To live is to lose.

We lose through traumatic life events like death, divorce, getting fired from a job or moving to a different city. But even positive events like getting married or a promotion come at a price.

There is always something meaningful we leave behind, possibly for ever.

Whatever the reason and whatever the loss, the natural response is to grieve. Grief is the body-mind’s way to heal.

Grieving is saying goodbye and letting go, in order to create space for something new. It involves acknowledging the significance of what was lost and accepting that it will never return.

Common responses to grief

Grieving is healthy and necessary way of coping with change. A lot of people, however, don’t grieve for a variety of reasons.

  • They avoid grieving because they think it is shameful or weak.
  • They hide their feelings, saying things like “there is no use crying over spilt milk”
  • They minimise their grief, for example by comparing it to someone else’s pain. “I lost my job, but my best friend lost her mom, so I really shouldn’t complain.”
  • They believe they should stay strong for another person, so their grief gets shelved while they tend to the needs of others.
  • They numb the feeling of loss with drugs, food or a new relationship.
  • They bury their feeling of loss underneath a very busy work or social schedule.
  • They believe that “time heals all wounds” and passively wait for the loss to handle itself.

These strategies do and do not work. They work in the sense that they help us forget the feeling of loss and avoid the painful process of grieving. For a little while, it gives us relief.

The original pain, however, remains and serves as an inherent fault line upon which new relationships, careers and other experiences are built. Also, the energy and emotion invested in the unsolved pain is not available to us, which undermines our happiness and health.

Responsibility to grieve

We have a right and a responsibility to grieve. And it is possible to grieve effectively, to work through the pain, clear up the rubble and create space for new opportunities.

Take a moment to think of your major losses and feel how each feels. Do you still feel pain or regret? Do you feel anger or resentment? Do you blame someone for your loss? If the answer is yes, then you still have to grieve that loss. As long as you don’t, that loss will prevent you from living fully and happily.

How to grieve

Grieving is not just feeling sad and having a good cry about something. In fact, people can feel angry or sad about a loss for years and decades without the intensity of the feelings changing.

Grieving is a process with specific steps that you can follow on your own or experience with a personal or professional guide.

In broad terms, it involves honestly describing the true nature of the loss, apologising for any role you may have played in it, forgiving another for their role and expressing any emotions or thoughts about the loss.

It’s not rocket science and far less painful that it seems. It’s a bit like tearing of a band-aid: we avoid it, but the actual pain is not nearly as bad as the imagined pain, and the relief afterwards is wonderful.

Ilja van Roon

P.S. I myself struggled with the death of my little cousin and wrote about it in this very personal blog.