I’ve heard some words escape my mouth at the start of conversations recently that has really left me feeling quite disappointed with myself. I’ve noticed that I insert a pre-emptive apology for mentioning my grief, purely on the basis that it happened well over a decade ago.
While I’m well aware that this also relates back to my former people-pleasing ways, at a more serious level, it alarms me that I think the time has come when I should feel less comfortable about raising my experience of grief.
Before I dive any deeper let me say this – I honestly do know that nobody actually wants to hear the same sad story, months or years after the event. No matter how much they empathise, they won’t want to be subjected to it on repeat. I wouldn’t, so I get that others won’t either.
But that’s not what I’m talking about here. This is about grief and the long-lasting and wide-ranging pain it inflicts on each of us. For many, it can take quite a period of time before you feel ready to share your own experience of how you steered your way through it; but it’s worth remembering that this information can be a great source of comfort for others who may not quite be there yet.
These last few years, I have found myself more open to writing about my own story of how grief moved into my world and stayed far longer than I expected or wanted it to. I feel much more able to find the words that best reflect how I navigated my way back from those feelings of loss, abandonment and pain to a place of safety, comfort and ultimately happiness.
Granted, the details aren’t always pretty, I absolutely made a lot of dubious detours along the way and made some altogether questionable decisions that I’m not proud of, but I got here, eventually. I went entirely at my own pace and that, I felt, was my saving grace.
Yet when I look at where we are in the world now when dealing with grief, I find I’m left with far more questions than answers. When did we decide that all grief should feel the same and that we should all behave and react in a similar manner? And when did it become acceptable to compare one person’s grief with another? Since when does grief have an expiry date?
I love that more and more people feel able to share their personal experiences of grief and while I understand how the media works and how those with ‘profiles’, will always guarantee more attention than the rest of us, I am nevertheless concerned about the culture it is creating around the grieving process.
Podcasts, live events and seminars are popping up now that have the potential to provide a very worthy information resources; but I would respectfully question whether the intention behind all of them is just as worthy. By including only stories of personalities and their grief, by selling tickets for people to witness their heartache, it undermines the real lived experience so many know about grief and truthfully feels unnecessarily alienating. At best, it tells you that you are not alone and at worst it tells you that your grief matters a little bit less than someone else’s.
HOW TO GRIEVE
Grieving is a highly individual experience; there’s simply no right or wrong way to grieve. How you grieve depends on a multitude of factors, including your relationship with the person you lost, how you cope with loss and pain, previous life experiences, your existing support network, your faith and what it means to you and the circumstances surrounding your loss; to name but a few.
It is inevitable that the grieving process takes time. It can never be forced or hurried along. Your pain is valid because it’s yours. It’s real to you because it’s how it feels to you. All healing happens gradually and no timeline or schedule for it exists, anywhere. You get to create your own and you discover in so doing that it isn’t linear. Grief comes and goes when we expect it and out of the blue. It lasts anything from months to years and just because we feel we have come through it rarely means it is done with us.
MYTH VS TRUTH
To demonstrate this a little further let’s explore some of the untruths those grieving must endure.
Myth: You’ll feel better faster if you push your feelings down.
Truth: Trying to avoid your feelings or keep them from surfacing will only make everything much worse in the long term. In order to heal and to learn how to live with your loss it is necessary to confront your feelings and to actively deal with them in all their complexities.
Myth: It’s important that those around you see you coping well.
Truth: Don’t succumb to wearing your perceived strength as a badge of honour. Please don’t convince yourself that by articulating just how you are really feeling that you will look weak and that this in turn will make those close to you uncomfortable. The truth is that it’s not your responsibility to “protect” your family or friends by putting on a brave front. Expressing how you are feeling will ultimately help them to help you, which is what they want, more than anything else.
Myth: Once you pass the year mark it gets easier and you’re ready then to move on.
Truth: This is one of the more dangerous myths and it is utter rubbish. There is no specific time frame for grieving. How long it takes is how long it takes and it varies hugely from person to person. For many, myself included, the pain can actually intensify in the years following the loss so ignore all talk of needing to get through the first year and then all will be well. It likely won’t.
Myth: Moving on with your life means forgetting about your loss.
Truth: Guilt is an emotion that really makes itself known when you are grieving. Guilt that you didn’t do more when the person was alive. Guilt when you find yourself feeling happy for the first time after they die. Guilt when others assume you’ve moved on. What you need to remember here is that just because you slowly start to move back on with your life, doesn’t mean the memories of the person you have lost have been erased. You carry them always in your heart. The reality is that you will never be the person you were before they died and that’s okay too.
Grief is complex, very lonely and an experience that forever changes and shapes the person you become. You can never go back once you live through grief, so make your journey through it easier, by dealing only with your personal truth. What grief is for you is what grief is for you. Go gently, don’t be afraid to ask for help, lean on the support offered to you as much as you need to and put yourself first. If ever there was a time when you earned the right to be selfish, this is it. I’ve always found comfort in these words offered by author Jamie Anderson: “Grief is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go”.
Niamh Ennis is Ireland’s leading Change & Transformation Coach and Author who through her private practice, writings, programmes, workshops and podcast has inspired, activated and helped thousands of people to make significant changes in their lives. She is an accredited Personal, Leadership & Executive Coach and the Lead Coach in the IMAGE Business Club. Instagram @1niamhennis or niamhennis.com.
Illustration by storyset.
This article was originally published in September 2022.