Olive Von Topp
8 Lessons on Grief
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
One tiny 5 letter word.
One seemingly innocuous word, but a word so terrifying that many of us will do whatever we can to avoid it.
Numb out. Distract. Keep busy. Whatever it takes.
Some of us can’t even say it. And we certainly don’t want to talk about it.
The word I’m talking about is grief.
It is a word I have spent a lot of time thinking about, feeling, and avoiding.
I’ve experienced many losses in my life and am no stranger to grief. Yet it shows up differently every time. Every loss reminds me of the lessons I have learned, or need to learn, about grief.
This week in particular, I have been reflecting a lot on grief. And on healing. And the relationship between the two. Given that today marks the 16th anniversary of my brother Morgan’s passing, I thought it would be a good time to share some of these reflections and lessons in grief.
1. Grief is a process and there is no “right” way to do it.
There is no magic formula. Everyone “does” it differently and that’s okay.
You know “The 5 Stages of Grief?”- that actually refers specifically to death and dying. Not about grief itself. Grief doesn’t have stages. It is not linear. It is messy. It is forwards and backwards. Smeared all over. It is a process.
Grief takes time.
Fuck, does it ever. It takes a long time to work “through” (more on this in a sec) grief, and in my case, also to feel it. After Morgan died, it took me a long time to really ‘feel’ grief. It was there, but for all kinds of reasons, including grieving losing him while he was still here, feeling initially relieved at the end of his suffering, doing a fair amount of the funeral arrangements, and taking care of others, my grief showed up (and is still showing up) a lot later. Long after most other people had “moved on”.
There is a misunderstanding about grief. The belief that there is a “right way” or a “right amount of time” to grieve shows up a lot. One need look no further than how many bereavement days they get (if any) for the death of a loved one to understand how little room we have for grief in our society.
When my finally grief came after Morgan’s passing, it came long after many people had moved through theirs. I felt like there was an unspoken “appropriate time” to grieve and if you missed that boat, you were shit out of luck.
I went back to work and back to school, both shortly after he died. But I never felt like I could just “break down” out of nowhere. I felt like I had missed my opportunity to show any grief publicly, which only contributed to my repression of it.
Only now that I have curbed my chronic care-taking and tendency put others’ needs before my own, which allowed some space for true healing, have I really been able to dig into some of the grief left behind.
For me, and for many others, it is not just the loss of my loved one I need to grieve, it is the loss of his life. Because Morgan battled depression for so long, there are a lot of painful memories and a lot of anger to process. On top of mourning his death, I must mourn his pain, the loss of his "potential" or the life he could have lived, and even the loss of my family as a "happy, cohesive unit".
I used to feel guilty for not grieving. Then for taking so long to start mourning (processing of grief). Now, I am trying to just accept that grief is a process and that this is where I am at right now. There is no “right” timeframe or “right” way to do it. It is unique to each individual, and they get to decide how and when they want to grieve.
2. Grief changes you
Forever. There is no “going back to things the way they were”. It doesn’t exist anymore. You don’t exist anymore. Not as you knew yourself.
You never get over it and you are never the same. In many ways, it feels like a piece of you is missing and you will never get it back. And you won’t.
Sometimes part of the grief work is grieving the loss of the old life, of who you used to be before your loss.
Grief changes you in really profound ways. I don’t really know how to describe it. Physically, mentally, spiritually. I can often discern people who have experienced great loss now. By the way they carry themselves. By a certain softness. A deep empathy for others. In ways that only grief can shape.
Grief can change your life for the better too. For me, loss has taught me the preciousness of life, to not squander moments with loved ones, to tell people what they mean to me, to live in the now, and to take stock of what I really want in life and to go after it, because frankly, life is too short.
3. Grief is always with you. Some days you just have to ride the wave.
It never really goes away. You never really “get over it”. Some days it is less painful. Some days there is no pain. And eventually, there are more and more of those days. And even then, some days it comes out of nowhere and the loss can feel so fresh, you swear it was yesterday.
My dear friend Ivory aptly compares grief to an ocean:
"It’s no joke when they say that grief is like an ocean… When it first hits you, it feels like you’re drowning. Little by little though, your learn to float...then to swim...and eventually, to even surf along at the top of the waves. Some days, you might get pulled down again and have to struggle just to remember how to float-but if you hang on, soon enough you’ll learn how to swim again, and eventually, how to surf."
When I asked another dear friend of mine who lost her mother the same year I lost Morgan (and who does not know Ivory’s quote) how she would describe grief she said this:
Like waves of raw pain and sadness that threaten to swallow you whole and reduce you to nothing. If you can ride out the wave and give into it there's usually a calm and humbling peace that follows until the next wave crashes in.
Even in the happiest moments: weddings, births, personal triumphs, there is a sort of deep sorrow that is always there. A void. It is just part of you. And you carry it with you throughout the rest of your life.
4. The only way to move through it is to feel it
And that’s the hardest part. There is nothing that takes grief away, except to feel it. To allow it. To experience it. To feel it in your body. In your being.
Time helps a bit, but if you don’t feel your way through grief, it will still be there, even after years and years. Trust me.
No amount of drinking, reckless behaviour, controlled eating, excessive exercise, overeating, gambling, working, busyness, or any number of other numbing or distracting activities will make it go away. It will still just be there waiting for you.
It feels really, really big and really, really heavy, but it is manageable. When it is fresh it feels insurmountable. But as you let yourself feel it, it lightens. A tiny bit at a time. Until one day it feels familiar and you are I guess just comfortable with the discomfort.
To me, grief is one of the heaviest, and even scariest emotions. I’ve often felt
afraid of it’s power- like if I turn on the tap, I won’t be able to turn it off.
I once read a quote that said “Grief is like feeling really homesick. And then realizing you have no home to go to.”
This is the best way I have heard it described that gets at just how heavy it feels.
But even then, you can handle it. You can handle any emotion.
I think another integral part of processing grief is being able to tell your story. About
your loss. About who they were. About who you were and who you are now. It also allows your loved one to live on. There is a profound amount of healing in storytelling.
5. We are uncomfortable with grief as a society
We are fundamentally uncomfortable with grief as a society. We don’t talk about it. We dance around it. Avoid it. No one wants to talk about grief, except maybe people who are grieving.
Sometimes our discomfort causes us to hurt people who are grieving. We don’t show up. We say seemingly insensitive things. We don’t allow space for them to talk about their feelings. We don’t check-in. We avoid.
I know sometimes people are afraid of bringing up lost loved ones because they are afraid that they will upset you. But it’s not like you are telling the person grieving something they don’t know or remember. They know their loved one is gone. They live with that knowledge every day. I know the intention is good, but when no one talks about my lost loved one(s), it feels as if no one else remembers them, or worse, feels like they never existed.
I never know how to answer when people ask how many siblings I have. Usually I say 2, because Morgan is still my brother, and I still have a relationship to him, even if he isn’t here. I also want to avoid making people uncomfortable. So often when I tell people I lost a brother, I can sense their discomfort. I find myself working to make them feel comfortable. This is in one part my own survival tactic and learned behaviour, but also because most people are just generally uncomfortable with grief.
We aren't taught the skills to talk about grief. To process it. To heal. We only learn when we have to. Then many of us fumble our way through. Somehow. And some just don’t. We are so uncomfortable with grief that some people are never able to process it.
6. If you don't deal with grief, it stays in your body
I’m pretty sure grief stays in our body. Especially unprocessed grief. I know trauma does, and trauma is close cousins with grief.
While we are actively experiencing grief, it can be very physical: exhaustion, nausea, headaches, muscle aches, etc. There is even a real medical illness known as “broken heart syndrome”. We know that chronic stress can cause inflammation and all kinds of other health problems.
But left unprocessed, grief remains inside us. Locked up. It manifests in all kinds of ways and health issues. And in order to heal our physical ailments, we need to heal our grief.
7. It comes at strange, and sometimes inopportune times
Grief can come at happy times. When you are watching a movie. When you meet someone who reminds you of your loved one. It can be a seemingly unrelated conversation about something. After a dream. When you experience another loss and suddenly you are flooded with grief from past losses.
Even when you have new people in your life that you want your loved one to meet, or experiences you want them to experience with you. It can come at really inopportune times, like during a yoga class, or while facilitating a workshop. It comes whenever it needs to. And I have learned it is best, if you can, to allow it.
8. Grief isn’t just losing a loved one
It can be any loss; loss of a job, health, relationship, youth, or even just the way things used to be. I hear a lot about grief from clients who are new parents and are grieving their body and life as it used to be. Sometimes these losses can even amplify other grief. These are all real forms of grief and I think it is important to acknowledge and honour them all.
There is no hierarchy. It’s not the relationship to the person (or thing) that is lost, but our experience of loss that matters.