Editor’s note: We’re featuring blog posts by other amazing local therapists. This week, Brittany Squillace is helping us better understand grief.
Whether you’re currently walking and honoring a grief journey, are anticipating a loss, or haven’t encountered death and grief in your life yet, you may have heard of “doing the grief work” following a loss.
Many have expressed feelings of anxiety after losing their loved one and wonder, “Why is anxiety even part of grief?” While there are many factors that can influence the presence of anxiety, a common one is the uncertainty around what “doing the grief work” means; what that implies and what the process entails.
To really begin understanding this process and how it uniquely takes shape to each individual and their journey, we first need to define grief work. I have defined grief work as the following:
The process in which one begins to grow around his/her/their grief and develops an ability to carry the loss with him/her/them.
“Okay, cool! Thanks for providing me with a definition but what does it mean?” Great question! Let’s break it down and dig into the two parts of the definition:
- Growing Around Your Grief
If you look to your right, you’ll see one of my favorite visuals depicting the expectation of how grief changes over time vs. what actually happens. The common belief around how grief changes over time is that it gets smaller (shown in the top row of the image). Our jar stays the same, but the grief shrinks in size and takes up less space. In reality (shown in the bottom row), we learn to grow around our grief. Our grief never shrinks, it will always be there; it will remain the same size. What changes is the size of our jar. I like to think the jar represents you (the individual who is walking the grief journey) and your ability to navigate the grief journey. When your jar gets bigger, your support system has grown. When your jar gets bigger, you’ve acquired more skills and strategies to put in your toolbox that will assist you along the way. So, the process of growing around your grief is essentially building and expanding your grief journey jar!
- Carry The Loss
This is the idea of exploring and identifying how you want to carry the person with you as you continue to walk through life. Physical absence of your loved one does not have to equate to an emotional or mental absence of your loved one. Developing an ability to carry the loss with you is all about determining how you want to continue making your loved one part of your life even after they’re physically gone.
Read my previous blog article Remember Your Loved One(s) for tips on how to begin exploring this process, as well as Grief & Remembrance: The Fear Of Forgetting to address any fears that may be attached to developing an ability to carry the loss with you.
Now that we’ve covered what grief work means from a definition standpoint, let’s talk about what the process of “doing the grief work” looks like in actual practice or execution. Join me as I begin to paint a picture for you on what this process may look like. Keep in mind, everyone’s painting/picture may look different based on:
- Where one is in the individual unique grief journey,
- The type of loss experienced, and
- The relationship to the person who passed.
Growing Around Grief: Step 1- Building A Foundation
First and foremost, for everyone, the grief work process is going to entail making sure you have access to various building blocks that are going to create and maintain a stable foundation for the grief work to occur. These include (but are not limited to): a healthy and safe support system that is present and accessible, additional or alternative grief resources outside of therapy, and coping skills (such as inviting space for partaking in a grief break or understanding the importance of and engaging in self-care). This foundation will carry you through and allow you to grow around your grief and develop an ability to carry the loss with you.
Growing Around Grief: Step 2- Addressing Trauma
Keep in mind (particularly with this step), not everyone’s process will entail steps two and three. These are to give you an idea of what your process of doing the grief work COULD look like; not what it SHOULD look like!
For those who’s loss carries a level of trauma, it’s important for this factor of the loss to be addressed. It is possible for grief and trauma to be experienced simultaneously and research suggests the best approach to this occurrence (to allow for the grief work to be the most effective and beneficial) is through engaging in trauma therapy before diving into the grief work. Now, that’s not to say we can’t do the grief work if trauma is present; however, it’s encouraged to address the trauma first to avoid it interfering with or influencing your grief work.
Growing Around Grief: Step 3- Meaning Making
Once the building blocks are in place, you have a strong foundation built, and you’ve done the trauma work if needed, your process may entail meaning making work. This type of work can look different for everyone (I know, shocker right?!). Meaning making may include:
- Asking and exploring those “why” or “what if” questions
- Rediscovering and redefining identity
- Striving to answer the “who am I without them?” question that can often come following a loss
- Talking legacies: either what legacy of your loved one’s you’d like to carry on and/or, possibly, what legacy of your own you’d like to leave behind
Okay! You now have the definition of grief work and I’ve helped you begin to paint the picture of what your grief work process may look like. Let’s add depth to your painting via the second part of the grief work definition; the work behind developing an ability to carry the loss with you!
Carrying The Loss: Determining Connection Type
While this part of the grief work can be very empowering and liberating, it can also be frustrating for the fact that many will say, “I don’t want that connection! I want their physical connection; I want them here!” Of course you do! If anyone had the opportunity to bring their loved one back, I’m sure they would. And, with the work you’ve done up to this point, you can recognize/acknowledge that type of connection can’t and won’t look the same way. It, in no way, means connection cannot be achieved all together! You can still connect with your loved one(s) and carry them with you in a way that resonates with you! The bulk of the work in learning to carry the loss with you is about discovering a way to connect with your deceased loved one that fits for you; based on your values, belief system(s), and morals (such as religion or spirituality).
I realize this can be a tricky concept for some to grasp. For this reason, when talking about this part of the grief work process, I like to use the metaphor of a chapter book. When you complete a chapter in a book, what typically comes next? We either close the book for the time being and return to it at a later date to continue on with the story or we keep reading; keep walking along in the story. Rarely (I’d like to say never but realistically, some books just don’t spark our interest) do we close the book forever and never open it again. And just because we’ve completed that chapter doesn’t mean the content is no longer relevant. That content carries on through the rest of the book to create a complete beautiful story.
I encourage you to view the process of carrying the loss (particularly when creating continued bonds with your deceased loved one) through a chapter book lens. The loss you’re currently grieving (and will continue to grieve) is part of your book and it’s only one chapter. Sure, it may be a big chapter that provides a lot to the storyline; it’s also not the end of your story! I’d be willing to bet there is a lot more that is yet to come. And guess what?! Your deceased loved one gets to be part of that story that is still yet to come! Sure it’ll look different than how you originally imaged it however, it’s possible to still have them part of your story!
It’s important to keep in mind, we also can’t rush through a chapter. If a chapter is rushed, important information that contributes to building and rounding out the story may be missed. Please don’t rush! Just like there’s no timeline on when to finish a book, there’s no timeline on grief. Even when rewriting your story that follows the chapter you’re currently in; honor your journey!
Now that you have the ingredients to grief work, I encourage you to start exploring how you might tweak these ingredients (if at all) to fit your unique recipe.
If you’d like guidance with your grief work process, I’d love to connect via my FREE 30 minute grief counseling consultation where I’ll learn a little about your story and share how I can help you.
Here’s to living a better life as your best self.
Find Brittany at:
Brittany Squillace, MA, LMFT is a mental health therapist and founder of Best Self Therapy. Brittany’s mission through Best Self Therapy is to instill hope in grieving adults to change the way they view, talk about, and navigate grief; allowing them to live a better life as their best self. Through her specialty of grief and loss, Brittany guides clients in making meaning of their losses and redefine and maintain their relationship(s) with the deceased. Brittany’s grief specialization also includes guiding clients in healing ambiguous/living losses (such as the losses experienced through divorce, loss of identity, grieving a loved one who is physically present but emotionally/mentally absent, loss of job, etc.). Brittany values creating a safe and welcoming space, allowing clients to discover how to continue living as their best selves while remembering, honoring, and staying connected to those who have passed. To learn more about Brittany and Best Self Therapy, to take advantage of her FREE 20-30 minute consultation, or to schedule an appointment visit her website at https://www.bestselftherapy.net/
Guest blogs do not necessarily reflect the views, values, or stance of POW! Psychotherapy, its owners and therapists, or other contributors.