Nyquill can quell flu symptoms without curing the flu itself, so, too, can antidepressants quell grief symptoms without curing the grief. It can alleviate the pain and make one feel better temporarily, but the grief will still be there once the medicine is gone. (**Please note that I am not a psychiatrist or any kind of doctor, so don’t rely on my advice about what psychiatric drugs to take or not take.)
Unfortunately, while the flu may go away after a few days, it takes grief a really long time to run its course- and in the end, a griever won’t stop feeling sad about the person lost or ever stop missing them; it will just not hurt as badly, and the lost person can be remembered in a fond way more so than an achingly sad way. Thus, when a friend or loved one has the flu, we might bring them soup or movies to watch at the beginning to be there for them. Once we leave, the person will feel better shortly. When a friend experiences the death of a loved one, we bring them flowers and food at the beginning- but once we leave, it might take them a year or two to feel better (each person is different, and each relationship is different, so there really is no timeline for how long grief should last. As Abarbanel says, “It takes as long as it takes”).
Others’ impatience with grievers can be exemplified by the fact that, in our country, most businesses will give their employers a whopping three days off for bereavement time. Yet, perhaps that impatience is a combination of both lack of understanding about the grief process as well as simply feeling awkward and not knowing what to say or do. For example, grievers can oftentimes get angry and offended when friends, family, or other people say cliché things like, “He’s in a better place,” “Don’t be sad/don’t cry,” “Time heals all wounds,” or “It was her time to go.” I’ve heard all of these remarks, and they feel more insensitive than helpful. Yet, before my dad died, if I was ever with someone who had lost a loved one, I remember having no idea what to say. Sometimes, I wouldn’t say anything at all out of fear that the person would get mad at me for bringing it up, feel uncomfortable, or start feeling really sad and start crying. I probably made some people feel like they couldn’t talk about their grief with me or that I didn’t understand.
And the thing is, people who haven’t gone through the death of a loved one can’t really understand what it feels like. They don’t know what to say, what to do, or how it feels, and thus in their lack of experience and lack of a proper grief education, they act accordingly. They ultimately want you to feel better and they don’t want to offend you, but they just feel awkward.
We thus must begin to treat grief the same way that we treat a physical illness. Us grievers must give ourselves time to rest and go through all of the emotions. We can try to educate our friends and family on what we are going through so that they can understand a little bit better; we can maybe try to brush off our friends’ weird behavior or clichéd comments. We can understand that what we’re experiencing is totally normal and that there’s nothing wrong with us. We can even be more patient with ourselves.
We also must remember that it’s okay to have fun, too. It’s not required of us to feel sad 24/7, and our laughter as well as our tears are ways of honoring our loved one. ❤