Faith Wood knows how to resolve conflict. Her years in front-line law enforcement taught her how to effectively de-escalate any situation to a successful conclusion. Faith will use her knowledge of conflict management to guide you through the often stressful experiences you may encounter in your personal or professional life. Her Conflict Coach column appears every two weeks.
Question: A friend recently lost his wife of 20 years and I’m worried about him as well as how he’s responding to her death. Publicly, he seems to be doing okay – but in private?
He mentioned he thinks he’s not missing her as much as he believes he ought to – and those thoughts are making him doubt his love for her. Could you share some thoughts on how to cope with grief or offer a perspective on grieving that could help?
Answer: Is there a right or wrong way to grieve? To mourn? Does a lack of emotion intimate a lack of caring?
I think such questions undervalue grief’s complexity because how we grieve is so individualistic. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve, and much of our response to it is connected to childhood when we imprinted prior experiences with grief.
When my friend’s father lost his wife of 50 years, he carried his pain stoically, portraying a sad yet cheerful man, always putting on a brave persona. Then, about eight months after his wife passed, his beloved puppy had to be put down, nearly destroying him. Never having spent time grieving, when grief began piling up, his stoicism crumbled.
Unaddressed grief causes caustic erosion in other areas of life – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. For some individuals, grief immediately shatters their lives completely. For others, there’s a reckoning that nothing is permanent in this life and they feel prepared for loss.
While some people feel comfortable expressing their emotions and mourning openly, others prefer privacy and they’re less expressive, cramming and jamming their emotions into locked cavities away from prying eyes. None of these responses are right or wrong.
They’re just different.
Although it’s something we don’t actively consider, our openness with grief starts early in life, perhaps appearing over the loss of our favourite blankie, the death of a grandparent or a school pal moving out of the neighbourhood. We feel it when our beloved pet gerbil is found legs up in the cage one morning.
Sometimes we look at our kids with amazement or disappointment when they’re having a tantrum or breakdown in public at the loss of something we view as normal or minimal. Yet, it’s in these moments that we’re unintentionally teaching children how to express grief appropriately.
“Dry your eyes like a big boy,” we tell them.
Or, “Stop crying, or I’ll give you something to cry about!”
If we open ourselves to loving something, we will one day grieve for it. So it’s best if we start recognizing our comfort with these emotions.
Generally, people tend to be either thinkers or feelers in their day-to-day lives, and our style of grieving reflects that bias. Thinkers generally desire linear paths, craving systems for chaotic moments, as well as needing to identify each step along the path to resolution. Understanding the grief cycles and the process of grieving can be very helpful to thinkers – but grief isn’t linear.
Like any other feeling, grief lives within us, and, as with any other feeling, it awaits our acknowledgment. Once acknowledged, we begin to move into it. Some try to avoid it by pushing themselves to get over, under or around the sorrow. Maybe they were taught to be stoic, putting on a brave face.
But the truth is there’s only one way to address strong emotions.
We have to move through them.
Because love waits for us! Joy waits for us! Anger waits for us! And – in the same way – grief waits for us.
Even so, if we hope to come to terms with grief and mourning, we must acknowledge the individuality of the process. There’s no timeline for grief and it will wait even if we choose to put it off for a bit.
When the time to grieve presents itself, some people find talk therapy helpful. It helps to express the complexity of what you’re feeling to a neutral and trusted individual who won’t try to solve your grief but rather sit with you as you feel it. They offer no judgment.
No matter how you’re moving through grief, it’s right for you. The love for whomever you’re mourning isn’t in debate – and, yes, you may be numb or you may be stoic. You may suddenly feel overwhelming loss or nothing at all.
Feel what you feel. Take your time – there’s no rush.
Grief will wait for you.
Faith Wood is a novelist and professional speaker who focuses on helping groups and individuals navigate conflict, shift perceptions and improve communications. For interview requests, click here.