You would never tell an asthmatic that their chest is hurting wrong, just breathe better. The same goes for grief.
There were several years in my early 20s that I call my “season of death.” Within a three-year span, one of my best friends, my dad, both of my maternal grandparents, my aunt, and my uncle all died. Later, I went into a profession in which I spend most of days providing support to people who are experiencing various kinds of grief. In all this time experiencing and witnessing grief, I have come to understand that it’s not as simple as it may seem.
I often hear talk of how men grieve this way and women grieve that way and never the twain shall meet. This can be harmful because it often tells us that the way we are grieving, the way we are saying goodbye, is wrong. Women are often identified as intuitive grievers, meaning they talk about how they feel and frame their grief by the emotions coursing through them. Men are often identified as instrumental grievers, meaning they talk about what they think and frame their grief in actions, such as building a memorial.
But it’s not that simple.
While the framing of grief as intuitive or instrumental is not harmful in itself, the unbending association of intuitive grief with female grieving and instrumental grief with male grieving is. Often, both types of grief can exist in the same person. By framing grief as either/or, male/female, we are making our grief even more difficult than it already is. It also alienates entire segments of the population that do not fall within the male/female gender binary.
Grief is both universal and extremely individual. It is universal in that everyone experiences it at some point in their lives and it is individual in that no two people will experience the exact same kind of grief, even in similar situations. When my friend died, it was like a catastrophic injury. I had never known anything like it, the pain was overwhelming and I had no idea how to make it better. When my Dad died, it was after years of battling cancer. It was expected and had already began to scar. When my Grandma died, it was a relief. She had been suffering for so long.
It is easy to become overwhelmed. It is easy to want to shove your grief into a corner and ignore it, or to wrap yourself up in it and never let it go. Neither is helpful or healthy. I often say to my patients that grief is like a wound to your soul. It takes time to heal just like a wound to your body would. Just like each grief is different, each grief may take different amounts of time or different methods of healing.
Whether expressing grief intuitively, instrumentally, or some combination of the two, there are several things that I find helpful when thinking about grief:
First, it is OK to feel however you are feeling. You would never tell an asthmatic that their chest is hurting wrong, just breathe better. The same goes for grief. Don’t tell anybody else how they should be grieving and don’t let anybody tell you you’re doing it wrong.
Second, sometimes the smallest grief can leave unexpected scars and the biggest grief can take years to heal. Even then, you will always feel the scars, but that doesn’t mean it will never be better. A broken leg has to be in a cast for weeks or even months. During that time, you are bound to knock it against things, put too much weight on it, or stab yourself with a pencil while trying to scratch at it. As you are grieving, you can think of yourself in a cast. You need to know what it is that is going to make it worse and take steps to deal with it. There will always be moments when a smell, or the lyrics from a song, or the feel of a fabric against your skin, or any number of things is going press against the hurt places inside. It might even feel worse than the original grief in those moments.
Third, figure out what kind of medicine helps you. I don’t mean this in a literal sense. We tend to want to turn to things that will numb our pain like alcohol, or drugs, or food or whatever it is that helps distract you from your pain. Pain is important because it tells us where we need to heal. If we ignore it and try to continue on as if it isn’t there, eventually it will break out and it will be worse than ever. Find medicine in your life, in relationships with friends or family, going to church, taking walks on the beach or through the woods, spending time with your pets, learning to cook, writing poetry—whatever it is that gives you peace or allows you see a spark of hope in the future.
Fourth, sometimes we need professional help and this does not mean we are weak. You would never think of setting your own broken leg or prescribing your own antibiotics, so why would you think of trying to heal a severe emotional injury all by yourself? If you are lost in your own head, or can’t see a way out of your grief, talking to someone who has spent years training in how to guide you through can be the best thing. It is hard to trust our innermost pain to a stranger, but sometimes it’s that stranger’s distance that makes them safe to talk to. We often feel like we need to be strong for family, or put on a certain face for those around us—that they wouldn’t understand if we acted how we really feel. There is no need to put this kind of face on with a professional. They are just that, professional, and they can help. You might only need to talk for a visit or two, or you might need to talk to for years. Do not judge anyone for this and do allow others to make you feel abnormal or unfixable if you need this. It is no different than going to physical therapy. It is about learning your limits and learning how to live again.
Finally, one day, one hour, one minute at a time is sometimes all we can focus on. There is no quick fix—it is a healing process and like any other process, it takes time and the help of those around us.
We grieve as people who need healing, nothing more and nothing less.
Rev. Heather Baggett is a Board Certified Chaplain with the Association of Professional Chaplains and works as the Chaplain for Women’s and Children’s Services at CHI St. Alexius Health in Bismarck, ND. She is also serves as a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota. She spends her days helping patients, visitors and staff cope with the emotional and spiritual distress of dealing with illness and injury.