Grief is a response to the loss of something. When we think of loss, we often think of death. While this is certainly a devastating loss, it also comes in other shapes and sizes. Divorce, retirement, moving, children growing up, and physical disability are other examples of losses that can feel significant. Grief is the internal process following a loss, while mourning is the external expression of the loss. Loss is a great equalizer that connects us as humans. We will all feel the devastation and heartache of loss at points in our lives. There is no teacher/student role when it comes to grief. True expertise lies with the griever. The goal is not to fix or to "get over it". Grief is not a problem to be solved; it's an experience to be carried. There is no end or neatly laid out stages to grieve through. Grief is painful and messy. Companionship, gentleness, kindness from others, and also towards ourselves are important. With the understanding that you are your own expert in your grief, David Kessler, an author, public speaker, and death and grieving expert, gives us 6 helpful needs to keep in mind as we grieve.

1) To have your pain witnessed.
2) To express your feelings.
3) To release the burden of guilt
4) To be free of old wounds
5) To integrate the pain with the love
6) To find meaning in life after loss

Let’s take a minute to unpack these 6 needs a little bit more...

1) To have your pain witnessed - Grief is brutal. The process of healing begins by acknowledging your loss and knowing that your experience is seen and heard and that the grief is real. It is important to know that your loss is understood, you will survive, and a future is possible. Loss can become more bearable when fully understood by another person. We live in a grief-illiterate world. Unfortunately, it is more common than not for clients in grief to come to me with frustrating experiences from those who want to help them but don't know how. Additionally, it can divide families who either believe that the other family member does not care enough or is too emotional. They are told what they are doing wrong or how they should be doing it. This results in feeling like something is wrong with them and increased loneliness and confusion. For example, one client continued his breakfast routine each morning by putting out a plate and coffee cup on the kitchen table for his wife who passed. This allowed him to feel connected to her each morning which was soothing and healing for him. Some clients want to keep their loved one's ashes or photos in a visible place and others find this upsetting. Some cry and scream and others need space and quiet. Your pain is normal. Grief has no agenda. We all do it differently, and that is ok. You are doing it right.

2) To express your feelings - It is important to be able to express your grief and to attach language to the way you are feeling. It is finding your voice to express what is happening internally. So often, when those in grief are asked how they are, they go into their grief story. It can become a repetitive pattern and can be overwhelming. It is important that you can connect with how you are today, at this moment. One client expressed that the most healing thing in her grief was a friend who texted her every morning and asked, "How are you today?" She felt supported and began to realize that her emotions changed from day to day. Days that she felt hope were ok and days that she felt despair were ok too. You need a space that is safe, and non-judgemental, where you can trust and express your feelings.

3) To release the burden of guilt - Guilt and grief often go hand in hand. This comes up again and again, layer after layer. Thoughts such as, "If I had gone in to check on her earlier, she would not have died." In this example, we would explore "How often would you have needed to check on her to keep her alive?" Sometimes we need to be reminded that we do not have supernatural powers. We are ordinary people who do the best we can under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Our minds would rather feel guilty than helpless. We can reframe our "what-ifs" to "even-ifs". Even if you had checked on her, what was likely to occur? One client felt guilt that she didn't talk with her loved one enough as he was dying. Upon realizing this regret, she spoke with family who saw a different interaction than the client recalled and the client was able to release that guilt. We naturally wish we could have done things differently. I like to help my clients apply generalizations to their situations and think if their cause/effect thinking makes sense. It is important to explore our feelings of guilt in grief, think logically about them, and then release them and forgive ourselves if needed.

4) To be free of old wounds - As we take a holistic approach to grief, old wounds will surface. If there were wounds prior to the loss, they will often worsen and become more prominent. Most of us have old wounds, trauma, and childhood experiences that inform who we are and how we process our grief today. In time and with processing, our traumatic wounds can become our cherished wounds. Without addressing them, they don't go away. In the past, people might have asked themselves, "What's wrong with me? Am I damaged? Am I broken?" A better question may be, "What happened to me?" EMDR (eye-movement desensitization reprocessing) is a powerful therapy that allows us to link our symptoms to wounds from the past and process them in a way that we were unable to at the moment they occurred. This allows the nervous system to relax and not react to things it would previously react to. It can also change how we think of ourselves and how we see the world.

5) To integrate the pain and the love - The goal is to remember with more love than pain. If you see only the pain in the loss, it will grow. There is meaning in your memories, the meaningful connections, and the good your loved one added to your life. I have seen a client do this by bringing snacks out to her late spouse's pickleball group and finding connection. I have seen a family bake a cake on their daughter's birthday and laugh as they imagined her being with them. It is healing to realize that parts of your loved one's personality have been passed down to you and will continue to live. It is finding joy and love in their life. Your loved one will forever live in you and in your memories. There was a psychology years ago that focused on closure and ending the relationship with the person who died. We know this isn’t how grief works. There’s a continued connection. We don’t leave our loved ones behind but instead, bring them forward with us into the future.

6) To find meaning in life after loss - Don't rush this! Meaning doesn’t have to be anything grand or dramatic. You don’t have to start a foundation or an organization. We can find meaning in the small shifts. Meaning comes through finding a way to sustain love for the person after their death while moving forward in your life. The meaning is not worth the cost of losing someone and it doesn't mean you'll stop missing the one you loved. Every moment we are making choices - whether to move toward healing or to stay stuck in pain. We have to say goodbye to the life we had and say yes to the future. So often when I work with people in grief, they say that they are “broken, fragmented, gutted”. I see a whole person. When I speak to them, I acknowledge that they feel that way but remind them that they are still intact and whole just as they are. I also hear people say “I don’t feel like myself anymore” or their friends and family say, “We want the old so and so back”. There is no going back to who you were before the loss. We’ve changed after we have experienced grief and loss. We integrate the loss into our lives and realize that a whole life includes pain and sorrow as well as joy. People tend to think about the new awareness, empathy, or compassion they may have acquired. They learn to find gratitude for the time they had with a loved one, they feel changed by knowing them, their death may deepen their beliefs, or they may realize the brevity and value of life and make some kind of shift or change in their life. Of course, you didn’t want those gifts. But they are there for your taking if you will accept them.

If you have experienced a personal loss, I want you to feel heard, seen and understood. I want your unique experience and expression of grief to have a safe space on which to land. Which of these needs feel true for you? How can you be better supported through your grief? Are there traumatic parts of your grief that can use professional help to heal from? Are there old wounds that are coming up and causing even more pain? Do you need help to find your voice to express what you need and what is happening internally? Is there guilt that just will not go away? I am a licensed clinical social worker and certified grief counselor. I am also a trauma-trained therapist. It would be an honor to gently guide you through some of your darkest days. And kind towards yourself in both your thoughts and actions.

To schedule an appointment with me, you can call Healing Heart's scheduling line at 480-656-9174 or you can email me directly at [email protected]. Further information is available at