The most common questions a newly bereaved client asks in grief therapy are: “What do I need to do? What are the steps to deal with this? Can you tell me exactly how to get through this?” The hard answer is that there is no “exact” answer, or set of steps. Each person’s grief and inherent capacity for healing will teach them what to do.
Grief breaks all the rules
Life teaches us there is a travel guide for every country, a manual for every purchase, and a recommended schedule for every transition. Grief breaks all the rules. It’s uncharted territory that you don’t want to be in, and can’t understand how to navigate and escape. The key to moving through grief and loss is to accept that you don’t escape grief. You move through it. This uncharted territory is your new life. Trying to go around or obliterate your mountain of grief will leave you spinning in place.
The depth of pain from which these questions spring is immeasurable, and it’s human to ask for a compass. Each person soon finds the compass is their own self. A common sequence of events in grief is to sit in the pain, take a few steps forward, practice self-care, sit in the pain again, take a few steps backward, regroup and reach for help, and take a step forward. Slowly, tentatively, and intentionally, you rewrite your life after loss. This often halting progress is frustratingly slow for many clients and everyone navigates through grief at different paces. Grief work is aptly named work for this reason. We work to find our way back to the business of living.
Sit to Surface
A bereaved client recently shared an anecdote that highlights the necessary work of grieving and that resonated with her as she mourned her husband. A family member shared an article with her about divers trapped during the devastating 2004 Indonesian tsunami. One particular group was far out in the ocean when the waters suddenly became murky. The dive leaders signaled to go down as far as they could and wait until they could surface. No one understood exactly what was happening. All they could do was wait, in uncertainty and darkness, at the “bottom” of the ocean, until the water cleared and they could surface. The land and world they returned to was shockingly altered, and the group began to navigate through the destruction to help survivors, and find their individual ways home.
I often share this visual with clients in the first few sessions of grief therapy, this image of being at the bottom of the ocean, in the hushed depths of your grief - at first unable to see your way out. Sometimes there are people to sit with you, and sometimes you’re alone. No matter the type of loss or the pace at which you move through grief, we all have to sit at the bottom of the ocean. How long and how you sit depends on each individual person. We use a framework of “what is lost, what is left, and what is possible” for each client to use as a guide through loss. Answering“what is lost?” is not fully possible until you sit at the bottom of the ocean of your grief. And slowly - eventually - you rise through what is left and surface to what is possible.