Grief and loss:
A different journey for each person
By Cheryl Dizon-Reynante
I remember getting the call from my mom. I was at work, sitting at my desk when my phone rang. After a few muffled sobs, she hoarsely whispered, “Your grandpa – he died.”
A dull pain began to grow in my chest. I stopped breathing. My eyes were frozen on the number 8 on my dial pad. I don’t remember how I hung up with my mom, but trembling, I got up and went to the bathroom. Closing the bathroom stall door behind me, I held my head in my hands and sobbed.
Now, one would think that I was extremely close to my grandfather. The truth was, I knew him for about two years of my life when I was very young, from about age 3 to age 5. I have hazy memories of him waltzing with me, my feet stepping on his, as we made our way around the living room. I remember him coming to my rescue when I stuck a peanut up my nose and couldn’t get it out. And I’ll never forget a time when he and my grandmother were leaving my house, each holding me for an extra long time. I wondered the whole time why my grandpa was crying as he held my face in his hands. I found out later that it was the day they were going back to the Philippines after visiting Canada for two years.
In that bathroom stall, I couldn’t understand why I felt so strongly, having only known him for so short a time when I was so little. So what did I do? I chose to block out my feelings, and forced myself to return to work.
Days later, our extended family gathered to discuss travel plans to go back home to the Philippines for the funeral. I looked around at my family and noted how differently each was handling the loss. My eldest aunt and uncle were doing all the planning. One aunt was joking about how she could use the time off work. Some family members were quiet; others were cooking to feed everyone. My mom was sitting on the couch with her eyes closed the whole time.
Everyone handles grief differently. The same event will have a different impact and meaning for different people. Statements such as, “I can’t believe she’s not crying right now,” and “He’s acting so normal,” do not recognize the fact that there is no right way to grieve. The only thing that is certain is that grief (lungkot or kalungkutan) will touch us all. Emotions that are tied to grief can include sadness, anger, guilt, frustration, shame – and sometimes, even relief.
The death of a loved one is not the only event that can trigger grief. It can occur after a major relationship breakdown, onset of illness, financial loss or retirement. Surprisingly, feelings of loss can also occur with positive life events such as marriage, the birth of a new baby or a job promotion. This is because we must say goodbye to some aspect of our identity or lifestyle. For example, a friend said to me once that she was fearful of going on maternity leave because she would have to put her career on hold. She was ashamed to tell anyone this because it cast a shadow over what “should” be a joyous time in her life. The bottom line is that any change leads to feelings of loss, which leads to grief.
Grief can have psychological, physical, social and spiritual effects. Psychologically, one can experience intense emotions such as sadness, anger, guilt, fear and shame. We can be easily distracted and unable to focus, mentally exhausted, confused and lack motivation. Common physical symptoms can include body aches, difficulty sleeping and exhaustion. Our social relationships can be affected as family and friends struggle to understand and try to support us. It is common to cope by withdrawing and wanting to be alone. And spiritually, our beliefs might be shaken.
So how do you cope with feelings that can feel so devastating?
1. Tell yourself that this grief journey is yours and yours alone. Although you might have others to help you along the way, what worked for others in their healing process might not necessarily work for you.
2. Accept the reality of the loss. Know that change and adjustment must follow.
3. Be open to the pain of grief. Let yourself feel intense emotions. Covering it up will tax your mental health heavily. Whether you grieve in private or confide in a friend, allow yourself to feel sad or angry for a certain period of time. Bereavement groups can be especially helpful as you can take comfort in the fact that you are not alone and can share your story with others going through similar experiences.
4. Adjust to a new environment after the loss. This includes external adjustments (how you function daily), internal adjustments (developing a new identity as a widow, divorcee, unemployed/retired person, etc.) and spiritual adjustments (addressing changes in beliefs, values and understanding of the world).
5. Honour the bond you have with the deceased person, ended relationship, or lost aspect of your identity. Realize that it will continue to exist, but in a different form. Give yourself permission to remember. But know that you cannot forever dwell in this stage.
6. Find a creative, meaningful way to remember and to say goodbye, such as writing a letter, making a scrapbook, singing a special song, or telling a story about your loved one to others.
7. And finally, understand that you cannot fix or cure grief.
The loss that hurts you now will likely continue to hurt. Pain will ebb and flow just like the ocean tides; at times overwhelming and almost too much to bear and, at other times, so still and calm that you forget for a little while. But perhaps it is not meant to completely go away because to stop feeling would be to stop living, to stop journeying, to stop remembering.
To my beloved Papang: I look forward to the day we can dance together again.
Cheryl Dizon-Reynante is the founder of Nexus Counselling and is a licensed counsellor with the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association. She has experience helping clients with issues such as grief and loss, marital and relationship difficulties, family conflict, depression, low self-esteem, parenting, aging, illness, and immigration or cultural adjustment. She can be reached at (204) 297-6744 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For further information, go to www.nexuscounselling.com.