Chronic Grief - Your New (Unwanted) Best Friend
The Sunday Long Read – 30 April 2023
According to large scale studies in the United States, at any one time,, around 20% of the population are dealing with the symptoms of grief in a way that affects their daily lives. That means that one in five people around you are experiencing the trauma of grief. Most of them will do so without you having a clue that this is happening for them. If you are the one in five, then I’m glad you’ve found this article. Being acknowledged in your grief is one of the key steps to managing it, but few of us want to wear our pain on our sleeve and even fewer of us want to offend against social taboos that make speaking about grief difficult. So finding a safe space is key. This is a safe space.
You will have heard people talk about the stages of grief, I prefer to think in terms of symptoms because the old idea of ‘stages’ makes it seem like a linear progression through which you move from beginning to end and grief isn’t like that. If we take a step back, however, we can see that there are definitely two phases; the acute phase, in the immediate aftermath of the loss and the chronic phase which becomes embedded in us as time passes.
Famously, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross identified the symptoms – that she called stages - of acute grief:
denial, anger, depression, bargaining, acceptance. All of these occur in the acute phase, but not in any linear progression. I also believe that the idea of ‘acceptance’ has to be handled very carefully.
When you talk about acceptance or use phrases like ‘coming to terms with’, or ‘submit to reality’, or ‘resign ourselves’ you are unwittingly using the language of military conflict; you have gone to war with loss and you have been defeated and forced to enter into a peace treaty with the victor. Forever the victim of the stronger force, you are, thereby, robbed of your agency and with it some of your confidence and sense of self.
It is this feeling of having to surrender or die by the thousand cuts of grief that so paralyses those who have entered the chronic phase.
The key symptoms of this phase are depression, a sense of disorientation, a loss of a clear idea of self and an anger that is rooted in the fear that you will never regain a sense of emotional equilibrium.
I strongly believe that it is in the tackling of this fear that true and lasting peace can be found.
However, firstly, let’s be clear, grief isn’t healed or resolved, it is managed. It is not an enemy to be fought, but a truth with which you must form a relationship.
Secondly, there is no neat timescale, but you can expect to feel the sharpness of chronic grief soften as new internal relationships form.
Thirdly, we are all a mixture of lots of different ‘personas’ that live within us. You therefore have both inner children and adults formed at key points in your life. Each one has an important voice; some will need to take the lead, others will need attention and care, all are part of the journey.
To allow chronic grief to go from something we are fighting with to something with which you have a creative relationship, you need to understand yourself and how you have come to be who you are. You can then embark on the difficult task of working out how you want to show up in your life now that you have experienced a loss. This means getting really clear about the values that underpin your life and how they drive your sense of meaning. Even if life seems like it has been robbed of meaning by your loss, new meaning and new ways of understanding yourself will emerge if you are open to this process.
A quick note about betrayal: finding a relationship with chronic grief is not a betrayal of a lost loved one. Rather, it is an honouring of what they have given to you and a willingness to learn from and treasure that legacy.
Taking the realities of the present and building a relationship with those realities while mining all of your life experiences so far for the treasures that lie within will allow the ground beneath your feet to feel firmer and more trustworthy.
This is what I call Grief Coaching. If you’d like to explore undertaking this journey with my help, please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.