Recently someone I love died. I was talking to their family members and I mentioned that grief can make one feel like they are going crazy. Each of them looked at me in surprise and said “Yes that is how I feel,” or nodded their head with a knowing eye glance confirming the experience.
Why do we experience such extremes after a loss? Why do we feel like we are not ourself and overwhelm is present?
The pain of loss is so extreme that people who would not otherwise be tempted, say things to me like “ I can see how people would be tempted to use drugs, just to numb this pain a bit.” What this person was saying was, “I have never felt such extreme pain!! I am desperate to get away from it. Why does it hurt so much?” The motivation to avoid extreme pain is present in each of us.
Our attachment to a person, place, culture or our work is often so strong that separation from it causes grief and loss. Our identities are intertwined with our connectedness to others and to our experiences. In attaching, our identity is formed and when we have a significant loss, whether a change in work, or loss in relationship or personhood (someone dies) then we are brought to examine who we are without the context of this relationship, place of residence, community, culture, purpose, partnership or occupation. Our goal is coming to a sense of acceptance of our new “reality.”
Many are surprised by the pain and confusion that comes when loss takes place. Our identity of ourself is often shaken. Our sense of self and who we are is whirled around. Our personhood is made up of work identity, relational identify, cultural identity, relational connectedness, professional identity, spiritual identity, financial and physical identity (ability to take care of ourselves and others), and our outlook on life.
In addition, our bodies hold a physical response to the loss. Memory loss and physiological responses take place. People can be surprised when physical symptoms are mentioned as a symptom of grief. Our bodies, minds, and spirits are interconnected and each experiences and expresses the grief. Examples of grief physical symptoms include heart problems, disruptions in blood flow (usually temporary), shortness of breath, body aches due to extra stress hormones being produced. Each of these systems impact the functioning of our muscles and joints. Lowered immunity takes place due to fewer white blood cells being produced. Insomnia and fatigue take place due to the intensity of grieving. It’s a strange surprise each time how exhausting it is to grieve.
In addition, insomnia can take place if sleep is being interrupted with memories, thoughts, and upsetting dreams. Also unhealthy coping mechanisms can add to physical problems, things like overworking, smoking, overeating, and alcohol or drugs use. Digestive problems are a common physical occurrence for grievers as well. The digestive track is sensitive and quickly receives distress signals from the brain when stressed. Common symptoms included lack of appetite, nausea, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
What do we do when we become dysregulated by loss?
1. Allow yourself space and freedom to be. Consider if you are pushing yourself and gently be kind to yourself as you would to a friend.
“It is for freedom you have been set free.” Gal 5:1
2. As hard as it is to admit- this is your new normal. This one feels so harsh, but that is actually much of the work of grief. Allow yourself to sit in this new reality and be very kind to yourself in the process. I liken grief to losing a limb, it actually is that reorienting. Remind yourself grief takes time and you will not just “get over it.”
3. Grief emotions are not good or bad, they just are. They are a normal response to loss. Even as we (me included) want to run from grief, the only way through the hard is to allow yourself to be right where you are.
4. It is critical to take breaks from your grief or to “dose” your grief. Allow space for the intense and difficult emotions and also allow space for the light moments in life: for joy, rest, and for fun. Learn ways to “dose” your grief. For some ideas, see this article.
5. Practice and grow in receiving nurture from others, yourself, and from the Lord. One practical exercise that I find helpful is to collect comforting scriptures and keep them visible throughout the day. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Matt 5:4
As you grieve, I hope you grow in the gift of receiving greater comfort and provision from God. One of my favorite scriptures when I am longing for comfort is “Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in him, for he shields him all day long, and the one the Lord loves rests between his shoulders.” Deut 33:12
May this be your experience as you grieve; May the kindness of God be tangible to you.
Here are two additional resources for you (both are digital):
—Forever Missed: creating a memorial website at forevermissed.com
—What’s Your Grief? Grief support for those who are grieving, those supporting someone grieving, and grief professionals at whatsyourgrief.com
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