Dealing with Grief:
“How Do I Grieve?”
Grief Work & TEARS
The most common question I hear in my work with the bereaved is, “How do I grieve?” Though grief is common and all of us will experience it at some point or another, knowing how to deal with grief can be challenging. Many of us fight the emotions of grief, doing whatever it takes to “just be fine again,” even if we’re not. Others of us distract ourselves from our feelings by keeping busy or escaping into activities. And some of us simply ignore the emotions of grief, pretending that everything is “OK”.
So, when someone asks, “How do I grieve?” my counsel is simple: “You have to let yourself grieve.” Usually they reply, “But how do I do that?” And I say, “You just do.”
The “just doing” I am referring to is better known as grief work, or mourning. It is letting oneself go through the emotions and process of grief, for through is the only way out.
One model I find particularly helpful in grief work is Worden’s Four Tasks. This model looks at grief work not as emotions or stages to be experienced but rather, as tasks to be worked through. These tasks are:
1) To accept the reality of the loss
2) To experience the pain of grief
3) To adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing
4) To withdraw emotional energy and reinvest it in another relationship
1) Accept the reality of the loss
Accepting the reality of the loss can come instantaneously for some, but for most, will take time. Telling one’s “story” in a safe environment—letting oneself think, talk about, and process what has happened—can help. Sometimes we have to repeat it over and over to ourselves: “They’re really gone”. But it’s letting ourselves feel the emotions of grief that really solidifies our acceptance of what we have lost.
2) Experience the pain of grief
This is the task people seem to have the hardest time with, and the one most are referring to when they ask me, “How do I grieve?” Many of us fear that if we start feeling the intense mix of emotions inside, we may never get back out of them. Yet, this task is at the core of completing all the others. Letting oneself feel pain is not easy and yet, allowing emotions to arise, to express themselves in healthy ways, is at the core of mourning. As I said before, through is the only way out, “…grief requires us to turn inward, to go deep into the wilderness of our soul…. There is usually no quick way out.”[i]
To encourage this turning inward, and facilitate feeling the emotions of grief, I have created a model I call TEARS[ii]. This model shows us how to let ourselves experience grief through 5 different options, each of which is equally helpful in our healing.
Talking: While it is natural to want to isolate oneself during the intense pain of loss, most will find healing in talking or even just being with family, friends or other support people, sharing the burden of grief and knowing they are not alone.
Exercise: Physical activity can be a powerful aid in the release of the difficult emotions that accompany loss. Adults and children will find that exercise “allows for a reduction of aggressive feelings, a release of tension and anxiety and a relief of depression”[iii] related to grief.
For many of us, grief is best expressed creatively—through art, music, dance, and so forth. Tapping our creative outlets allows us to process the emotions of grief in a subconscious way that can be powerful and deep. Creativity is particularly valuable for children who are grieving. Encouraging children to express feelings through drawing pictures, creating a collage of photos and written memories, or other creative activities can be a powerful tool for healing.
Recording emotions & experiences: Creative expression and/or recording one’s emotions & experiences through writing or journaling can help release emotions and free the body and soul of them. When we write the things we have seen, heard and feel, we are better able to gain insight and understanding, for it allows us to capture and revisit our experiences, ensuring we do not miss the important lessons being taught.
Sobbing: The bible tell us, “Be afflicted and mourn and weep”.[iv] There is healing power in allowing our tears to flow for the loss in our lives. As Washington Irving once said, “There is sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness—but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of over-whelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.”
3) Adjust to the environment in which the deceased is missing
Using the TEARS method to experience our emotions is key in helping us adjust to the environment in which the deceased is missing. Adjustment takes time and comes as we continually work through the grief emotions that arise. Eventually, we find that we can talk about the deceased and fondly remember them as we engage in new life routines and experiences. Adjusting involves allowing ourselves to adjust, learning to let go, and being willing to move on when we feel ready.
4) Withdraw emotional energy and reinvest it in another relationship
Eventually, we will feel ready to reinvest in other relationships. This doesn’t mean we are “replacing” our loved one; rather, it might mean becoming closer to our living family members, bonding in new ways with old friends or making new friends, or creating new intimate relationships that help us feel healthy and healed. We begin to see that life continues after loss, and hopefully we choose to invest in our new life and relationships even while we carry those we have lost in our hearts.
Dealing with Grief Takes Time
It may take months or even years to get to the place where these tasks feel complete, but that’s just the way grief works. My advice is that we continually remind ourselves, “As long as I am working on my grief, the grief work is working”.
Give yourself time, space, and all the love you can muster to nurture yourself through the work of grief. It’s a challenge, to be sure, but when you really get in there and do the work, it will eventually become easier. One moment at a time. One tear. One smile. One foot in front of the other. And then, one day, we somehow know we are healed.
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[i] ADEC, Association for Death Education and Counseling Conference, Chicago, Ill. March 1998: speaker A. Wolfelt, in Jesus Wept, Ashton, J. & Ashton, D. 2001, p. 129.
[ii] © Hibbert, C. 2010.
[iii] Rando, T. (1984). Grief, Dying and Death. Research Press: Champaign, IL, p.57.
[iv] James 4:9