Feeling My Way Through Grief

Author: Betty Ann Rutledge

"Grief is not, as I thought, a state, but a process. Like a walk in a winding valley which gives you a new landscape every few miles." ~ C.S. Lewis

Woman Looking Up

I learned a long time ago that there is no way around grief. Can’t climb over it, can’t crawl under it and, as clever as I’ve tried to be, no way to sneak around it. The only way through grief is…through it. For the newly bereaved (and for anyone who is in a “hit of grief” at any point on their journey), traveling this road is painful, confusing, and downright terrifying in moments. So as we learn to find our way through this new landscape of grief, it’s helpful to have a few definitions to guide us:
  • Bereavement:  the state of having suffered a loss; state of sorrow over the death or departure of a loved one
  • Grief: deep mental anguish arising from bereavement; intense sorrow caused by the loss of a loved one; the process that allows us to say good-bye to what was and get ready for that which is yet to come
  • Mourning: the actions or expressions of one who has suffered a bereavement; conventional outward signs of grief for the dead; public, shared expression of a person's thoughts, behaviors, and emotions related to a loss

While we know that grief affects us at all levels of our being-physical, emotional, mental, attitudinal, spiritual, social, sexual-for many, the first thing we think of when it comes to grief is feelings. Most definitions of grief and bereavement make some reference to emotions. And for a lot of us, here's where the terrain becomes the most treacherous to navigate.

"I'm afraid if I start to cry, I'll never stop."

"I'm so angry, I could scream."

"I feel so hopeless, I can't even get out of bed."

"I feel so sad, I don't know if I will ever recover."

These and many other expressions of deep, emotional pain are commonly heard among bereaved people. It's no wonder then that we might be tempted to avoid feeling our emotions altogether. It sounds pretty overwhelming! But if we are truly going to find a way to live with our grief, one of the essential tasks of mourning is experiencing the myriad emotions and feelings that spring from our losses.

A wise person once described it to me in this way. Think of your emotions as bubbles in a glass of soda or champagne (the beverage being your emotional body). As you experience a feeling-sadness, anger, fear, happiness, love, desire-that feeling floats up through your emotional body. And when it reaches the "surface," like a bubble at the top of a glass of soda, it pops and evaporates into the air.

However, if you put a lid on your bubbles, actively trying to block negative emotions from traveling up their path through your emotional body, not only will you experience a build-up of negative emotions (that in turn will impact you physically, mentally, etc.), but you will also block the more welcome emotions-like joy and peace and love-from bubbling up in you.

Put another way, avoiding your feelings can lead to emotional indigestion. And just like having a good burp can ease your physical discomfort, letting yourself have a good emotional release will lead to a softening of your emotional body as well. This is not an easy process. It can be frightening to experience our feelings.

Many of us, for all kinds of reasons, have not been able to express our feelings. We've received messages our whole lives about "appropriate" behavior related to feelings. Some of those messages are gender-based like "big boys don't cry." Some we absorb from our families. Others are influenced by our faith, culture, personality, and life experiences.

A British-born friend describes his family as the "suck it up" type of grievers, which essentially left him no room or permission to express his feelings. Another friend who comes from the West Indies told me that black women there often feel they must be strong for their families-especially their children-and that they cannot allow themselves to feel or show any kind of "weakness" like crying. They can't afford to, as they are responsible for so much in their lives and communities.

What messages have you absorbed about feelings? 

Even the language of feelings discourages us with its negativity and judgment. People who express emotions openly are described as "falling apart" or "losing it." And how many times do we hear someone say "I'm sorry" while they are crying? What's to be sorry for? Feelings aren't good or bad-they just are.

We all have our histories and stories that have informed how we think, feel, and behave in response to grief-stories and histories that loom large when we are faced with the daunting task of mourning, experiencing the pain of grief.

So what can we do? A dear friend once counseled me to "lean into" my pain, to really let myself feel the sorrow and pay attention to what happens in those deepest, darkest moments of grief, to listen to the sounds my body makes, to notice the words that come to mind, and try to remember that this is just another bubble that will eventually move through me and pop.

If you're afraid to cry because you don't think you'll be able to stop, think about this. Have you ever heard of anyone laughing so much they couldn't stop indefinitely? Try to think of sadness as just another feeling, another bubble. Remember to breathe and trust that the moment of intense pain will ease.

Leaning into the pain has also been described as "being in the pit." Think of peaks and valleys; experiencing the painful emotions of grief can be a very deep valley. If you're new at this, venturing into the pit unaccompanied may not be such a good idea. A trusted friend or family member who can sit with you, a fellow bereaved traveler, or a counselor may be enlisted to provide comfort and safety.

I believe that my loved ones who have died want me to live as full a life as I possibly can. And for me, living fully requires me to stand bravely and honestly in the fullness of my humanity: tears, fears, and anger as well as joy, love, and peace. And when standing is impossible and I am brought to my knees in despair, I try and remember the following quote from James Martineau:

"I bow in reverence before the emotions of every melted heart. We have a human right to our sorrow. To blame the deep grief which bereavement awakens is to censure all strong human attachments. The more intense the delight in their presence, the more poignant the impression of their absence; and you cannot destroy the anguish unless you forbid the joy. A morality which rebukes sorrow rebukes love. When the tears of bereavement have had their natural flow, they lead us again to life and love's generous joy."   

Betty Ann RutledgeBy Betty Ann Rutledge: Betty Ann Rutledge is a professional volunteer manager with over 20 years of experience in the field of healthcare, death, dying, and bereavement. Her work at the AIDS Committee of Toronto and Bereaved Families of Ontario included developing volunteer training programs based on the peer support model. She has journeyed with many people through illness, end of life, and bereavement including both her parents and many friends. She is committed to creating space for people to share their stories of loss, healing, resiliency, and meaning-making.