Today in the chart

Thoughts on Grief Part IV: We Heal in Relationships

As we sit with ourselves and others who are grieving, it is important to remember that grief is not linear, nor do you neatly jump from one stage to another; it is unique for each person.

Grief Myth #3: Grieve Alone

After my mother died, I couldn’t bounce back. I no longer felt resilient. In fact, I felt like I would never recover. I stopped wanting to be around people. I found myself turning in and separating myself from my partner. As a woman who loves being with others, this was a new phase for me as I was experiencing immense grief and loss and felt like no one else understood or knew how to help me.

Grief is one of our most misunderstood emotions, and as a country, we have focused much of our grief education on Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief. Hailed as the handbook for grief, it is important to note these stages, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, were initially meant for the person who was dying, not the loved ones who are left behind. This misconception can keep us wondering what stage of grief we are in, in hopes of graduating to the next level and then the next until we reach final acceptance. However, this might not be the way you are experiencing grief, and this is because grief is unique for each person and is different for each loss experienced. Grief is a natural response to any loss; however, it does not just naturally get better on its own. Instead, we heal in a relationship with ourselves and one another. As the great black female author, bell hooks states, “Rarely do we ever heal in isolation, it is when we commune together with one another that healing takes place.”

After feeling alone and isolated in my grief after my mother died, I knew I needed to take action to survive. To do this, I stopped nursing full-time and moved to a new city to get my Masters in Dance. There, I spent the next three years grieving the loss of my mother in a community with a small group of dancers also working towards their Master of Fine Arts. Finally, I could honestly and openly share my sadness and cry when I needed to call and be comforted by friends who chose to hold my grief alongside me. I don’t think I had any other choice but to dance through my grief after my mother died. It was the only place I felt courageous enough and held enough to honestly and fully grieve.  

Grief Myth #4: Just Give It Time

Giving myself three years to dance and nurse per diem was important, but time is not the only thing that heals grief; it must come accompanied by action. Action that allows you courageous spaces to feel the grief, the sadness, the anger, and all the other emotions that arise. Time will change your perspective on grief, but your grief remains with you unchanged unless you allow yourself courageous spaces to feel the emotions both in solitude and in relationships with others. We heal in relationships because we desire to connect to others in joy and grief. This is our other greatest gift, sharing our humanity.  

Time plus action heal our grief. I define action as taking the steps necessary to feel our emotions. However, this alone will also only get us so far. The next step is to find completion, allowing ourselves to feel the emotions to completion as they arise. In grief recovery, we spend time looking at how we need to express these emotions, specifically looking at each moment we are holding that is still causing us pain.  

When someone dies, the griever is often left feeling guilty because they wish things could have been better, more, or different. They wish they would have said that one last thing, or showed up more, or didn’t say that last thing. In grief recovery, we reframe the way we think of guilt by asking ourselves, did we intend to cause harm to this other person? Usually, the answer is no. Guilt is associated with the intention to cause harm, a desire to cause harm to others. Since this is not normally the case, we feel guilt is not the proper word for our feelings. What I think we are feeling is regret. We regret how we wish we would have shown up differently, better, or more. Regret can keep us frozen because we cannot go back and change things; however, in grief recovery, we spend time together looking at each of these moments of regret and together completing these emotions to find healing.

I remember taking on more shifts when my mother was sick because it felt like I couldn’t be around her as she was so sick, and I felt helpless. After my mother died, I felt so guilty that I wasn’t at every chemo appointment with her, spent all my free afternoons with her, or stopped working altogether to be with her. This guilt was far worse than the actual grief of her being gone. After working through each part of my guilt (regret), I was able to release those feelings completely and allow myself to focus on and feel the sadness of her being gone. This unraveled my guilt and grief and allowed me to focus on one at a time.

As we sit with ourselves and others who are grieving, it is important to remember that grief is not linear, nor do you neatly jump from one stage to another; it is unique for each person. The greatest gift you can give to someone grieving is your presence. Sitting with them, listening, holding their hand, and holding their grief alongside them. This allows them to be real and feel safe to share their tears, which is the healing path we need when grieving.

We are not alone in our grief, and sharing this sentiment with others while they are grieving can be helpful. “I am here with you; you are not alone.” If they begin to cry, saying, “Thank you for trusting me with your tears; you are so brave,” reminds them that you are not afraid of their emotions and that you are grateful when they cry. This creates safety so that they can release what they have been holding. These are just some helpful ways to offer your presence to others who are grieving. We were not all taught how to be with others who are suffering so it is important to remember we are all still learning and that each situation will be different and will require our complete presence, fewer words and more space, more silence, and more holding. This is what resiliency looks like, courageous spaces to soften and be held. When you find these spaces hold onto them, they are precious and hard to find.

As we look at the ways we have been taught about grief, I encourage you to journal about your grief with these following questions:

  1. What do you feel guilty about? In these situations, did you intend to cause harm? Is it possible to reframe your guilt to regret? If you could go back and do it again, what would you do differently in these situations?
  1. In what ways has time healed your grief, and in what ways does it feel the same?
  1. Who are the people you can honestly share your heart with, emotions, sadness, and joy? These may be the most important relationships you have. How are you nurturing these relationships in your life?

Tara Rynders, The Dancing Nurse Educator and Nightingale Luminary, is the CEO and Founder of The Clinic, an arts and play-based immersive theater company that offers workshops and keynotes to create more sustainable, (Re)Brilliant, and equitable healthcare systems.

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