Therapy Blog

Healing the Heart: Navigating Grief and Finding Meaningful Connections

Posted on Tuesday, November 14th, 2023 by Cristina Vrech

Grief is an unavoidable part of any life which includes love, connection, hopes and future plans. Simply put, we do not grieve things we do not care about. The experience of grief could in many ways be defined as a byproduct of love. Psychologist Dr Colin Murray Parkes describes the relationship between love and grief in his book Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life:

“The pain of grief is just as much part of life as the joy of love: it is perhaps the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment.”

Grief is an experience which is universal not only to humans but also to many animals. Chimps, whales and elephants are just some of the animals which experience sadness and grief in mourning. These tend to be animals with developed social structures which are comparable to human families and relationship networks. So, in many ways, grief can be interpreted as an element which provides depth to relationships.

Grief can be a profound and destabilising experience, and working to process and navigate it healthily is key to ensuring it does not have long-term detrimental effects. Although this will look different for everyone, by centring love and working to explore and even accept your grief, you can see its value as a lasting connection between you and the person, thing or situation you are grieving.

Holding hands, closeup

Following an experience of grief, it could feel scary to form new connections due to anxiety about the potential of experiencing this pain again. This is precisely why finding the best way to navigate your grief is so important. By creating something meaningful from your grief, you can reshape your relationship with it, and help to prevent it from becoming something you fear and therefore avoid. Although grief can be painful, a full and rich life cannot be free from pain.

Defining grief 

There are many different types and causes of grief. You can grieve loved ones who have passed away, moved away or exited your life for any reason. You might grieve a job, a time in your life, or a thing you no longer have access to. And, through all of these, you grieve a potential future you expected or hoped for. This is perhaps the most painful aspect of grief – it takes away the possibilities we were hoping for.

Grief can be experienced in many different ways. It may present:

  • Emotionally – shock, sadness, numbness, denial and anger.
  • Physically – nausea, weakness and lack of energy, restlessness, tightness in the chest or heart palpitations, physical pain, issues digesting or appetite changes.
  • Behaviourally – forgetfulness, confusion, absent-mindedness, being consumed by thoughts of what or who you are grieving
  • Socially – withdrawing from people, being dependent on people, neglecting yourself, relationship issues, increased risky behaviour.

Healthily processing grief

There is no one way to healthily navigate grief. Just as your perspective and experience of what or who you are grieving is deeply personal to you, so is your grieving journey. The tips below may help, but be sure to check in with yourself and ask, “Is this helping me to move towards a place where my grief is bearable?”

On your healing journey, try not to engage a “should” mentality. There is no one approach which should or shouldn’t help you, other than ensuring you are not engaging in activities or behaviour which is damaging to you or others. There is no such thing as perfect grieving, and attempting to achieve this can actually make the process longer and more difficult.

Some tips which may help include:

  • Accepting your emotions: cry, shout, get angry with fate, life, the source of your grief – but also accept when you feel happy, or don’t feel so full of grief.
  • Reaching out to others and accepting support when it is offered. Grief can feel incredibly lonely, but support from loved ones can go a long way to help.
  • Engaging in alone time. Learn to sit with your thoughts, and watch them with acceptance and even curiosity. See where your thoughts take you, and what meaning you can take from them; introspection and reflection can help you to understand and become familiar with your emotions, which may help you to work with them instead of feeling internally conflicted.
  • Moving your body. Although physical exercise may feel like too much at this time, even lightly stretching or giving your temples, hands or feet a massage may help.
  • Talking about it. Talking can be incredibly cathartic, and can help you to clarify how you are feeling. It can also help you not to feel alone with your grief, and to normalise your experience, as we are often presented with one or few presentations of grief, despite the huge variety of experiences.
  • Grief counselling can help you adapt to your loss, manage your emotions, feel safe and supported and normalise your experiences by discussing them in a supportive space.
  • Finding ways to maintain your connection with who or what you are grieving. This could mean talking to others who knew the person or knew you in the situation you are grieving, or using the aspects you miss most to guide your future actions.
  • Engaging in self-care – by looking after yourself, you may find yourself feeling supported from an internal place, building trust in your own resilience. This could include an expression of your feelings such as journaling or a creative outlet, or doing something which makes you feel physically good, like having a bath, going for a massage, or finding another way to treat yourself.

Supporting a loved one through grief

If someone you know is grieving, it can be hard to know what to do or say, particularly if you haven’t had a similar experience. It’s common for people who are grieving to feel isolated and alone, so one of the most important things is just to show up for them in meaningful ways. This might mean:

  • Offering to do specific tasks or taking over responsibilities, such as childcare, cleaning and looking after the home, helping with logistical tasks such as paperwork or organising, or bringing food.
  • Regularly checking in, calling, or visiting them.
  • Allowing them to speak about what they are grieving, and listening intently, as talking about what happened will allow them to process the events. However, they may not want to speak about it, or may not want to speak at all. Simply being present with them and letting them know they are not alone with their feelings is a real and meaningful way of helping.
  • Being consistent with your support in the long term; grief doesn’t follow any kind of timeline or limit, and often the offers of support subside long before the person stops hurting.
  • Reassuring them that their feelings are valid and don’t need to ‘make sense’ or be moderated – heightened emotions are a natural response to grief.
  • Avoid statements which dismiss or delegitimise their grief (such as “You still have so much to be grateful for” or “This is for the best”) and statements which push your faith or beliefs onto them (like “This is part of God’s plan”).

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Grief is the natural result of a connection you had being severed or disrupted, and the complex and often distressing emotions which accompany grief are completely natural. However, by ensuring that you can retain the positive aspects of these connections, you can transform your grief into something which, although still potentially painful, has meaning and will support you in continuing to form connections.

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