At the end of February, I lost my beloved cat of 13 years to mammary cancer. I adopted her as a kitten when I was a child and she grew with me and comforted me through the highs and lows of my life. Needless to say, it’s been hard, and this experience has me thinking about the process of grieving as I move through it.
Unfortunately, I’ve had a lot of experience with grief in my short 25 years. When I look at this year and speak with my loved ones, I see grief all around me. Grief can be such a shocking experience, and I’ve found there are many harmful expectations surrounding how grief and healing should look. These expectations pigeon-hole us into pain and stagnancy, and can bar us from actually getting to the healing.
Researchers have identified different “types” of grief:
- Anticipatory grief. When we grieve a loss before the loss has happened. For example, many of us are grieving the loss of 2020 to COVID-19 before the year has ended.
- Common grief. This includes all of the symptoms you’d typically associate with bereavement.
- Complicated grief. Where the one affected grieves in an “atypical” way (we’ll get back to this later).
- Persistent grief. When intense grieving lasts past 12 months in association with certain symptoms.
Through years of experience, I’ve broken down alternatives to the following misconceptions associated with these types of grief to help free you from these expectations in a way that allows you to heal and move forward.
Grief can come hand in hand with any kind of loss, and loss doesn’t only apply to death. Perhaps you’re a part of the class of 2020 and are grieving the loss of a celebration of your accomplishments with friends and family. Perhaps you’re grieving the loss of a relationship and a future you had imagined together with that person. Perhaps you’re grieving the loss of an acquaintance, a public figure, or an unjustly killed stranger.
Whatever you’re feeling, that feeling is valid. After all, how can we move forward from something we haven’t acknowledged we’re going through?
It’s easy to slip into comparison at times of crisis. We may think that because the worst didn’t happen, that because we are alive and healthy and others are much less fortunate, that we do not deserve to feel distraught over events in our own lives.
But, while gratitude for our blessings is a good thing, as is empathy for others, comparison helps no one. It does no good for the less fortunate, and that sort of self-punishment only deepens our pain. Be kind to yourself, and let yourself feel what you are feeling.
Don’t let the surveys dictate how you feel. While research says that bereavement grief tends to last 7 to 12 months, how you cope with your loss (any loss) holds no bearing over what that person or experience meant to you.
Just because you’re able to feel happy after your loss does not mean that you’re happy that it happened. Moments of joy in the midst of a painful experience are completely normal.
Indeed, this myth is pervasive enough that it was deemed worthy of research. Inhibited grief, where a person shows few outward signs of grieving, is a commonly touted type of complicated grief that may contribute to the feeling that you’re doing grief “wrong.” But studies have shown that rather than being harmful or abnormal in some way, this kind of grieving is a sign of human resilience.
Loss is hard and the fact that you have the strength to continue with the difficulties of daily life in the midst of it is something to be proud of.
If you’re dealing with the death of a loved one, that person who passed would have likely celebrated your good days with you if they could. Letting go of your pain does not mean you’re letting go of what you loved.
There are times where starting over quickly is a sign of emotional numbing. This is when you “feel nothing” rather than feeling everything (memories, regrets, etc.). This is a coping mechanism for loss. With numbing, feelings may resurface at a later, seemingly unrelated time.
Don’t let the shoulds take hold of you.
Suffering doesn’t come with a timeline. If you’re feeling guilty for being up on your feet again after what feels like a short time, please don’t. As I stated before, that’s worth celebrating, and is a sign of your own resilience. And if you’re still hurting after what feels like years that is absolutely okay too.
Persistent or complex grief is yet another expression of complicated grief that experts have found to be common, and only becomes some sort of issue if you feel like it’s significantly disrupting your quality of life or mental health. At that point, you may want to seek an expert to help you work through what you’ve experienced.
But remember that it’s normal to take your time to process and feel at your own pace. It’s okay to grieve, and there is no right way to do it.
In my first real experiences with death as a kid, I would dwell and cry and stew in my feelings, trying to find some sense of “closure.” Film and television had led me to believe that if I just spent enough time with my pain, I would eventually come to some tearful conclusion that would allow me to make peace with my situation and move on.
But time and experience have taught me that this isn’t true.
Life will go on, and eventually, you will adjust to your new normal. Don’t ignore your feelings: journaling is clarifying and therapeutic when you’re struggling to make sense of your thoughts, and allowing yourself to cry can help. But don’t punish yourself by pushing your feelings to take over your life.
Time will heal you — and sometimes you’ll need later life experience to understand what happened — but forcing yourself to be stagnant in suffering won’t end your pain.
In any conversation about grief, the Five Stages are almost sure to come up. It’s natural to latch onto the hope that this painful experience will come to an end from which we can neatly move forward. But in my experience that isn’t true, and the research has evolved to support that experience.
Multiple models of grieving now stress that there is no expected path to move through grief — rather we continually weave through our emotions as time passes.
Of course, it makes sense to give yourself space to process and heal when the wound is fresh, but waiting around for grief to end could disappoint you. Grief is a cycle that never really ends, we just gain more recognition and control over our reactions to it as time passes.
As strange as it may sound, until you truly unlearn the tangling of love and pain that comes with grief, it can be comforting to know that grief is a cycle.
Often, it’s upsetting to feel a world that includes your loss becoming normal to you. Clutching onto the pain feels like clutching onto the love, but it’s okay to loosen your grip. Because one day when you feel healed there will be some fresh wound — a milestone birthday uncelebrated, a memory long forgotten — that will start the cycle all over again.
I have found that with every cycle it does get easier. And I think the knowledge that grief is cyclical and not linear can help you move forward while alleviating the pain that may come with doing so. Know that you don’t have to close one chapter of your life off before writing another, so don’t be afraid to jump into new, life-giving adventures while you heal.
Catherine Adams (she/her) is a Black writer, cat-lover, and beauty connoisseur. You can find her at www.lightweightlux.com or riding her bike along the lakefront in Chicago.