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Permission to Grieve

Oct 28 2021
By Laura Roe Stevens
8 min read
Woman sitting on rock outside looking out.

If you’ve ever lost a friend or relative, divorced a spouse, or become unemployed, you likely experienced emotions from sadness to anger and fear.

Every loss is extremely personal. No two people grieve in the same way. While one person may stop eating full meals and dive deep into work to stay busy — someone else may sleep most of the day, experience excruciating headaches, or take a leave of absence from work. Just as there are many types of loss, from death to divorce, there seem to be endless ways in which people process and live through their experience of a loss. In the end, experts say it’s important to give yourself permission to grieve and feel the range of emotions – even anger or relief – and to care for your whole self in body, mind, and spirit. As long as you’re not harming yourself or others, however you grieve is normal and uniquely yours.

The Forms of Grief & Loss

There are different types of loss, from the unexpected death of a loved one or dear friend to the anticipated death of a relative who’s been fighting a disease. Some losses that you think ought to be minor in importance, such as the death of an acquaintance, may end up triggering you significantly. Deaths of public figures – from the suicide of Anthony Bourdain to the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and President John F. Kennedy, and George Floyd, and many others - can be jolting. And, of course, some mass losses are felt by millions, like after the terrorist attacks on September 11 or with dramatic images of war.

COVID-19 has also caused loss and grief for almost everyone, but the depth of this grief is extremely situational. Many people have had deaths in their family related to COVID-19, and others have suffered the loss of a job, residence, health, or a combination.

Consider these types of grief and loss:

  • Anticipatory grief – sensing a loss is coming and beginning to grieve in advance.
  • Disenfranchised grief – when a loss is not fully or socially recognized as the loss that it is for you, sometimes because in nature it’s not an apparent loss. “That might mean a miscarriage or the death of a pet,” says Smith, “or a loss of faith.”
  • Complicated grief – when there are hindrances to being able to grieve honestly.
  • Ambiguous loss – having a hard time understanding fully what has been lost due to the circumstances of the loss.
  • Sudden loss – a loss appears to have happened unexpectedly for the person grieving.

Each kind of loss can create a range of feelings, thoughts, physical symptoms (such as upset stomach or headaches), behaviors, and changes in sleep and eating habits. Finding a doctor familiar with the health impact of grief is important.

After the passing of a loved one, you may become mired in existential questions about your life’s purpose, examining your mortality or thinking about how you spend your time and with whom. You may begin to reflect on previous losses in your life, too, which can spur fear, anxiety, and/or depression. Some people start questioning their beliefs or wonder what death means spiritually for them. These thoughts and behaviors are normal, yet not always easy on the body. Fearful emotions can stir stress and anxiety, which has a direct impact on cortisol levels; hence, digestive issues and headaches are common side effects to grief. It’s important to find healthy ways to ease this stress.

Rituals for Remembrance

Many experts suggest creating a ritual to ease the transition. Out of 22 studies on grief interventions that reveal ritual elements, almost all of them show significant effects of the grief treatment, trauma, and related symptoms, as reported in Frontiers in Psychiatry. Whether you hold a memorial service or take a weekend away with mutual friends to share stories, ritual can be healing. Grief rituals can increase feelings of control and, interestingly enough, the rituals benefited even the people who did not believe in the effectiveness of the ritual, as reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Claiming time for ritual offers permission to grieve in meaningful ways and is a way of grieving mindfully. You can tap into a wellspring of compassion for yourself and others when you grieve mindfully – as you connect to your response to the loss, offer kindness to yourself, and consider the reality of loss for yourself and others. Grieving mindfully is also an opportunity to connect with loved ones and renew intentions for your life.

Mindfulness Eases Bereavement

A recent multi-university study found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) eased depression, anxiety, panic, mood, and overall well-being for people who had recently lost a significant relative. In fact, all study participants who attended an eight-week MBCT course, reported less grief, better emotion regulation, and lower bouts of anxiety and stress. And functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of study participants showed strengthened executive control areas within the brain, which allows for less reactive and more thoughtful responses to emotional triggers, according to the findings published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Clearly, finding mindful ways to process grief can aid with the transition. More importantly, experts say mindfulness helps foster compassion for yourself and what you’re going through. When you become aware of your feelings and emotions – and learn how to accept them and move through them without judgment – you become in touch with your own loss and the losses of others. It also helps you to take better care of yourself, as you better respect your needs.

Smith feels especially inspired by a woman whose best friend was killed when they were in middle school. “Back then, she believed it would never have happened if she’d been with her friend,” he explains. “She felt guilty, afraid and alone, and this woman was unable to grieve for many years. Eventually, though, her grieving inspired her to be the founder of a nonprofit grief support program for children. Grieving mindfully can bring out such great generosity and kindness.”

Grief Rituals to Consider

  • Grief support groups
  • Grief counseling
  • Grief workshops
  • Dream work
  • Reading stories of loss and hope
  • Writing letters
  • Grief journaling
  • Continuing the conversations
  • Grief walking
  • Dining with your beloved (spiritually)
  • Grief expressions through art and music
  • Setting up a grief altar
  • Creating intentional grieving spaces
  • Honoring loved ones by placing small gifts near photographs
  • Memorial services/funerals
  • Sharing stories with family and friends

Journaling also supports healing. If you choose this method, you may want to think about these questions:

  • How can I take good care of myself through this loss?
  • Existential exploration – who am I now?
  • If my loved one could speak today, what would they want me to know?
  • What would I say to my loved one if I could speak to them today?
  • Where am I at with my grief today?
  • What is helping me through my loss?
  • Which grief rituals will support me in my loss and bring meaning to my life?
Headshot of Adam Smith, MA at Canyon Ranch Tucson

About the Expert

Headshot of Adam Smith, MA at Canyon Ranch Tucson

Adam Smith

Adam is part of a Spiritual Wellness team that offers six unique spiritual services for guests. He also lectures for guests and staff on topics related to spiritual wellness. With a background as a hospital and hospice chaplain and bereavement counselor, he specializes in Spiritual/Pastoral Care, Grief Support, Contemplation and Mysticism.