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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Matters of the Mind: Grief is messy, and that is fine

Today, amid a pandemic, while the world grieves together it must be recognised that grief is not a social factor; it is purely subjective and psychological. Everyone deals with it differently and must not be rushed, judged or compared to others

Written by Dr Shwetambara Sabharwal | Mumbai |
February 27, 2021 2:30:00 pm
grief, human emotions, anger, matters of the mind, dr shwetambara sabharwalGrieving doesn’t have to have a time limit. While initially acute, it can catch up with us years later as well. (Photo: Getty Images/Thinkstock; design: Gargi Singh)

Letting go of someone we hold close to our heart is an excruciatingly-painful experience. But, the pain isn’t reserved for the departed; it is also for someone who is alive, but not close enough to hold or embrace. One may argue grieving for the dead is harder, because despite conflicts and declarations of ‘never wanting to see them again’, at least the thought that someone is alive and happy in their life, is a respite. Some argue, grieving the absence of living people with whom we have deep bonds, is an open wound that stings without notice or necessity.

Grieving is messy. One may experience anger, guilt, bitterness, sadness, and anxiety in a matter of a few hours. Getting to the other side of this tunnel is a journey that is unknown to all.

Grief is often misunderstood; perceived as something normal until it comes your way, natural, until we decide for the other that enough time has passed. Clocked in stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, grief becomes a group or community issue, taking convenient and subjective strides in families and among friends. Today, amid a pandemic, while the world grieves together it must be recognised that grief is not a social factor; it is purely subjective and psychological. Everyone deals with it differently and must not be rushed, judged or compared to others.

suicides in india, increasing suicides in india, suicide symptoms, depression symptoms, help depression, suicidal tendencies, identify suicide symptoms, indian express, indian express news People often report guilt when they wake up and go through the day without thinking of the deceased. (Source: Getty Images)

This can build pressure on the griever, amplifying negative emotions of guilt, sadness and anger. This also has nothing to do with how strong-minded, well-adjusted or mature one is, in the face of loss.

I opened this dialogue for us to reinvestigate our understanding of grief, God forbid we have to experience it, or find ourselves supporting one who is.
Pushing for experiencing the various stages — and eventual closure — need not be the goal. In fact, I would go as far as to say, it is entirely fine if the above doesn’t happen.

I counselled many grieving people, particularly in the last one year. When a loved one departs, what makes us grieve is the close and loving attachment we had with them. The vacuum that can’t be filled by someone else because that attachment and its manifestations were so unique.

Grief counselling for me is not about closure, it is about the acceptance of three facts: the death of a person, the fact that the relationship does not end, and that one can still find ways to manifest the beauty and strength of that attachment.

People often report guilt when they wake up and go through the day without thinking of the deceased. They report anger. They feel they are terrible to have smiled while watching the TV or while enjoying a meal.

We all have a psychological immune system that makes us fall back into a routine and feel pleasant emotions we haven’t allowed ourselves to feel. With time, it helps us to find a narrative, to heal and to adapt to this change. It helps people to reopen doors to the fresh breeze, embracing what comes with it. It helps with new reflections of the one gone, new perspectives on the relationship and new manifestations of the enduring absence, thereby allowing for grief to happen in a healthy manner. So let the breeze in.

We distinguish healthy grieving from an unhealthy one, when one’s overall functionality is impacted for over six months after a loss, such that the person is not able to perform daily duties and functions.

Grieving doesn’t have to have a time limit. While initially acute, it can catch up with us years later as well. So long as we can manage to grow despite it, make space for other aspects of life as we go along, and do not stop ourselves from experiencing them to the fullest.

I often say to those grieving that what really helps is just showing up. I have had experience of a long-term grieving process where I struggled tremendously. The one thing that got me through was, while my insides twisted, I got out of bed, made myself look orderly and showed up where I needed to be. At work, I focused on what I had learnt, I gradually practised to sustain my concentration on my role, on giving and adding value, to look outside and beyond the loss and to manifest the love I had, elsewhere.

Not too long ago, I stood outside my daughter’s kindergarten, preoccupied with grief over the love I had lost years ago, I gave the security guard my son’s name, oblivious of the words I uttered. As the diligent moms around me laughed and sniggered, I realised that years later, grief still crept up on me. And I truly believe that it is fine.

Acknowledging the heart-wrenching loss, mustering up all the nerve to move ahead, grieving, missing what was and yet manifesting the love you have for them in new learnings and growth, is messy, but that is fine.

(The author is a Mumbai-based psychologist and psychotherapist)

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