When the Waves Come: Coping with Grief and Loss

By Tanya Winje, FCNI Supervisor
February, 26, 2020 -

“Grief is like an ocean; it comes in waves, ebbing and flowing.  Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim. -Vicki Harrison

I have been avoiding music. I drive without streaming music. I avoid stores that are playing music. I am not even listening to music while I sit at my desk and complete paperwork...so boring. It has been 46 days, as of today, that my mom died. Listening to music is an instant passageway to my feelings of grief and loss. I just start crying when I hear music of any kind and feel the wave of grief and loss come at me from the rough ocean I am trying to keep at a distance, for now.   

With the loss of my mom, I can’t help but think of all the youth I work with who are carrying heavy burdens of grief and loss. This loss could be defined by the death of a parent; the incarceration of a parent; a recent move or multiple moves over the years; the loss of stability/safety, friendships or a pet; the loss of meaningful personal items; or even just a complete loss of trust in the adults that they are counting on in their lives.  

These losses can manifest in feelings of bitterness; detachment; inability to see or experience joy or happiness; irritability; and just overall feelings of no one understands or “gets me.” We know that the mind-body connection exists and it is strong. The youth I serve experience physical manifestations of grief and loss too. Many have multiple symptoms that can include an upset stomach, loss of appetite, headaches, aches, pains and just general fatigue from overwhelming chronic stress. Many suffer from over sleeping or not sleeping at all. They experience new fears, vivid, wild dreams that can even roll into night terrors causing loss of sleep and a lingering fogginess that travels with them throughout the day. How about a temper tantrum that seems to be sparked out of something insignificant, but has a flood of emotions behind it that is unleashed at a tipping point that no one even knew about? Or avoidant behaviors, like mine, of compartmentalizing and pushing away from triggers out of self -preservation?

Feelings of grief and loss can have some misconceptions surrounding them. We clearly know that not everyone copes with grief, and/or people do not grieve in the same way. We are all different and unique in how we may either come to terms with a loss or not; or ever come to a place where we can have “some sort of peace” with what we have experienced. I just can’t imagine how a parent “recovers” from the loss of a child and ever gets any sense of “peace” about such trauma. I don’t know about the whole concept of “acceptance” when it comes to this extreme loss as it is not intended to be the “natural order of life,” right?  I guess we can apply the same sort of logic when it comes to “un-natural or tragic” and “senseless death” too. The loss of Kobe Bryant and the eight others who perished in the helicopter crash last month easily illustrates a tragedy that had our hearts drop to the floor. And the senseless deaths that happen when a person is in the wrong place at the wrong time (peace be with you,“Tito.”)  

I do know what does not help when dealing with grief and loss. Hearing sentiments like, “You just need to be strong”, “You will get over it in a couple of months, life goes on”, “Suck it up, don’t cry”, “If you don’t let it out, you will explode later”, “You are going to need medication to get through this”, “If we start talking about this, we will just make it worse”, or, “you just need to cry and then you will feel better.”  

Shortly after I had eulogized my mother at the funeral/celebration of her life, one of her peers asked me, “So what day and what time does the garage sale start?” This woman was asking me, at my mom’s funeral, when we were going to start selling my mother’s belongings. What? Huh? I was dumbstruck, hurt and just plain angry at the gall and insensitivity of this person. This wasn’t the only "stupid thing" I have been asked following the passing of my mother. I am learning that some people just don’t know what to say or maybe they just don’t care what they say and how they say it, based on my recent personal experiences.  

A better approach could always be to simply allow space for others to talk or share. Validate feelings and help others to identify feelings if they are struggling. Be a calm, attentive, and humble human for them to be with and talk with, be trustworthy and offer a “safe space to share.” Encourage the person you are with to follow through with rituals, routines, traditions or customs that are important to them in coping with the loss and honoring the experience or person. Offer a hug, connection, and empathy. Share feelings you might have and let them know that they are not alone. Just offer them hope in a caring and sensitive way.  

We all respond to news, changes, loss, and circumstances that are out of our control differently.  We may never know how someone is experiencing difficult information, or we may see or hear signs that they are really struggling. Listen for hopeless statements in their words, watch for complete disconnection or significant changes in routine, behavior, loss of interest, numbing out, and/or lack of focus. Definitely pay attention to statements or actions/thoughts of self-harm or harm planned to inflict on others and get help immediately.  

I have yet to really start to use some external coping skills to deal with my loss, other than writing (and that does help me). I have preoccupied myself with a long list of tasks that I need to complete related to work, my personal life and activities related to clearing up my mom’s personal affairs. I do plan to get into a support group, have some therapy sessions, do some art, and even get to a place where I can turn on some music. This will take time, and I am ok with that.  

“Talking about your experience can help you determine your path forward.  When you experience a loss, it changes your life story. Characters or possessions are added or gone. Relationships shift. Daily routines are undone. Long held roles are altered. Now that part of your story has to be “rewritten” (preferably in a way that does not obliterate the fond memories of the continuing connections). By speaking about your loss to family members, clergy, friends, even to yourself in a journal, you can reshape the narrative.”  -Nancy F. Smith

If you, or someone you know is struggling to cope with any kind of grief or loss, please do not hesitate to call TMHA's (Transitions-Mental Health Association) 24/7 confidential, free hotline at (800)-783-0607 for help.