Mental Health

Anticipating Loss – Exercising Grief Muscles

Sorrows are our best educators.  A person can see further through a tear than a telescope.
-Lord Byron

Reflecting on loss and grief can teach us a lot about ourselves, our values, and our hopes if we have the courage to look loss in the eye.  As a therapist, I work a lot with others’ grief.  Loss is something we all face from time to time.  Well, it’s now my turn once again to face loss.

My 103-year-old grandmother is dying.  This amazing woman has been an inspiration to me both personally and professionally (and many, many others).  Although she has walked out of palliative care twice in the past, this time she won’t.  For the past few weeks I have been waiting for loss to strike.

As I write this, I am also drafting her obituary and eulogy at the request of my family.  So grief is very much on my mind.  I have been reflecting on the Lord Byron quote and wondering what this grief will teach me.  As part of this process, I have developed a number of questions that I hope will guide my experience of grief over the next weeks and months.

Grief is a universal experience.  It is also a very unique experience.  These questions/reflections fit for me. Some of them may also resonate for you.  You may also have reflection questions of your own –  we would love to hear them (see comment section below).

What does your grief say about your relationship?  What is important to you?

My grandmother is one of the biggest influences in my life.  She lived out her values with a quiet, humble strength.  When I think about the person I am striving to be, she is the model.  Note:  I could go on and on (and on…) but for the sake of brevity I will keep it at this.

How do you want to be in your grief?

I have come to see grief as a dialogue between what is lost/changed and what is valued.  Given the anticipated nature of my loss, I expect my grief dialogue will be more one sided – valuing and celebrating my grandma’s life.  There will be sadness, of course, but I believe joy for 103 years of a life well lived will be a more dominant theme.

What factors may influence your experience of grief (e.g. previous losses, cultural/religious/traditional norms, gender socializations, etc.).

As a counsellor and social worker, I understand emotions as normal natural and needed.  It is ok to be sad.  It is ok to cry.  This is healthy.  I know this.  However, my experience of the initial wave of grief took me by surprise after a recent phone call (quite likely my last) with my grandma. I found myself fighting it. A confusing emotional battle was happening within me as I found myself resisting expression of my pain.  Sorrow ultimately won and the tears flowed.  Reflecting on this experience, I make sense of my initial instinct to shove down painful emotions to be part of the gender messages we all receive.  Despite keen awareness of these issues and their negative impacts, this hidden influence is there.  As I continue to embrace grief I need to continue to be aware of this influence.

How might your grief impact you?

Given the expected nature of this loss and the wonderful life lived, I believe the impacts may be more positive than negative.  This loss will be more celebratory in nature.

What might you need from others?

I am looking forward to hearing others’ stories and experiences of grandmother.  Get to know her more deeply through others’ experiences.

What do you want others to learn about grief from this experience?

This is my sons’ [Nicholas (age 14) and Andreas (turning 12)] first encounter with the loss of a loved one.  They are very close to their great grandmother so this is a hard one. I am trying to be aware of what they are picking up loss from our conversations and actions.  I am working hard to be transparent about the experience and engaging them in conversation, both about my grief and about their own.

How will you continue this relationship?

Loss is not necessarily the end, but rather a change.  My grandmother’s passing will be an end to our physical relationship, yes.  However, I expect to continue to feel her influence and can carry on this relationship in a different way.  Like any relationship, it will take work.  Remembering will be a key aspect of this.

There is stress in loss and grief.  Reflecting on how grief may be, allows me to be more intentional in my grief.  This is how I want it to be.  How it turns out may, of course, may be different.  We cannot plan or orchestrate grief. However by reflecting on this ahead of time, I may be better prepared.

I realize that this experience of grief may look very different from other losses that are around the corner for me.  For all of us.  Loss is complicated and can be chaotic.  It can bring about the best in people and the worst.  Grief varies for us all.   I anticipate this experience of grief to be a positive one.  Not all losses will be like this.  However, as I reflect and learn from this experience (and previous losses) I am exercising my grief muscles.  I am training for my next experience.

As I continue to pause and reflect on my values, my priorities and what is important to me, I will be remembering my grandmother.  She has taught me so much and I am deeply thankful for that.  As I continue to strive to be the person I want to become, I will continue to feel her influence, so long as I remember.

It is my responsibility, it is the responsibility of grief, to remember myself in such a way that I include what I don’t want to lose.  I lose something over and over again when I don’t remember that, as long as I live, it is a part of me and therefore “it” lives too.  Not as “it” did before, but then I, too, am not as I was… 

When we are involved with the process of remembering we are learning to put ourselves back together.  We are reconfiguring ourselves in such a way that includes what is no longer physically present in our lives.  
– Deborah Morris Coryell

For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.


John Koop Harder

MSW, RSW – Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

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