Transformative Grief, Part II: A Guide to Living with Loss

Rear view of woman sitting on fence overlooking lakeIn Part I, I wrote about how the hellish process of grieving can generate a new way of living in the world that can lead to a more authentic experience of life. I am not suggesting a “happily ever after” phenomenon; the pain of grief can be impossible to bear, and certain losses you might never “get over.” Maybe you are not supposed to.

Instead, you can learn to live in a new life. And in your new life, you can allow both the pain of the loss and the willingness to keep living to coexist—if you are able to let the pain transform you. In doing so, some of the aftereffects of grief can change how you know yourself and what you want to get out of the experience of life. In essence, if you are willing to do your deep inner work while experiencing grief, you can excavate a new life from the old that is rich and meaningful.

This is easier said than done—no question. It is hard work on top of the extraordinarily brutal labor of grieving. It takes a long time; it can move so slowly, in fact, it can feel like nothing is happening. It can feel confusing and uncertain, and self-doubt might creep in, along with doubts about everything else.

Still, there is reason to push forward. If you are engaging with your process, something is indeed happening. While it can take years, you can turn a corner and find yourself in a life more aligned with and reflective of who you are. If this process speaks to you, if something here rings true, here is a road map for engaging with your grief in this way:

  1. Feel it. There is no getting around it. If your grief is not processed, it’s unlikely you’re using it for anything of benefit. Unprocessed grief can cause significant pain in the ways we act out and stifle ourselves in order to keep it at bay. You have to feel the full spectrum of your grief and all the experiences it contains—despair, anger, rage, heartbreak—in order to be transformed by it. This process is a nonstarter—transformative grief is not available if you do not begin here. You must let yourself feel all the pain, to let it flow into your broken heart, in order for it to change you. It must be inside you and connected to you in order to be a catalyst. Let me be clear: experiencing grief can be terrifying and hard. If you find yourself in this stage of processing, doing so under the guidance and support of a therapist can make the experience more secure and contained. Just because you have pain to feel does not mean you need to feel it every moment of every day. Having a safe place to engage your pain is the first step on this journey.
  2. Look at everything. Once you are engaged in the process of feeling the deep grooves of your pain, you need to take it out and look at it. See what is in there, what is inside you. What realizations has the grief brought about life? What do you notice about experiences you have on a daily basis? Does something seem no longer a fit—a belief, maybe, a relationship, or a job? Is a newfound truth about who you want to be emerging? Often, this process involves weaving the pieces of who you were before, during, and after what happened into a narrative which helps you see the ways you are shifting. This is typically a period of massive self-reflection, and the time it takes cannot be rushed—even though you may want it to! This is a time to nonjudgmentally look at everything that has happened and at who you are now, and to notice which things seem to no longer belong. There are usually more questions than answers here, which is good; it means you are exploring yourself and creating space for insights to emerge.
  3. Breathe in the discomfort. In undertaking the exploration of all that is your life, you may come across some uncomfortable realizations. You may recognize certain things in your life no longer fit, and often that is a hard truth to take in. You may discover whom you relate to has changed, what is important to you is altered, and who you want to be looks different. These are all positive developments if they reflect what is real for you right now, but they are not always easy to bear. During this phase, when you are starting to pick up some of the things you were looking at and consider bringing them into your life, you need to be able to tolerate uncertainty and discomfort. The challenge here is to trust yourself, listen to the truths in your heart, and recognize life is a process where what fits us is constantly evolving. There is no shame in changing and growing, and your work is to have compassion and openness for yourself as a fluid human being, and to allow this process to take place.
  4. Act upon your truths. At this point, you have done a lot of heavy lifting: not only experiencing grief, but feeling it, looking at it, and shifting with it. Now you are able to (more comfortably than not) articulate how you and the way you want to experience life have transformed. This is the period in which you begin to enact some of these changes by trying out different ways of being and noticing your outer life reflecting the internal work you are doing. Maybe you are involved with something new in your community. Perhaps your social network looks different. It is possible the way you schedule your life and manage your time or lifestyle is altered. Any number of things can undergo this shift—career, self-care, beliefs, ways of engaging with people, ways of engaging with yourself, the manner in which you feel and express your feelings, maybe a greater need for intimacy and vulnerability. There is no right answer here. Things need not look a certain way—they only need to reflect more of who you are and align with your core beliefs. In this phase, things can move faster. You may see more changes in your life. Moreover, while you may still experience grief and longing for your loss—after all, this process has never been to “get over” it—a degree of healing may be present, too.

Grief can seem like an unforgiving, thankless presence. Often, it is. It can take away everything you know to be true, and leave many gaps to be filled. You may be unsure what to bring into your life, be unmotivated to do so, and lack confidence things will ever feel different. All of that sentiment and anything else you are experiencing is understandable and real.

The process of taking on grief is a big undertaking, but the benefits can be life-altering. By finding support and being willing to let the grief change you, slowly but steadily you can regain clarity and engagement with the world around you. By taking in your grief and working with it, you can live your way into a life which honors what happened to you and paves a way forward. Transformative grief is not about bypassing or shutting away pain; it is about using your pain as fuel for the journey of the rest of your life.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • donna

    donna

    May 9th, 2016 at 7:40 AM

    After losing my mother last year it felt like I couldn’t even breathe. I am doing better now, but Mother’s Day is always hard, knowing that she is not here for me to celebrate for her. Life is different but I would not say better yet, jst different.

  • Van

    Van

    May 10th, 2016 at 9:48 AM

    I am not sure that I understand the breathing part? How is that supposed to help me?

  • Susan

    Susan

    May 16th, 2016 at 8:23 PM

    I lost my husband of 38 years in February, obviously i ‘am here because my heart hurts, I guess i want to figure out how to get out of pain.

  • Carmen D

    Carmen D

    May 20th, 2016 at 7:23 AM

    After losing my lover of 22years , I feel lost we did everything together she passed right in front of me. I was heartbroken and numb. Know I’m thinking about her everyday, I get sad . I go to places we use to go to and when I’m there I start thinking about her. I’m going through it right now, I need some professional concealing.

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    May 20th, 2016 at 10:51 AM

    Dear Carmen,

    Thank you for your comment. We are sorry to hear of your recent loss. The GoodTherapy.org Team is not qualified to offer professional advice, but if you do wish to seek professional counseling, you can locate a qualified, compassionate professional in your area.

    To see a list of counselors and therapists in your area, simply enter your ZIP code here:
    https://www.goodtherapy.org/find-therapist.html

    Please know you are not alone. Help is available, and we wish you the best of luck in your search.

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Jade Wood

    Jade Wood

    May 21st, 2016 at 9:27 AM

    Hello, very sorry to hear of the pain everyone is experiencing – the depth of it often can feel and be overwhelming and endless. While there is no quick-fix for the suffering that accompanies loss, as the GoodTherapy team suggest, seeking out professional help is a step toward alleviating some of your distress while having someone to support you during this very difficult and sad time. The power of support and the presence of others through community, support groups and therapy can make a big difference in how you experience this time, often creating a little bit of comfort and healing.

  • TerriW

    TerriW

    August 14th, 2016 at 4:43 PM

    Thank you, Jade, for part two of your article. I had commented on part one about the loss of my husband five months earlier and it’s hard to believe that five more months have passed since then. I have been searching myself amidst the pain and trying to make changes here and there to move forward in a way that feels authentic for me. I now find I receive more happiness if, when I need to give something up, I can repurpose it for something life affirming. One example of this would be the above ground pool we had that my husband worked so hard to put up. We only got to enjoy it one summer before he passed away. I can not take care of the pool the way he used to, so it had to come down. Each time things like that happen, each time I have to let things go, they feel like “small deaths” surrounding my major loss. I would not allow the steel pieces to be taken to the landfill. Instead, I called a local art gallery and asked if any of their artists worked in metal. I now have an artist coming out soon to look at the pieces and hopefully give them new life and beauty as artwork. I need my life and my husband’s legacy to be one of giving back and creating something positive out of the worst thing I’ve ever experienced. Then, there are the days where I still can hardly function. I feel the pain, cry and have no motivation. Are these types of swings normal in the grief process? Your article was very uplifting and gave real, practical solutions that I can try to follow in order to move forward and (hopefully) heal.

  • Jade Wood

    Jade Wood

    August 25th, 2016 at 11:26 AM

    Hi Terri, so nice to hear from you again. Thank you for your comments and sharing. Your story about the pool and steel pieces is very powerful and quite reflective of your intention to focus on life-affirming acts amidst this pain and time of upheaval. It is moving to hear how you are working with your process to find meaning while you are feeling all of this loss.
    The waves you speak of are quite normal and common in the grief process – some days things seem manageable and purposeful – other days everything feels completely dismantled and hopeless. Both realities are valid and real, and one of the challenges of grief is riding these waves.
    I know exactly what you mean about the ‘small deaths’ – sometimes we find the loss everywhere in our lives. Those experiences can be tender, as well as traumatic.
    It sounds like you are engaged with your grief. Sometimes the only way out of things like this is through them – through the course of time and the seemingly ‘one-step-forward-two-steps-back’ process of healing. It also sounds like you may benefit from additional support and the containment therapy can offer to help hold your grief. I want to encourage you to reach out to a therapist in your area if you are able.
    Thank you again for reaching out.

  • Joanne

    Joanne

    February 26th, 2017 at 4:16 PM

    Life has been SO hard over the past 2 yrs since losing Mum. I’ve had bereavement counselling, PTSD counselling & CBT. I am on anti depressants and still feeling tearful often. I’m managing to keep working through it, but struggle each day. I now feel like I want to change lots of things in my life and the consequences of that could be devastating to others, as well as being extremely hurtful. Not sure what to do, or if i am even strong enough to make these changes.

  • Jade Wood

    Jade Wood

    February 27th, 2017 at 10:14 AM

    Hi Joanne, I am touched by your sincere response. It sounds like you are actively grieving your mum and suffering significantly from the enormity of her loss. I am so sorry to hear how much pain you are in. Even though there are things you may want to change, it seems like continuing with therapy and taking the best care of yourself right now and your healing is the priority. Whatever you decide to do, I recommend not to rush or take on more than you can – you are already shouldering quite a lot. Having as much support in the forms of therapy, support groups and other means is critical right now. Warmly, Jade

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