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What Does It Mean to Grieve?

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June 20, 2016
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Kathleen Driscoll

Dried red rose as symbol of grief


I have been thinking about grief a lot lately, especially after the horrific massacre of 49 people in Orlando last Sunday. I think about their loved ones left behind trying to make it through the world without them - one breath at a time.

Eight months ago my niece, Rosaleen, died from cancer. My sister, Rosaleen's mother, and I talk about how debilitating her grief is, while at the same time necessary to feel and process her loss. I think about how fragile and fleeting life is, and how real the pain of longing and having to accept the changes that come with being alive without a loved one.

Those words "Longing" and "Acceptance" resonate with me because they seem to define my idea of grief. When we lose someone who is a significant part of who we are and a constant in our life such as a daughter, son, parent, spouse, partner, sibling, or dear friend we do not just lose the person, but we lose our sense of identity and our reality. In a flash, our world is forever changed and our present and future are difficult to recognize. We feel different, raw, vulnerable, exposed, unprotected, and completely out of step with the rest of the world and our life as we knew it.

When we love someone we have the present and we create a future in our heart with them. We have plans. If it is a supportive and loving relationship, as was my sister's case, and were so many of the relationships of the 49 people who died last week, then we know we are there for each other for companionship, spontaneous and multiple phone calls, texts, emails, laughter, and comfort through the joys and sorrows of life. When someone we love dies, our plans for life get ripped away from us which can lead to devastating loneliness, sorrow, anxiety and fear. Everything we thought to be true is gone. We are off balance. If we are to live on, then we have no choice but to find a way to be in the world with our longing and acceptance in a much different way than we ever expected.

Grieving is a most terrifying time.

I often talk with clients about the evolution of the "self" and the many developmental milestones we go through to become who we are in this lifetime. If we are fortunate enough, we are loved, love, develop self insight and self understanding to learn from our behaviors, and continue to grow throughout our lives. Sometimes we may miss a step, or go forward only to go backward and finally on to the next stage. To me that is acceptance. As much of life is unpredictable and presents challenges and we are often forced to adapt.

So what does it mean to grieve? To me, it means finding our way in the world again without our loved one by our side. It means learning who and what are supportive and comforting. It means finding new ways to identify and adapt to changes. It means learning all over again who we are and what we enjoy or don't enjoy. It means learning to feel sadness, anger, longing, loneliness, and waking up and blindly getting through today and tomorrow and the day after that until it somehow makes sense to be in this world without our loved one. It means making our way in the world within our new reality without our loved one by our side, knowing they are still present within our heart. Which is all we can do after someone we love dies.

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