Looking for ways to overcome grief and loss?
These are all emotions that are integral to the human experience.
Without them – without the cold, and without bitter sadness – life would feel infinitely empty.
It’s a little ironic in that way. We fear loneliness and emptiness, but if we couldn’t feel either, wouldn’t that be even worse? Is a life where happiness is the only conceivable emotion even a happy life? One completes the other – you can’t simply avoid an emotion, no matter how much it hurts, because it’s part of what it means to live life and enjoy it.
There’s a case to be made for people who spend most of their emotional spectrum wallowing in negativity as being those with the greatest capacity to experience unbridled joy, in time. Yes, at first, the fear and pain is restrictive and causes this constant need to second-guess fortune and be skeptical of goodness. But it’s these people – the souls that find themselves plagued with depression and mood disorders – who have the greatest capacity to understand why it’s so important to experience both the joys and sorrows of living.
We need to be reminded of the absence of light to seek it. We need thirst to covet drink. And without sorrow, we won’t experience relief and true, tear-jerking joy. And we most definitely shouldn’t be dodging pain or avoiding the emotional ramifications of loss.
Enough philosophizing for today – this post isn’t just about how it’s important to cherish the ability to feel sad, but it’s also about actually embracing grief when it hits the hardest.
It’s natural for us to try and find ways to escape pain in any way, shape or form – that’s part of the reason why pain exists, to begin with – but there are some things that are just better felt, rather than avoided. And grief is one of them.
While some pain is meant plain and simple to warn you and correct your behavior, other pain is meant to be cathartic, and be a form of release. Grieving isn’t a form of weakness – it’s an emotional cleanse. One last visceral ode to a bygone era. A celebration of a life, no matter how long or short it might’ve been. One last chance to release everything you’ve pent up.
Let’s come to terms with loss together.
What is Grief Anyway?
Grief is a unique kind of emotional pain we feel when we’ve lost something – or someone. Grief can be extremely powerful; it can leave us unable to concentrate or focus for days at a time, preoccupied with processing a cascade of emotions. Because of that, grief is also something few of us ever want to go through. The memories, the thoughts, the reminders – that choked up feeling enclosing around your throat and welling up your eyes whenever you see something that just happens to bring you back to a different time, a different place.
It’s not pleasant. It’s not enjoyable. But it’s necessary. Unlike many other forms of pain, grief is an emotional process of release. We absolutely have to grieve after a significant loss in our life – without grief, we cannot properly process or overcome the loss. It’s just part of the path.
The why and how of grief is important for us to be able to better understand and respect its significance – and I hope, even come to terms with it and find better ways to healthily live through the process. Grief has to do with love. It’s more than just a romantic notion – we’re grieving the losses of those we care for the most precisely because we cared for them so much, and grieving is our way of emotionally recuperating from the shock of losing them.
Grief is a natural part of the loss, but the reason behind that has to do with our relationship and affinity towards fear. Fear is a natural response we develop as a defense mechanism against danger, and it’s tied to the use and power of our inner lizard brain – the amygdala, a portion of the human brain responsible for processing stimuli and reacting instinctively with a “this is dangerous” or “this is fine” tag.
In the case of emotional loss – the loss of a loved one or a pet, the end of a serious relationship, losing your job after an extensive and passionate career and more – we suffer a real emotional blow. Emotions and memories that were once positive are affected by a new memory of loss and sadness and are initially confused and bewildered by the sudden jump and change in perception. Basically, as we grieve, our minds try to make sense of how to cope with the loss of a source of great joy, going to far as to become a real instance of fear.
That’s right – fear plays a role here, as grief can often be experienced as an uncertainty, a fear of what’s to come next. As our mind adjusts to the changes introduced by loss, grief passes – and we learn to move on.
This brings us to the how of grief. It begins as the end of a relationship, the initial blow itself and the lasting reverberations of that emotional pain. Then, the confusion rises as you’re unsure how to deal with the dilemma between loss and joy. And finally, as you begin to overcome loss, that confusion – that grief – ends, and a new era begins.
When Grief Stops Being Healthy
As a process in its entirety, grief can be cathartic and necessary to help our minds deal with an emotional blow and move on without dwelling on it. It gives us an allocated time spent mulling over a significant detail in life, before moving back on towards our day-to-day, and the task of processing and focusing on the present.
But as with everything, there’s a point where grief goes from being natural to becoming too much.
Let’s nip any ill-tempered suggestion straight in the bud – no, I’m not saying there’s a time limit on grief, or that there’s a specific amount of time that’s mean to be spent in a specific mental mindset. Everyone grieves differently, over different periods of time.
Some people don’t even grieve the loss of a loved one until much later, or they simply don’t grieve at all like they’d expect to. Others undergo a serious emotional turmoil that affects their ability to work and carry out their individual responsibilities, for longer than expected.
So when does grief officially step out of the realm of “this is simply part of how I grieve”, and into the world of mental illness and psychiatry? Probably when we begin to seek coping mechanisms to deal with grief, a coping mechanism. The issue with grief as a potential point for self-harm on an emotional basis isn’t so much due to misinterpreting or misjudging the length of your grieving process – it’s that you may be doing things to prolong your grief to avoid living it out. Basically, you don’t just have to worry about grieving in an unhealthy way – you have to watch out for your own behavior towards grief, and how that may be distorting your ability to cope with the loss.
The Time and Place for Medication
When grief puts you in a severe place – at the brink of suicide, or in a major depression – then medication is entirely warranted as a means to treat your symptoms of mental illness, not as a means to help you deal with loss.
There is a substantial difference that has to be made explicit to anyone who’s going through the major stages of loss. Again: medication is prescribed and valid in cases where you’re trying to lessen the symptoms of a mental disorder, and help you stave off the sort of pervasive negativity within that suggests suicide as a way out.
But the pain of grief isn’t something to medicate against. I’m not asking you to just sit around and wait, either – waiting won’t do you much good alone. Time does not heal all wounds. Time is the mere facilitator and canvas – it’s action that determines how you move on, coupled with how your mind processes loss. In order to actually move past loss, you have to utilize grief as a moment of emotional transition – a time to remember what was, but also to take a deep breath and not fear or reject what comes next.
So, grief is healthy in many forms and definitions so long as you let it take its course, and find a way to actively transition away from the old days and onward to the new. Grief can also be unhealthy, in that the fear and confusion leaves you vulnerable, scared, and angry – the perfect cocktail for a relapse in issues like addiction or depression, or for the development of maladaptive behavior (what others just call bad coping habits). A dangerous example is coping with loss through medication. As we know now, in many cases the biggest issue isn’t simply the predisposition towards a certain mental illness, but that the inability to cope with emotional traumas in life is what sets these illnesses off, to begin with.
While the abuse of subscription medication is one thing, self-medicating in any way –whether with over-the-counter physical painkillers, more illicit substances, or medication you readily have legal access to – can be a very slippery slope where a solid intention can lead to more harm. I truly understand the allure of not wanting to have to deal with the pain and torture of a substantial loss. I can understand not wanting to have to figure out how to move on and live on and love life when you’ve just lost one of your main arguments for a living.
I can truly understand why, in the light of something like that, choosing to turn things off for a while and grieve with a little help on the side seems fine. But that can turn into a very serious issue, and transform one problem into a cascade of others later down the road.
The Dangers of Self-Medication
Self-medication isn’t an issue of looking up a few mental symptoms online, coming to an unproven diagnosis, and then taking the steps considered necessary to alleviate said symptoms. That might happen when you’re worried about a bump on the back, but because of how delicate and complex the mind is, you can’t readily access most antidepressants, mood stabilizers or other mental health medication without a proper, professional diagnosis.
The danger in self-medication in the mental health world, then, lies therein when patients of certain mental illnesses abuse their medication or modify their dosage at their own discretion. Someone suffering from depression might hit their meds a little harder after a traumatic event, in order to cope.
But the intended effect isn’t achieved. Self-medication usually leads to worsening symptoms, a masking of the real issue, and unresolved emotional troubles that therapy and group support would have dealt with much more effectively. It’s a classic case of addressing short-term issues without considering their long-term consequences, fighting the pain of grief without understanding how important it is to let it play out and flush out of your emotional system.
Other proven risks include: mistaking your intense emotional symptoms as part of the grieving process, when your self-medication is effectively masking a deeper, underlying mental issue; adverse effects from medication use; incorrect dosage and potentially toxicity or damage; dependence and substance abuse.
If you’re depressed and grieving, talking about it is a much healthier way to get through this stage in life than utilizing medication.
Exploring Safe Coping Mechanisms
First things first – regardless of whether you’ve already been diagnosed with a mental illness, if you feel that your symptoms are getting worse or if you’re experiencing new issues, it’s important to seek professional guidance and get a psychiatrist’s opinion before using your own medication to rectify the problem.
That being said, there are healthy coping mechanisms you can employ to help you get through the grieving process. The difference between a healthy or adaptive coping mechanism and a maladaptive coping mechanism is simple: healthy coping is defined by actively improving your overall situation and your long-term mental health, on top of alleviating your symptoms. These are solutions like:
- More sleep.
- Going out.
- Better food.
- Creative projects.
- Getting intimate with your partner.
If the grief is getting a bit too much for you, start by taking a break. Speak to a therapist. Maybe get some help. But remember that it’s important to live through this and that it will get better.