Steps To Grieving Intentionally

Steps to Grieving Intentionally

Every single parent experiences loss in some way, whether it's the loss of a relationship, a spouse, or even a dream. We know loss is a part of life and grieving is a part of the healing process, but we aren't always sure what to do about that. How do we practice grief in healthy and intentional ways?

We're going to cover this in three main points. First, we're going to talk about defining grief and our understanding of it. Second, we're going to talk about some personal stories of grief and what that looks like. And third, we're going to talk about some practical steps, the four tasks of mourning.

When thinking about grief, many of us have this picture of just sitting in a corner, sucking our thumb, crying, being sad, and never coming out of it. But there's way more to grief than that.

What is grief?  

I'm just going to define grief as it's stated by the American Psychological Association. They say that grief is the anguish experienced after significant loss, usually the death of a beloved person. Grief often includes physiological distress, separation, anxiety, confusion, yearning, obsession with the past and apprehension about the future. Grief may also take the form of regret for something lost, remorse for something done, or sorrow for a mishap to oneself.

There's a lot of facets to it. I don't obviously think that it just goes with the death of a beloved person because I would see divorce as a death. Death of a relationship. I heard a single mom say she was a single mom, first time by divorce, and the second time by death. And she said the divorce grief was harder to process because it's almost like you have to live with a coffin in your living room every day. It's this loss that is still on earth. It's not final; it’s actually here.

It’s not a linear process. You’re not just going to walk through and be done with. It ebbs and flows. My counselor gave an analogy: You're in this big room and the only thing on the wall is one of those red exit buttons. Inside the room is a massive ball which represents your grief. Every time that ball hits the exit button, it's tapping on that grief. Over and over. And the bigger the ball is, the bigger the grief is, and the more it's going to tap on that red button. But over time, the ball shrinks and so it taps that button less and less. But you could be 99 years old on your deathbed and crying over your divorce that happened when you were 37 years old. So it may be that I have a bouncy ball of grief, but it could still tap that red button however many years later. And that's a hard thing to wrap your head around and be okay with. It is a hard concept to accept because grief is hard to accept. We don't want to lean into hurt and sadness, but we need to. And if we don't, the ball stays really big. We might not think it does. Can I just ignore it? Can I just avoid it? Can I deflect? But the ball doesn't get smaller unless we intentionally go through the four tasks of mourning, which we'll talk about later. That’s why grief can feel so acute to some—so present and so real—and yet be more distant to others. It’s maybe where they're at in the process of working intentionally through their grief.

Before I did some of my own grief work, I thought it was just the sadness and I’d get over it. It’s been 17 years since I've been divorced, and still to this day (and I'm remarried) there are things that will pop up. I know neighbors whose families are still intact, and their kids are getting married, and they're all showing up at the wedding, and it just pushes this button in me that just goes, “Ugh. I still feel the loss 17 years later.” One of my daughters recently got married, and my ex came to the wedding at my house where she once lived.  I had some sadness.

I think we live in such a transactional society with instant gratification, you press a button, you get something out of it, or it fixes something. We think that somehow grief is a transaction and it's really about process. It's not something that you just get over.

The misconception I had to get over was what grief looked like. I don't have to physically sit and cry in order to be grieving. I can just feel the sadness and the loss of something or someone in that moment. And it never brings me to tears, but I've learned to honor that in a way that gives me peace about the way that I'm grieving. It doesn't have to look the same from an external standpoint. Each person will process it differently. It’s important to note that grief can come through divorce, through the death of a loved one, the grief of a relationship. And grief is not passive. If we don't intentionally lean into it, we might miss the opportunity to have the healing we need to enter into other phases of our life. Phases where that grief is a little bit smaller and the ball isn't hitting that exit button as often.

What do you think about the five stages of grief that we've always been taught?

In her book Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross spearheaded amazing grief work. She's a pioneer in the field with the idea of different stages of grief, D-A-B-D-A: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. And her work is foundational. It's very true that we often experience every one of those things when we're grieving, but we now look at it a little bit differently: that it's not linear, it's cyclical. We may one day be in a lot of denial about what really took place, and another day we might feel really low and kind of depressed about it. Later on, we might be really angry, so it's not in order. And we'll cycle back through these from time to time. I've gotten to acceptance in so many ways with some of the grief that I've experienced. And then I'm surprised that something pops up and I'm so angry about it, like my ex’s presence at our daughter’s wedding. I didn't miss her. But man, I wish things looked different for sure.

We have to allow ourselves freedom to let the grief be what it is for us, give ourselves that grace and ability to be unique. We're all so different. But when we experience loss, there's going to be grief. And if we're not recognizing that, we're numbing out, we're denying it, we just don't think we can face it. So we feel like the only thing we can do is avoid it.

Let’s look at grief on a deeper level. What does it look like for us personally?


It looks different for everybody. A lot of people avoid grief through distractions: staying busy, whether that's working out or scrolling or alcohol or social engagements, just always being busy. Or some people have stories about trying to be in control or controlling different things, or denying and suppressing it and not staring at it straight in the face. But at the end of the day, we're all in pain when it comes to grief and it's hard to lean into. So those things are all normal.

I wasn't grieving because I wasn't allowing myself to feel what I felt about my ex. I had a lot of “shoulds” happening where it was like, “Well, we've been divorced for however long. I shouldn't be feeling this way about him anymore, and so I shouldn't love him anymore, or I shouldn't feel sad about us not being together anymore.” And I would “should” myself out of the grief because it was like, there's no reason for me to feel this way about him. I don't want to marry him or remarry him. I don't want to be with him. So why would I feel sad? I finally just let go and said, you know what? I actually still love him. I still cherish the memories that we have. I still cherish the time that we had together, the way that we grew together, the child we have together, what life could have looked like if we had stuck it out.

I was journaling and praying and it was this overwhelming feeling of “Why are you trying to deny how you feel about your ex? You feel that way and it's okay.” There was such a freedom and a release that happened when I acknowledged it. I’m going to be okay with the fact that while I don't want to be married to him anymore, I do still love him, and that's okay.

For me, grief looked like avoidance. I was too busy. I couldn't face it. At the same time, I couldn't completely avoid it because the feelings were really big. And so it looked like me sitting in my master bedroom closet in the corner, crying my eyes out, just sobbing. It was painful. But I tried to avoid it and I would tell myself I didn't have time to grieve. I had full-time custody. I had a child with unique differences. I was too busy to give myself the freedom to grieve. And really, even that story was part of me wanting to avoid it. And not too many years ago, I ended up having some relief from full custody. Their dad began to co-parent with me week on, week off. And I would go to this little apartment on my weeks off. And the very first thing I would do for the first several times was get into my pajamas on a Sunday afternoon at about 4:00 PM after the handoff. I'd get in the bed and I would cry because it was one of the first times that I had space to let go of it all. And whether it was true that I was too busy or whether that was the story, I used to avoid it for all those years being full-time, it all really came out more fully and more completely when I had that space.

I didn't process grief well in the beginning. I know for a fact Solo Parent wouldn't exist if I wasn't trying to run from my grief. I coped by being productive and turning something dark into something light. A lot of times we run from grief by doing something productive, worthwhile. We often demonize things that numb us from grief: “Well, I'm not drinking too much. I'm not binging Netflix. I'm not just eating ice cream every night.” But it can also look like trying to contribute and do good and help other people. And it's still not personally inventorying and dealing with grief. It wasn't until I started doing some of my own work and would allow myself space and let it slowly start coming out. Coping with grief in unhealthy ways looks different for all of us, and sometimes it looks productive. I'm grateful that Solo Parent exists, and I'm not dismissing any of that. I'm just saying that especially as Christians, sometimes we jump into ministry or we jump into serving at the church. None of those things are wrong. I wasn't wrong for starting Solo Parent, but I had to recognize that part of that was me not dealing with my grief.

Back in the early days, I was suppressing it, running away from the pain—anything I could do to escape the pain. Week after week, my counselor was like, “You’ve got to grieve.” That was her number one. And it took multiple sessions for me to finally break down and let the wall down and actually start grieving and start feeling it. Because honestly, I was really afraid that once it started, it was not going to stop. I was going to be depressed. I wasn't going to be able to show up at work and do what I needed to do. I wasn't going to be able to show up as a mom. I was just going to be crying all the time. And that wasn't true. It wasn't what happened, but that's what I was afraid of.

It’s normal for us to try to avoid or control or deny grief, but how we find relief really matters.

Let’s start walking into some of the steps of grieving intentionally. What are the four tasks of mourning?  

These are practical steps to get into grieving. The first one is to accept and face the reality of loss. This is about being really concrete. We have to specifically face what's true: I am divorced. I am no longer married. I'm no longer a husband. I'm no longer a wife. Using concrete language helps us separate the emotional feeling of attachment to what we've lost and we let ourselves feel the pain. But really the first step is accepting the reality: I'm divorced. And then using concrete language: the divorce papers, the final legal process, having to set up a parenting plan.

We often attach grief to big things like death, divorce, a breakup, a child leaving for college. But don't be surprised if small things might be attached to other things. As with everything in life, if there is a feeling of loss, it's important to identify it and accept the reality of the loss: “She broke up with me. He broke up with me. My child moved to college. It's over. Things will never be the same. I'm single.” Even saying that out loud feels very blunt to me, but that's an important part of acceptance—just facing it for what it is, not allowing yourself to turn your back on it and pretend it's not there. To say, “My grief is real. It's big and it's present, and this is why.”

You can write down the things that you lost: a sense of security, dreams for the future, the identity of being married, 50% of time with your child, a home, social circle and the connections that felt safe as a couple. It's so important to take time to do certain exercises like journaling, talking it out, anything we can do to take those parts of our brain that aren't conscious and put language to them. It helps us to connect our feelings and those instinctual responses of grief to a more cognizant process.

The second task of mourning is: process, experience and feel the pain of grief.  Rather than just acknowledging it in your thought process, let yourself feel and experience the difference in your body emotionally. Anything somatic that comes up, tension that you carry, it can be really helpful to walk through a practice with mindfulness around grief, where you take time to get really still and quiet. Saying it out loud and listening and then letting yourself notice, “Whoa, that really hit me in my chest. That feels heavy. That feels hard. I actually feel an ache inside.” We’re connecting the experience to physical sensations to know that you need to connect your mind, your heart, and your body, and allow yourself to experience grief more fully.

Is that just a feeling? Allow yourself to feel it, or is there action to that?  It's a feeling, but it's so helpful when we let ourselves process and experience grief in a specific way. Maybe you go for a run and during this run, you’re going to think through what you lost and let those feelings come. Let your body process it and have an outlet for grief so it’s not just stuck inside. Allow your physical sensations to help purge some of the pressure and intensity of the emotion. It's not just going to happen in our heads. It has to happen in our physical being too.

I wasn’t processing my grief, and my mom (a counselor) said, “Robert, I want you to go home and I want you to let out your anger. If you don't, it will come out.” And she goes, “I would suggest that you grab things that represent your marriage and destroy them.” One of our favorite places to go was Positano in Italy. We bought a dish set and had it shipped back here. I took a couple of the plates and things that represented our marriage, went out to the garage and just smashed them. It felt so good. I felt released in some areas. I think that's part of grief. I think part of processing is a physical manifestation, doing something physically to experience that emotion. And we do this more systematically with death because it's a known loss or a part of grief that everyone accepts. Having a funeral or viewing or religious service are tangible representations and opportunities to intentionally grieve, and that doesn’t happen with divorce. We have to look for intentional ways to make space for that, to really let ourselves fully experience the pain.

Step three in the process of grief is adjusting to a new normal. What does life look like after the loss of a loved one?

All of us here have experience with what that looks like. It's so different for every single one of us. There are those who actually experienced a physical death. What does life look like after that? What does life look like after the loss of your marriage? There are real practical realities with parenting and living situations and finances and reestablishing new social circles and a religious community or a supportive place to heal. There's so many things that we need to do in new or different ways.

So part of grieving is accepting a new normal. It’s not just for people who are newly divorced and still trying to figure out their new normal; it can be for that person who is five or six years into their divorce, but they've never grieved it. Going through these steps is naturally going to bring about a new normal. Once the grief is processed, there are day-to-day things that don't change, but I think there is change that happens naturally from your emotional and mental state that's going to affect your behaviors day in and day out.

Grief will resurface with every new life season or transition. Because it's a new you that you're bringing into the circumstance.

The last step is finding a way to memorialize what that loss represented. What does that look like?

It’s the idea of finding a bridge from where you are today to connect to what you lost and have some sense of meaning around it. It allows all of your life to be true. It allows you to embrace the fullness of your story: the good parts, the bad parts, the hard parts, the previous parts that are no longer true. And so it's a way to bring the two together to help make sense of it and accept loss as part of your story. When you think about the loss of a loved one, we can memorialize them in a specific way. Maybe it's planting a tree or dedicating a plaque in their honor. I know for me, I had to build a bridge between the pain and reality of divorce and where I'm at now. I'm no longer married, but my ex and I are still co-parenting our kids. So, one of the ways that I've provided some meaning to it was to start saying, “We're divorced, but we're a divorced family. It looks a lot different. It's not like a nuclear family or an intact family, but we're still a family.” And for me, that provided a bridge between what was true on both sides, the loss it represented, and the new normal that we're living.

It's not all either or. It's not all good on the one side, and it's not all bad on the old side. There is this bridge. I can see all the good things that we had and recognize how they have actually served me now that I'm remarried. I'm grateful for learning those things, and it brings meaning to what happened. Bringing some awareness to it and some completion to it. I think closure is overrated and maybe impossible really, but the idea of how your old journey still matters when you're embarking on a new journey. There were parts of it that brought you to who you are today. We can either demonize our past or idealize it. And if we do either of those things, it can leave us stuck because we've put this intensity of emotion around making it really bad or really good, instead of just allowing it to be true or not.

Listener Question

I, as a parent, still desire to be the biggest influence in my children's lives. How can we as parents really welcome our village to be present and be helpful while also keeping boundaries in place?

This is a big one. In some instances, it does take a village, and we need to recognize that our kids need that. Not all single parents have a village. I think for me at least, it was important for me to find some other women. I had full custody and three girls, so I intentionally reached out to a couple young women to see if they would spend time with my girls. And it takes trust. You've got to be careful and you've got to have boundaries. And the other thing that I will say is that there were a number of different role models that came into my girls’ lives. It starts with recognizing you can't do all this alone. You can't. And so you have to be intentional about trying to find a village, and it doesn't have to be big, but it has to be intentional and deliberate. I think having the humility to know that you need it and then having the courage to reach out to cultivate and ask people to fill those roles was really hard and scary for me but it's so important. Kids benefit so much from having you being healthy first, and how can you do that when you're hurting and grieving and growing and changing? And so a village is absolutely essential, which is why I love our solo parent community.

We want to keep bringing you into these conversations with your questions so keep sending those over. It can be anything you want, from single parent life to what we're talking about on the podcast. We'll do our best to answer it. If you want to send in a question, please go to our website at soloparent.org/talktous and you'll find directions on how to email, call, or leave a voice message. Or contact us through Instagram and/or Facebook.

Takeaways

1.Grief is different for everyone, it’s not linear; it’s a process. Sometimes we have misconceptions about what grief actually is and what it looks like, but it is different for every person.
2.We want relief from grief, pain, and struggle, and it's normal to try to avoid it or control or deny grief, but how we go about processing grief is really important.
3.The four steps of grieving can help us grieve our losses in healthy, sustainable, and intentional ways. There might still be work, and that’s ok.


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