What is the right way to grieve?

the tasks of grieving are many and varied and can spill over each other

I was reminded recently of this problem when I had a number of clients come to see me who were all experiencing difficulties with people telling them they “weren’t grieving the right way”.

I find it unbelievable that anyone could say that. I also think it is a terribly unsupportive and cruel thing to say to someone who is grieving.

We are all individuals and we all react to life situations differently. Just because we react differently does not mean we are reacting the wrong way. There are as many ways to grieve as there are bereaved people.

If you have a friend, colleague or family member who is grieving, don’t tell them how to grieve. Be there for them. Ask if they are okay. Listen to them without judgement and without trying to find solutions for their grief. Be there long after the funeral, when most people have lost interest and got on with their lives. Don’t set a time limit on their grief. That means let them be happy however early or late in their grieving they express happiness. That means let them want to hide themselves away from the world to lick their wounds. Just be there and check in on them occasionally. Invite them places but don’t force them to come. Just let them know the door is open should they care to step through it.

Some people want to cry, a lot, when they are grieving. Others cry when you can’t see them and appear happy and settled when you can see them. Some may want to keep the person’s room as a shrine, never touching anything. Others rush to give away all their clothing. Both are right ways to be. If that is what they want.

Some people turn their loved one’s clothes into soft toys, bed covers, clothing so they can remember them. Some people do that for their bereaved friend.

Some people take time off work and spend time sitting in the loved one’s room, or favourite chair, or visiting their favourite place. Others keep working.

The list goes on.

The main point of this is to remember that everyone grieves differently and there is no right or wrong way to grieve.

Current research into grief shows that we have tasks we attend to when grieving. There are the tasks of everyday life and there are the tasks of grieving. We need to spend time attending to both types of tasks. Some will spend more time on the everyday life tasks whereas others will spend more time on the grieving tasks. Everyone will spend varying time on both sets of tasks and this will vary from day to day, from month to month. There is no magic formula on how much time is allocated to attend to these tasks. If you see someone going back to work a day or so after their loss, do not tell them they aren’t grieving properly. They are grieving, just differently to your expectations. Obviously, if someone comes back to work and they obviously are not coping, then it may be helpful to check in on them. They may appreciate the opportunity to go somewhere quieter, or even walk outside, and share how they are feeling. If they realise they need to go home that is okay. A person can only know what they can cope with if they try to do things.

Another thing research shows is that, as meaning making people, we need to be able to make meaning from the loss of a loved one. That can mean we do things other than sit around crying. Or we can sit around crying and then want to do what others may consider are very strange things. Grief hits everyone in different ways and there is no right or wrong way to grieve.

So if you are grieving, seek out those who will sit with you and listen. These people are the ones that will check in with you to see if you are okay, who will sit and listen without offering solutions, who will be there long after the funeral. These friends will not ask if you are finished grieving yet, nor will they tell you you are not grieving enough. These friends will not set a time limit on your grief and will allow you to feel sad on your loved one’s birthday, anniversary of their death, and other anniversaries. Be kind to yourself. Allow yourself to have great days and horrible days. Most of all, give yourself as much time as you need. The pain will never go away, but you will learn to live with it and move forward with life.

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