Grief as a Journey

By Patricia Obst, MSW, LCSW

There are some journeys that we get excited about going on.  The journey of a cross country vacation, so invigorating and full of adventure; the journey through college toward the goal of a career; or the journey of a new relationship with a significant other filled with all of its discoveries of one another.  But grief – grief is a journey that all of us wish we could avoid and certainly a journey we never look forward to.  Yet, life insists that we go on this journey at one time or another.

The loss of a loved one is not something that anyone ever “gets over.”  We may get “used to” our loved one not being in our lives, but we never get over the fact that a piece of our heart will be missing forever.

So, what to do if “getting over” our loss is not a realistic option.  We “journey through it,” eventually recovering from our wounds.  But just like other journeys in our lives, we will need directions, supplies, plans, and most of all, support from others.  Unfortunately, most of us go into grief ill equipped for the journey.  This is not because we’re poor planners, but because whether loss comes suddenly or following a long illness, we are never fully prepared for the “goneness” of the one we love so much or who has affected our lives in such a deep and profound way.

When we’re in the throes of grief, we need to remember that we’re not lost in the deepest depths of a dark cave with no way out.  We are surely in the dark, but more like a dark tunnel.  If we begin to move forward, we will work our way through the tunnel to the other side – to where we can begin to learn to live again.

So often, what perpetuates the oppression of loss in our lives is the belief that we must say goodbye to our loved one.  Others around us tell us it’s time to “move on,” to “let go.”  But how can we move on with the thought of our loved one being left behind?  How can we come to terms with the fact that we didn’t get to have closure or say everything we wanted to our loved one?  How do we reconcile the unfinished business?  How can we let go of someone who has become a permanent part of our very soul?  So, we end up stuck.  Stuck between acting on the outside as if we’ve “moved on” in order to please everyone else.  Yet struggling on the inside with a mix of emotions that we’re not able to sort through.  We’re not able to let go of our loved one because we simply don’t want to and because it’s simply impossible to do so.  Over time this conflict of emotions manages to strangle any joy that comes our way.

Faced with this dilemma, one of the most important things we can learn about traveling this grief journey is that we DON’T have to “move on” from or “let go” of the person we’ve lost.  If we think about it, when something of sentimental value to us is lost – it still exists, it’s just in a place where we are not.  Its value remains in our hearts although it’s no longer where we can see it or touch it.  We don’t have to “let go” or sever our relationship with the one we have lost.  Instead we can learn how to create a new relationship with our loved one.  A relationship that keeps us connected to the purpose and inspiration of the bond between us.  Whether the relationship was a positive one or one filled with animosity, we can still gain something from getting the most out of that relationship that it had to offer in experience and in lessons learned.  We can rebuild a relationship that is alive, one that actually breathes new life into us, and enables us to experience a new and different appreciation for our lives and our relationships.  In time, our grief journey blends into our life journey.  This blending incorporates all that our relationship with our lost loved one has given us and has taught us.  It allows our newly created relationship with them to continue to teach us and to enhance our life journey.

As authors John W. James and Russell Friedman state in the book The Grief Recovery Handbook, it is possible to recover from significant loss:

“Recovery means feeling better.  Recovery means claiming your circumstances instead of your circumstances claiming you and your happiness.  Recovery is finding new meaning for living without the fear of being hurt again.  Recovery is being able to enjoy fond memories without having them precipitate painful feelings of regret or remorse. Recovery is acknowledging that it is perfectly all right to feel sad from
time to time and to talk about those feelings no matter how those around you react.  Recovery is being able to forgive others when they say or do things that you know are based on their lack of knowledge about grief. Recovery is one day realizing that your ability to talk about the loss you’ve experienced is indeed normal and healthy.”

As a counselor, I have gathered professional knowledge about the kind of directions, supplies, plans and support needed to guide clients through their grief journey.  As a layperson, I have gained personal experience with grief through my own losses and tragedies.  Both come together in an offering of practical guidance to clients along with genuine empathy and compassion.