Grief is a normal part of our lives. Whether it’s losing someone dear, moving away or changing jobs, there will be some pain we have to experience. All of us have ways of avoiding uncomfortable feelings, and grief can be especially difficult to cope with. For this reason we might try to avoid these painful emotions. For those with addictions the most obvious way of doing this is through the use of substances.
According to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, grieving happens in different stages. These stages don’t necessarily happen in order and are very different for each person. People can go back and forth between them and some stages may last for a very long time. Some people get stuck in a stage and they can’t move forward.
The grieving person experiences shock, and for a while they might deny what happened. A wife who lost her husband might refuse to remove his clothes and insist that everything stays as it used to. This might be followed with anger: at the deceased person or at the world in general.
They may try to bargain: “Maybe if I keep really busy I won’t have to feel the pain!” Then depression hits: it comes with a lack of energy, isolation and sleeping troubles. In the end, one has to accept and come to terms with what happened and that’s when life slowly starts to get better.
In certain traditional cultures, grief is explicitly expressed and there’s an obvious grieving period when life is paused for a time. There’s no shame in voicing our loss. In Western societies, sometimes the message can be “pull yourself together” and that stops the process from occurring naturally.
In this day and age, we often convince ourselves that we should never feel something we don’t want to feel. This stops our growth and it prevents us from becoming who we are meant to be. It is these experiences of pain that allow us to feel the joys of life. They are a learning experience and show what we’re made of.
Grief therapy is bearing witness to one another’s pain. It’s a time to allow people to tell their stories and give them the space and the support to experience their pain and understand that other people have gone through this before them.
It’s an open group so people join in different stages of treatment. It’s powerful to watch somebody who is a few weeks further along in understanding their grief comforting somebody who’s just starting the process. Sometimes people just tell their stories, at other times we speak about things that we miss about the people we love. It is important to understand that even though that person is not with us, once we allow ourselves to experience the pain, we have better access to the happy memories.
Techniques for overcoming grief
Writing letters to the ones who are gone gives group members the chance to express those unexpressed feelings. This is a therapeutic exercise which allows those things we wish had been said to be said.
If someone is unable to access those feelings we might do “empty chair therapy”: we put a chair in the room and ask the person to imagine that their loved one is sitting there and to speak to that person about how they feel. This allows a connection with the deep emotions, rather than just the intellectual side of grief.
Grieving is not a straightforward process and there’s no wrong way to do it. People who have been through grief often feel isolated because as soon as they speak about their loss, people feel awkward and say: “Don’t worry, it will be okay.” Grief group is all about creating a safe place for those who have experienced loss to feel what they need to feel and say what they need to say.
Page last reviewed and clinically fact-checked | January 22, 2020