In 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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