A Therapist’s Road to Grieving

IMPORTANT: This blog is not a substitute for therapy, but provides evidenced-based education for the purposes of self-help, or to compliment the therapeutic process. ​ ​This blog is non-monetized.

I hope this grief stays with me because it’s all the unexpressed love that I didn’t get to tell her

Andrew Garfield

What I’ve learned about grief is this: It’s possible to feel nothing at all, yet everything at once.

Grief is not a stage, but a wave. They ask if the waves are as big as they were before, it’s more so that the water is the same but it has taken on a different form, and continues to remold itself. So while the wave continues to curl and fall, and settle, and repeat, it may feel different every time. You can ensure you’re eating each meal, getting to bed on time, reaching out to friends for support, going to therapy, stretching your body, and getting fresh air. You can take every possible step, and be doing everything “right”, but that will not prevent you from feeling the grief, because you’re supposed to feel it. What those precautions do, however, is protect you from shutting down.

​The body mourns through a desire to slow down, through fluctuations in sleep and appetite, in bouts of exhaustion from carrying a newfound heaviness in our hearts. The mind mourns in it’s own way, it grieves through foggy memory and emotional outbursts.

So what helps?

Staying connected

The most helpful tool was finding another person to share this with. Set up a safety net and surround yourself with solid people; you will find that they become the foundation on which you lean. This support system, although there is nothing they can say or do to help take away the pain, will ease the burden of grief. A beautiful network of sounding boards, emotional supports, food bearers, errand runners, check in partners. They will be your village. What’s more, is that you develop the skill to be able to ask for and accept the support given. Whether that means picking up when friends or family call, or calling them yourself. Leaning into that vulnerability, and accepting help, allows you to experience the grief within a safe cocoon of comfort and support.

The truth is, there is nothing anyone can say to make it better. People often struggle with trying to say the right thing, and find themselves tripping over their words. In reality, all they need to do is listen and sit alongside their loved one as they brave the discomfort. It’s not about making the person feel better, it’s acknowledging the awfulness of it, and allowing that to just …be.

​Grief is the price we pay to love so deeply.

Lean on your support system

This is a time to lean into your beliefs, or perhaps to develop them. For some this may look like turning to their religion, their practices, and their faith. Perhaps, this looks like ceremonies or rituals that honour and remember the loved one that has passed. This may mean attending therapy sessions, and talking through the grief (yes, even therapists have therapy!).

This means assessing your capabilities to determine how to provide the appropriate compassion and care for yourself. This means taking adequate time away from work or other duties to allow yourself to fully process the grief. With the support of my coworkers, I was encouraged to listen to my own words, the ones that I so often share with my clients, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”.

​So I took a step back from my duties and obligations.  Despite the worries that I had for my clients, I tended to myself. I did so knowing that when I was ready to show up, I would be fully present and in tune with them. This is a time to seek consoles and guidance from the areas that hold significance in your life, whatever they may be.

Routines of normalcy to tether you back to yourself

One week after my mother passed, I found myself at a Christmas Market, surrounded by people laughing and skating, cheerfulness and glitter abound in the air. This is one of my favourite holidays and it was such a strange experience to hold both heartbreaking grief and festive joy at the same time. The juxtaposition of the beauty of travel and celebration against the heartache of loss and loneliness, of profound grief. It’s important to respect your body’s boundaries to allow time for rest, but I wanted to ensure that despite the grief, I was also leaving room for joy. Life goes on.

​I’ve found that the hardest part is finding a way to rejoin it. It’s like running on a treadmill full speed and swinging your feet off to the side to catch your breath, and then trying to hop back on without tumbling or missing a beat. I was not alone though. Without asking, my best friend flew in and stayed with me for a week. She was there when I had to pick up groceries, vacuum, wash dishes, and go for walks. All of the mundane parts of my routine felt less lonely, less triggering, and less foreign once I was trying to do them alongside someone I trusted. Grief can cause a disconnect, but routines and a sense of normalcy can tether you back to yourself and the world you’ve worked so hard to create.

Talk about them

A few months after her passing, I said yes to something I previously would’ve delayed- a spontaneous trip around Europe. Now, I’m not saying you should travel to heal your grief… I’m also not NOT saying that. Dialectical behaviour therapy teaches the importance of positive and functional distractions. A change of environments and something novel to look forward to can be the perfect distraction. Before we embarked on our month long excursion, I shared my fears with my friend and soon to be travel companion. “What if my grief ruins the excitement or special moments? What if I can’t contain my tears at times?” Her response was this: “that’s okay, it won’t ruin the moment, you are bringing her with you and I will be there beside you when those moments arise.” I asked for permission to grieve and was met with acceptance and understanding.

There is a scene from the show 1883 in which a character describes his motivation to go and see beautiful places and things. He explains that it is because when we love we share a part of ourselves with the other person.  When they pass, that part still exists and lives on inside of us. All of the beautiful and amazing sights I saw, I was allowing her to see through me. Symbols of her were all around and followed us throughout the trip. They became a soft “hello” from the other side, a gentle reminder that she lives within me. Through the comfort and support of loved ones, in vulnerable communication of what grief looks and feels like at any given moment, you’re able to truly be in the moment and process. There’s no hiding the tears or feeling a need to hold back in saying “they would’ve loved this!”. When your patience runs thin it’s understood that this too is the toll of leftover love.

​All this to say, sharing experiences is still possible, it just looks different. The history and memory of them will become integrated into your new experiences. When grief becomes normalized and it doesn’t feel taboo to discuss, we open ourselves up for moments of connection and understanding.

Finding your own way to honour them

Grief is personal and looks different for everyone. There is no roadmap and there is no “right” way to do it other than to feel your way through the process. Finding your own way of honouring your loved one can add meaning and a powerful sense of closure. Something to represent your affection and to express the impact they had on you. For some this may look like a funeral, a celebration of life, a gesture or a new tradition that reminds you of them. Or perhaps it is a physical symbol like a work of art, a piece of jewellery, or a letter.

Time for Reflection

If you find yourself caught in emotional reflections, or perhaps resisting them, both are normal responses. Bereavement leave can mean extra time and space for reflection. I’d encourage you to observe these reflections in a nonjudgmental way. Do you find yourself jumping into caretaker mode? Or maybe being around family has you reverting back to childhood dynamics? Do you find yourself trying to override your emotions and push through? Perhaps these responses protected you in the past, perhaps they no longer do. While it may feel familiar or safe, and provide a sense of control, at times it can be more beneficial to step back and allow yourself to be taken care of.

Give yourself permission to not be the saviour. Ask yourself not only “does this feel good for me right now?”, but “does this feel safe for me right now?” and “will this help me grow?”

Get real about the impact they had on you (the good, the bad, the ugly)

Life is messy and so are the relationships we create along the way. We can love someone whilst also acknowledging that there may have been some difficult emotions surrounding their presence. It’s not dishonouring them or their memory to be honest about the impact they had on you- the good, the bad and the ugly. In fact, getting real about who they were and what they meant to us can help deter from seeing things through a black and white, or even rose coloured, lens. For anyone that has experienced the loss of a parent, grief can feel like a three legged stool that’s had a leg kicked out. Growing up, caretakers are (ideally) responsible for providing a foundation of safety, security and stability. This is intended to allow you to grow into an independent person who feels safe enough to take risks, make mistakes, and practice decision making. Ideally, they’re the people demonstrating unconditional love. While not everyone experiences this, grief can often bring up the emotions of either losing such a connection, or never having had it and losing the opportunity to create it with them. It’s okay if you loved them but also shared difficult and challenging times.

​There is no shame in recognizing that there are parts of life that have become easier or more manageable with their absence. Just as it’s okay if there are parts of your life that now feel hollow with their absence. Relationships are often complex and sadness is rarely the only emotion evoked through grief.

Allow it to change you. It’s supposed to.

To my previous point, grief is not something ‘bad’ that is to be avoided. It is a natural human process, and perfectly understandable, when the loss of someone changes us or impacts our lives.

​That means we’re present, that means that person held significance in our lives, that means they made us feel something. What could be more human than that? Allow grief to change you, it’s supposed to.

That is how we grow through it.

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Picture of Erika Belledent, BA (psych), MACP, RP (she, her)

Erika Belledent, BA (psych), MACP, RP (she, her)

Registered Psychotherapist Erika works with adults, couples and families, with a special interest in anxiety disorders, ADHD for individuals and family support, childhood trauma and family of origin conflict. Follow Erika on Instagram

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